Categorized | Opinion

Winter Sowing — You have to try it!

By Margie Densford

My new favorite way to start seeds in the dead of winter is gaining popularity in the gardening community. Winter Sowing is what it’s called, and with a couple of hours invested up front, you can sit back and watch the spring magic unfold. The most bang for my buck in the garden yet.

Trudi Davidoff is given credit for inventing this method of seed germination, but I have to give all the credit for my training to the West Tennessee Gardeners Swap Group. They sponsored a hands-on Winter Sowing workshop where the participants were able to share seeds, prepare containers, and plant their seeds.

The ‘winter’ part comes from waiting until the winter solstice arrives to start this seed-starting project. Although I didn’t get my ‘sowing on’ until after all the holiday decorations were packed up and put away, I still had great success. The time, effort, and expense you’ll put into this project are minimal. No racks, grow lights, indoor space or constant rotating and watering required. Yes, you heard me right! The most difficult step in the process is deciding what seeds to plant.

When choosing seeds, it’s a good idea to think of plants that if left alone in nature would multiply from seed on their own. Perennials that are categorized as wildflowers, natives, or woodland are good choices or hardy annuals such as pansies and snapdragons. Flowers that self-sow in my garden are purple coneflower, bee balm, brown eyed susan, forget me not, nasturtium, blanket flower, columbine, and linten rose. If you’re not sure whether your favorite seeds are good candidates, try some anyway, and call it your winter science experiment.

Tender annuals such as impatiens, cosmos, zinnias, and marigolds can be sown in February. This is also a good time to plant lettuce (numerous varieties), bok choy, beets, carrots, basil, and parsley.

Once you’ve decided on the seeds, it’s time to collect containers. You will be replicating a mini-greenhouse, so the vessel of choice is a gallon milk jug. Some use two-liter soda bottles or even take-out containers with clear plastic domes. The milk jug, in my humble opinion, is perfect, because it’s large enough to hold several seeds and deep enough to hold two or three inches of soil. It’s also easy to come by. I visited our local recycle center and picked up all the thoroughly cleaned jugs I needed.

The container will need drainage holes, and you can make them using an ice pick, knife or other sharp tool. I must confess I sliced my thumb with the first jab of the open scissors. I quickly changed to the wood-burning tool the ‘experts’ at the seminar used. Once it was heated, I barely touched the bottom of the plastic jug and ‘whallah’ a hole is made. I got mine at Michael’s for about $5. I would recommend doing this step outside as the plastic does put off some fumes.

It will also be necessary to open the jug. I burned two holes, one on each side of the base of the handle. This will make the hinge. Then I inserted the tip of my scissors into one hole and cut in a straight line all the way around the belly of the jug to the other hole leaving the plastic under the handle attached. This way you can raise the top of the container and close it as needed.

For a growing medium use a soilless mix or any inexpensive, well-draining potting soil without fertilizer. A line at about the two-inch point is visible on the milk jug, so I used it as my ‘fill’ line. At this point I went ahead and moistened the soil and let it drain. I found it difficult to wet the soil once the seeds were in place without displacing the seeds. Now, plant the seeds as directed on the package (the sowing part). If you collected your own seeds this fall, make sure you research the best depth for your seeds to germinate. If the directions suggest soaking your seeds over night or filing or nicking the seed coat, as I have nasturtium seeds, you can skip that step. The action of freezing and thawing will loosen the seed coat sufficiently, so those labor-intensive measures won’t be needed. Yeah!

Don’t forget to label the containers. Use a permanent marker and label the top and bottom. The sun will tend to bleach out even a ‘permanent’ marking pen. I just put large numbers on mine, and then made a corresponding list of names to keep indoors.

Just a couple of steps left. Close the container and seal it back together with duct tape. Unscrew and remove the top or poke holes in the lids of take-out containers. The rain and snow will get in, and no other water is necessary unless there’s an extended period of no precipitation. Then, I would open the container and mist the seeds or water from the bottom. Now all you have left to do is put your containers in a sunny spot out of reach of pets, and you’re through with this project for the next few months.

The seeds will sprout when Mother Nature gets good and ready. By the time they’ve grown a couple of sets of true leaves you can plant them directly into your garden.

I tried it, and I’ll never go back to my old methods of seed starting. Even in my greenhouse I had to water…a lot! The whole process of Winter Sowing reminds me of those rotisserie oven infomercials…”just set it and forget it.”

December garden tips:

1. Add a 2-inch layer of natural mulch or compost to flower beds and under trees and shrubs.

2. Move your bird feeders, so you can see them from your favorite indoor perch.

3. Remove snow from evergreen shrubs to prevent the branches from breaking. Tap the branches gently.

4. Leave ice that forms on trees and shrubs, or you’ll risk breaking the branches.

5. Use sand or non-clumping kitty litter to create traction on ice instead of salt (chloride) products that damage plants.

Garden opportunities:

•Nov. 30-Dec. 1 (Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. & Sat. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.) 3rd Annual Corinth Home and Garden Tour-For information call 662-415-5854 or go to

•Dec. 1-(Sat. 10:30 a.m.) Boxwood Wreath Workshop at Dixon-Call 761-5250 for reservations and fees.

•Dec. 5-(Wed. 12 p.m.) Holiday Design…from your own backyard with Rick Pudwell at Dixon.

•Dec. 13-(Thurs. 8 a.m.-4 p.m.) Pick up holiday, flowering bulb arrangements from Dixon. Pre-order now at 761-5250.

Margie Densford is a Master Gardener, a member of the Millington City Beautiful Commission, and a member of The Garden Club of Rosemark, a member of the National and Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs.

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November 2012
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