Starting seeds during the cold months

Story and Photography by Rebecca Stoner Kirts

I first heard about the technique of winter sowing for starting seeds while I was listening to a podcast over a year ago. The hosts were homesteaders from Texas. They had extensive gardens and also sold plants. They propagated most of their seedlings using this method. Of course, a quick Google search provided me with much more information.

I had great fun collecting seeds for my winter sowing experiment.

According to Trudi Davidoff, “Winter sowing is a method by which seeds are sown into containers that act like mini-greenhouses. These seed vehicles are then located outside, experience the chill of winter, and eventually germinate in the spring.” You can read more about her on her website, 

I do not have a greenhouse, so finding a suitable area to start seeds is very difficult for me. The idea that I could start seeds outside set my wheels in motion, so I gave this method a try.    

Now, after one attempt, I am hooked. That is not to say that I had a 100 percent success rate with no problems. But the pros outweighed the cons, and I am going to use this method of sowing certain seeds again this upcoming winter. 

This is how I did it: 
1. I sorted through my recycling to find an assortment of potentially useable plastic containers. Milk jugs, vinegar jugs, vegetable containers, large fruit plastic containers, and beverage bottles all went into the “potential greenhouse” pile. 

Each container was filled with 4 cups of good seed-starting medium and I made sure each had good drainage holes.

2. I decided to start with perennials. I have had good luck directly sowing annuals, but not perennials. All summer I collected seed packets, buying them when they went on sale after the planning season rush. I tried to focus on those that I wanted to plant en masse and ones that I have not had success with direct sowing. I tried parsley (both the curly and the flat leaf – I need these for my spicebush swallowtails to munch on); hollyhocks (Alcea spp.), I am still experimenting with this beauty, as it always dies in my garden, but I am determined; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) to add to my butterfly garden; and various other perennials. I tried to choose seeds that required cold stratification to germinate. 

All the containers went outside at the beginning of January.

3. Early in January, I enlisted the help of my husband to prepare the bottles. I have a lousy track record with knives, so I thought that would be the best approach.

4. We cut the milk and vinegar jugs open about one-third of the way down and only three-fourths around. It resembled a lid that opened but remained attached. My husband made drainage holes on the bottom of the plastic jugs using a box cutter and a drill. The salad greens containers already had hinged lids and just needed additional drainage holes.  

By the end of April, the first signs of growth appeared.

5. I purchased seed starter mix and filled each container with approximately 4 cups of the mix. Next, I made sure the soil was moist.

6. I sowed the seed, following the directions for planting depth and coverage. Then I watered them into their winter home. 

7.  I marked each filled container in two places. I used a water-soluble pen and wrote on a plastic knife that I taped to the side and I also labeled each jug by writing directly on the container. 

Parsley was a winner and had a great germination rate.

8.  At this point, I wished them all a good growing season and battened down the hatches. I used duct tape to seal the tops and made sure the caps were off the jugs and took them outside. Since I had a somewhat eclectic array of duct tape, including Mickey Mouse from a project with my grandbabies, my winter sowing project table was very colorful.

Through January, February, and March, they endured snow, sleet, and rain and I did doing nothing for them. By April, I was seeing some sprouting, and by May there was significant growth. Near the end of May, I started transplanting my hundreds of seedlings into pots and the gardens.

The foxgloves were amazing – all the containers were full of new starts.

I would estimate that I had about a 60 percent success rate. Here are the reasons for the failures:

1. The salad containers worked best. The holes in the bottom of the vinegar jugs and soft-drink bottles clogged up so that the water did not drain efficiently. That caused the containers to fill up with water, destroying the seedlings. Next year I will focus on ensuring better drainage. 

2.  My labeling system was a big miss. I double-labeled all the growing bins, but only half of the labels were still legible. I had saved all the seed packets, and had to do a guessing match game. My labeling system needs some serious adjusting before next season. 

3. I need to be more proactive when transplanting the seedlings. I lost quite a few due to not separating, thinning, and putting them either into pots or safely in the ground. My lack of experience at transplanting seedlings was an issue. But I learned and will do better next year.  

So many new healthy starts to transplant, it was amazing … and a bit overwhelming.

The bonus was that I ended up with hundreds of seedlings – from foxgloves (Digitalis spp.) to parsleys to butterfly weed and more. It also helped me fill the need to get my hands in the dirt even during the winter and gave me something interesting to watch all winter long. Overall, I think my winter-sowing project was a success. I hope you will give it a try.

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