Winter Sowing Round 1

One of my goals this year is to start as many plants from seed as I can.  I’ve been reading a lot about winter sowing and knew I wanted to give it a try this year (even though it seems we haven’t had a “real” winter!)

I can see now that I should have started collecting plastic containers months ago.  Fortunately, a friend took me through all four floors of her apartment building…there’s a recycling room on each floor, and I had a good selection to choose from – mostly milk jugs,  soda and juice bottles, and lettuce containers.  I’ll still need more, but it’s a start:

Using pliers to hold a nail over the flame of our gas stove, I heated the nail enough to easily make drainage holes in the bottom of the containers and ventilation holes near the top.  It worked well, but I don’t like the idea of breathing plastic fumes (!!) so next time around I’ll try just hammering nails through and see if that works.  What methods do you use to puncture the thicker plastic containers like 2-liter bottles and milk jugs?

I cut containers nearly in half with a utility knife:

A few take-out type containers which I’ll put in the cold frame I made from an old window last Spring:


Ready for some greenhouse action:  Containers have been filled with watered and drained potting mix, seeds planted, jugs held shut with duct tape, lids off to allow for ventilation and rainwater.

So far the bricks have kept the cats from knocking over any containers.

At first I tried to research which of my seeds require cold stratification, but I ended up just throwing caution (or seed?) to the wind and planting everything I wanted to try, just as an experiment.  For each variety, I made sure not to plant all the seed so that I can also try them indoors in case some of the winter-sown seeds don’t grow.  Here’s what I winter sowed, nearly a month ago now, the last week of January:

  • Fairy Tale Eggplant
  • Italian Frying Peppers
  • Jalapeno Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Rutgers Tomatoes
  • Cosmonaut Tomatoes
  • Paul Robeson Tomatoes
  • Jaune Flamme Tomatoes
  • Sun Gold Tomatoes
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Borage
  • Mustard
  • Agastache
  • Calliopsis
  • Autumn Clematis
  • Mirabilis (4:00s)
  • White Coneflower
  • Catnip
  • Campanula (pink)

That’s arugula in the upper left, which I planted last fall…it’s coming up nicely now.

So far the only things to show any signs of life are the Mustard and the Calliopsis, both of which look green and happy so far.  I’m hoping in another month I’ll see more action out there.  I had to give some extra water to a few of the containers that seemed to have really dried out under the porch awning…it’s a really sunny spot, but they’re not getting any rainwater there.  I’m hoping they survived!

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28 thoughts on “Winter Sowing Round 1

  1. Lookin’ good! The bricks should also act as heat sinks to help keep your seedlings warmer, that is, if you’re getting any sun. Usually warm weather we’re having across N. America this Winter. Perhaps we’ll have a warm sunny, Spring here in Montana, but more likely we’ll be getting our snow in April instead of now.

  2. I have heard about winter sowing but have not attempted it…maybe next year I will try it once I hear how you did with it and what you think of it…right now I am suing my basement with heat mats and grow lights and having pretty good success…we shall see

    • This is my first time trying it. Everyone who I’ve spoken to who has done it has had pretty darn great success with it, so I’m hopeful! One person who grew broccoli seeds indoors AND outdoors found that the winter-sown seedling were much, much hardier and healthier. I figure that I find so many volunteer tomato seedling (among other things) that they must be able to survive, so why not try? Fingers crossed!

  3. I made holes in my jugs by sitting them on the ground (as a soft “receiver”) and hammering a long nail right through the bottom about 8 times. This occurred after jugs were cut 3/4 of the way around and held open wide enough to get the nail and hammer going.

    I think an extra long, thin-pointed screwdriver might work just as well. Not sure if either of these methods would work on the soda bottles. Perhaps an awl? Or a metal skewer from grilling shish kebabs?

    I used a hair dryer to make the labels peel off more easily to maximize available light.

    Here’s my current list: pink Candelabra Primroses, ‘Russell Hybrid’ Lupines, Redbud Tree, ‘Tower Blue’ Columbines (triples), Bottle Gentian, Cimicifuga ‘Brunette’, Aster ‘Blue Star’, Ligularia ‘Desdemona’, salmon pink perennial Oriental Poppy, Chelone (Turtlehead), ‘White Ice’ Lavender, unnamed pink Clematis, ‘Autumn Clematis’, Blue Stokesia, Great Blue Lobelia (best wintersown type last year), Tiarella, mixed Tall Summer Phlox and lastly an unnamed pearlescent pink fragrant Rhodendron.

    The main benefit I see to winter sowing is taking advantage of the freeze/thaw cycles to break dormancy and improve the speed and percentage of germination. Lots of the varieties on my list resisted more traditional methods of sowing to the point of failing completely. I’ll be most happy to see the Cimicifuga (Fairy Candles) sprouting.

    I have 14 jugs and some are holding two types of seeds, mostly those for which I did not have a large amount of seed to begin with. I put a divider inside the jug to help keep them separate. There is a thin bamboo stake put through the handle loop and driven into the ground to keep the dog or the wind from overturning the jugs.

    This freaky winter, warm and nearly snow-less, has enabled me to get ahead on lots of outdoor chores. Happily that includes setting up the winter sowing jugs.

