Rebecca Stoner Kirts, Basil Becky, is a master gardener, whose interests include garden photography, traveling, and sharing these experiences through writing and speaking.

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Winter Sowing
by Rebecca Stoner Kirts       #Propagation   #Seeds   #Winter

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

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.

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

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.

All the containers went outside at the beginning of January.

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.

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

Parsley was a winner and had a great germination rate.

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.

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.

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.

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 backdoor bench became the staging area.

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

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

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.

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.

I took special care transplanting the tender babies to the garden.


A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Rebecca Stoner Kirts.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


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mefisher - 12/06/2018

Thanks for your article! I have had zero success with direct sowing of native perennials so am eager to try this alternative. Did you put your little greenhouses in the sun?

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ckstallard - 12/08/2018

Here in Southern Virginia, winter sowing means simply sprinkling seeds of annuals such as Larkspur, Poppy, Zinnia, Marigold, etc. on top of a January snowfall and waiting for them to sprout in spring.  I collect seed from spent flowers in late fall and sprinkle them generously where I want the flowers come summer.  Sprinkle many seeds to account for birds and others who will pick some up.  As soon as it is right for them to germinate, they will. 

This how nature planned their reproductive cycle to be “naturally.”  Experiment with other harvested seeds to find others that respond to this technique.  Perennial Phlox does wellf for me as does Rudbeckia and Coneflower.

You may have to thin some to prevent crowding.

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