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Winter Sowing: An Easy Way to Sow Seeds for your Garden

Last summer, Jan Gricus, one of the master gardeners at the Ron Ory Community Garden Plots, told me about winter sowing: planting seeds in containers and placing them outside in the winter. I just planted four varieties of garden flowers on January 31 and can’t wait to see them sprout this spring!

The method is simple: start with empty plastic water or milk jugs, a bag or two of potting soil, seeds and water. You’ll also need a knife and/or scissors to cut the jugs in half just below the handle, a hole punch and a permanent marker to label each container.

First, discard the bottle tops and cut the jugs around the middle, leaving a hinge at the handle so that you can open and close the container.

Punch holes in the bottom for drainage and on the sides for air flow. I used a heated Phillips screwdriver but you also could use a drill or knife. 

Fill the bottom of each jug with potting soil and water it, mixing until it’s evenly wet. Plant the seeds and cover with soil. Label the container so you remember what’s in it.

I planted boneset, purple cleome, impatiens balfourii and red lobelia seeds from a friend’s garden. I’m hoping these plants will fill in a shady rain garden and other areas in our back yard to help absorb stormwater, add color and attract pollinators. 
Fasten the container loosely with clear packing tape or punch 2 holes in the top and 2 holes in the bottom and tie with twine.

Here are my 4 containers with their first dusting of snow.

I asked Master Gardner Jan Gricus to explain more about winter sowing and to share her experience with it. Here is what she wrote:

Jan Gricus at the Ron Ory Community Garden Plots

“I have been winter sowing every year since 2008 when I took a class at the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener office on Warrenville Road. I started out wanting to try sweet peas since I had a hard time getting them to germinate in the house. This is a perfect method for them since they like it cold and I was wildly successful. The first year, I had about a dozen containers and have increased that number every year since. 

Last year I had 90 containers on my patio. This year I am up to 70 and am not done yet.  I grow a mix of native plants, herbs, vegetables, flowers and even 2 acorns (if the squirrels don't get them first). I have about a 95% success rate with all that I plant. It's like a miracle! 

Winter sowing at Jan’s house

Starting the end of February, I check on the containers mostly every day just waiting to see a hint of green. And, one by one, I promise, the seeds germinate and green seedlings pop up.  Kale always seems to be the first. Different seeds will germinate when the weather is right for them.

Jan’s containers in winter and in spring

Winter sowing works because some seeds NEED a period of cold (stratification), and other seeds simply don't care if they are frozen. Some seeds need to be nicked or filed (scarification) to open up the hard shell in order to germinate. You won't need to do this with seeds that are winter sown because the freeze/thaw cycles do that for you. Perfect!!  

I can get three years out of the milk jugs before the sun makes the plastic too brittle. I store them vertically in the garage on 7-foot bamboo poles stuck in an umbrella stand. And the containers do not even need to be cleaned or sterilized the following year—just fill them with potting mix again and you are good to go. There is no damping off or a need to 'harden off' your seedlings with this method. All great reasons to do winter sowing.”

Some of the perennials in Jan’s garden that were grown from winter sowing

Here are some online resources for further information about winter sowing:

From the University of Illinois Extension
From Penn State University Extension

Need a place to plant your seedlings in the spring? Naperville Park District has garden plots for rent at the Ron Ory Community Garden Plots.
Open registration for new gardeners will begin in mid-March 2021.

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