    Zone 6, southeastern PA

    • That’s a great list, Bev! I’m planning on doing a “round two” of winter sowing soon, and I’ll try your hammer AND hair dryer methods – thanks for the tip. I have also planted two types of seeds in some of the containers…hoping my duct tape labels stay on! I hope those Fairy Candles grow – I’m looking forward to seeing them and everything else when I’m home for visits this year!

  4. Nice set-up! I usually do some indoor sowing but have never tried winter sowing like this. My jaw is dropping that you can plant the frost-tender things so early. My house doesn’t get quite enough light indoors for seedlings to be happy after the first set of true leaves comes on, and this might be a handy cure. Finding a source of jugs, though–that will be a challenge…

    (To make holes in heavier plastic, I’d probably use a cordless drill.)

    • A drill – brilliant idea, Stacy, thanks! Some of these seeds I’ve planted are a complete experiment on my part, in terms of whether they will or will not come up. Time will tell! If random tomato seeds can survive the compost pile and come up as volunteers around the yard, then I’m hopeful this will work too. It will be interesting to see! If nothing else, I’ll have calliopsis and mustard – ha!

  5. Love that you’re trying so many different seeds. Your containers look good. For my containers, I just used the same shears that I used to cut the jugs in half to cut slits around the bottom edge. They aren’t really holes but definetly let water out. Isn’t it funny how when you want a hole in something, it’s hard to get it the way you want but if you don’t want something to leak it does! Good luck. I hope you have tons of sprouts.

    • Thanks! I think a few “slits” cut into the bottom may be the way to go for me next round…that utility knife was sharp enough to cut through all the jugs, although the bottom of the 2-liter soda bottles is thicker plastic than on the rest of the container…we’ll see! You are so right about things leaking when you want them water-tight, and then trying to figure out how to make something else full of holes – ha.

  6. I’ve not heard of winter sowing before! It’s probably still too cold here in Northern Michigan, but I’m definitely going to read up on it and start planning the garden. I’ve neglected my little patch for two years and this year is the year to get back into it. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Hey! Thanks for stopping by! I’m a huge fan of your blog. Definitely give winter-sowing a try. I know of a gardener near Minneapolis who has already winter-sown her seeds…many of them need a freeze/thaw cycle in order to germinate. I highly suggest this site: http://www.agardenforthehouse.com/2010/12/winter-sowing-101/ for some great info and tutorials.

      I’ve wondered where you are living now, based on your last post for the Brown Derbies! I used to live in Northern Wisconsin – I went to Northland College in Ashland (about an hour west of Ironwood) and then stuck around for a few years living on the Lake and then outside of Bayfield. I can’t believe I’m saying it now, but I really miss it!

  7. Looking good! I’m winter sowing a bunch of different perennial flowers this year. It’s the first year I’m winter sowing, but so far so good – a bunch of seedlings are already coming up! It’s such the easiest way to grow seeds ever. Last year I grew a lot of seeds in flats indoors and lost so many of them to damping off.

    I use a giant spike-like nail to punch holes through my containers. If the containers are too tough, I first poke them with the end of some sharp scissors and then widen the hole with the spike.

    I had no idea you could winter sow veggies like tomatoes! I’m going to have to try that next year!

    • Hi Indie, thanks! This is my first year winter sowing too. I’ve heard from several people that their winter-sown seeds are hardier and healthier than their indoor-grown seeds! Good idea about poking with the point of sharp scissors and then widening out the “hole” with a spike.

      As for tomatoes, we’ll see what happens. I have read of other gardeners having success with winter-sowing tomato seeds, so I’m hoping they’ll work out for me too. Last year I found so many volunteer tomatoes growing in the compost pile and in other areas of the garden and yard…I figure if they made it through our incredibly cold and snowy winter last year, than it’s worth a shot winter sowing some now! Fingers are crossed. :)

  8. I recycle plastic container to start my seedlings for the Summer. I usually just punch a hole with a screw driver or nail. If the plastic is brittle it usually breaks so I cut it with a knife. If I need the water to drain out, I do not usually care about how it gets out. I look forward to seeing how your Winter crop comes out.

    • Thanks, Spencer. Looks like all signs are pointing to cutting into the plastic bottoms and then using a nail or screwdriver to open the hole a bit. I’m planning on more winter sowing in a couple of weeks, so I’ll give that a try.

    • Thank you, and thanks for stopping by! I’m wishing we had more room because there are two more windows I could use to rig up more cold frames. This one was pretty easily stored in the garage, but space there is limited too. I might be able to squeeze in one more…I’d love to have one that is taller than this one.

  9. Aimee, I use milk jugs (as you noticed) but I have three kids, so we go through a LOT of milk in a near. The Chief of Implementation uses a utility knife to cut about four slits on the bottom and to slice around 3/4 of the jug. I usually label by writing on duct (duck?) tape with a sharpie. Good luck! We’ll cheer each others seeds on.

    • Yes! It’s going to be fun and really exciting to start hearing about who has what coming up in their outdoor milk jugs! (and yes, you have quite a few out there!) I also labeled mine by writing on duct tape, and for my next round I’m just going for the utility knife slits on the bottom – good call. Nasty toxic plastic smell be gone!

    • Thanks, Angela! It sure is a cheap way to extend / get a head start on the season, save a few plastic jugs from the landfills, and it’s easier than starting seeds indoors (although I’ll be doing that as well.) Give it a try next year!

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