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How to Winter Sow Seeds Outdoors by Trudi Greissle Davidoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Fill with soil or sowing medium.
Water before sowing.
Look at a seed catalogue, most will have some notation about seed germination requirements or you will pick-up on some clue-in phrases.
Look for these terms:
Look for common names indicating a natural environment:
Plains, Prairie, Desert, Mountain, Swamp, Field, River, etc.
Look for names that might indicate an origin in a temperate climate.
Siberian,. Chinese, Polar, Alpine, Orientale, Canadensis, Caucasian, Russian (indicating Soviet origin), etc.
Think about your own garden and your neighbors gardens too. Do you find plants that have volunteered each spring and shown up as seedlings that you didn't sow? These are very good sowing choices. Let's say that your orange marigolds have returned in spring as volunteer seedlings. You can be well assured that gold, lemon, mahogany, African or French varieties will also reseed. When it comes down to it a marigold is a marigold is a marigold.
I like Park's Seed catalog. It has a great germination table right in the middle of the catalog. They have a numbered guide indicating the best germination requirements for seeds. I took a yellow highlighter and went down that numbered list and highlighted the numbers that were appropriate for Winter Sowing, then I carefully went through their list of seeds and highlighted the varieties that corresponded to the correct numbers. This is I first chose which varieties I would Winter Sow. A lot of catalogs, not just Park's will have a germination table ir some information about germination. Look at the tables, study them and learn.
How to Winter Sow Seeds Outdoors
By Trudi Greissle Davidoff
It really is easy to do.
First, let me give you a little background as to why I sowed the seeds in winter. I live in a small house, a cottage actually and I simply do not have the room for a light set-up. Also, any window space I have must be fought from the cat and 'Prinny' likes to look out on th street and watch the world go by, so I have to give her a windowsill. She's a good cat and deserves her place in the sun.
I got hooked on seed trading and as you all know seed trading is like Pokemon...'You gotta have 'em all.' I had tons of seeds. I have them all. Though I am not a novice at gardening I am a novice at growing plants from seed; this was my second season doing so. Because of my lack of experience with sowing seeds, and not having a light set-up, I traded for easy-to grow seeds; I had to start them all in the windowsill or out on the patio in flats during spring or summer.
I was thinking a lot last winter about how I was going to start all these seeds--I needed an easy way out. I knew that many seeds needed to be pre-chilled before sprouting, and I knew that many plants reseed and germinate outdoors without our intervention. I thought about this for a few days and put two and two together. I would sow the seeds into flats and take them outside for the winter. If all went well then they would germinate in spring.
I am a true believer in Recycle and Reuse. I have been saving my take-out containers from the Chinese restaurant (not those typical white boxes that have a metal handle and white rice inside), I was saving the foil pans that have a separate plastic lid--they are usually round or rectangular. These containers were perfect...I didn't have to go to a store and open up my wallet (hmmm, look at all the moths fly out), if I can get away without having to lay down a buck I will. I did need soil so I went to the local discount store and got their label which was the cheapest I could find.
Vented lids on and ready to go outisde for winter.
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To make a flat you take the foil container (of course it is clean, washed in hot soapy water) and a paring knife. Stab a few slits in the bottom of the pan, this is for drainage. Now fill the pan with soil to about a half inch from the top. Give it a real good drink and let it drain. I do this in my kitchen. (I have a sprayer on the hose at the sink and I use this for watering. It works well and doesn't gouge out holes in the soil.) After the pan has drained sow your seeds and pat them down. Cover the seeds with more soil to the correct depth, if necessary. I like growing plants with tiny, tiny seeds as they are the very easiest to sow. Sprinkle the tiny seeds on the top of the moist soil and gently pat them down and that's that.
Now you need next put the lid on but first--and this is a VERY IMPORTANT step--take the knife and poke several slits in the clear lid. This is for air transpiration. Think about this, you are making a little mini-greenhouse. If you do not vent the air that is super-heated by the sun you will cook your flat and the seeds won't germinate. You've baked them to death. Okay, put the lid on secure by folding down the foil rim. Now the seeds are sown.
Uh oh...Back it up! I forgot to tell you a step you may wish to use: labeling. I didn't label mine as I like surprises, however this concept may pop the heads of some gardeners who like to have everything 'just so'. Get some freezer tape, duct tape, or any tape that you know works well after being frozen. Pull off a piece and stick it to the bottom of the flat. Write the variety name on it with a permanent marking pen. You can do this before or after sowing; if you do it afterwards make sure you wipe the bottom of the flat very dry as most tape doesn't adhere as well as you would like to a damp surface. Label the tape before sticking it on the bottom of the flat. The label is on the bottom of the flat because the sun cannot bleach its ink down underneath there.
All right, the flat is now sown and covered with little slits in the top, yes? Don't forget!!! Next take it outside to somwhere it will be safe for the winter. I must put them on a picnic table top away from my curious puppy. I learned my lesson, I lost a flat of daylily seeds (the first I sowed this way) because I put the flat on the ground under a bush and the puppy found it and thought the flat was a toy--she promptly killed it by shaking it to death. After that all the flats went up on the table and out of her reach. It was a sad loss but an excellent lesson.
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Now you'll just wait it out. When the weather warms the flats will freeze and thaw repeatedly as winter gives way to spring. You will often see the term 'nick or file seeds prior to sowing' in germination databases--this is to duplicate Mother Nature's work. Now you don't have to do that anymore!
Amazingly, just when winter is about to break and you are still getting nightly freezes, the first of your flats will begin to germinate. When I saw this I thought that the seedlings were goners, but they thrived. The seeds know when it is safe to come up; it's part of their genetics. Now is the time to check the moisture in the flats. On an above-freezing day open them up and if they look like they need a drink give them one. The excess water will drain away. Don't forget to replace the lids tightly.
As your seedlings grow start widening the slits in the covers. Once a week or so make the slits a little bit bigger, eventually you'll have more open areas than covered and you will be able to transplant the seedlings into the garden because they are completely hardened off. I have put in seedlings that barely had their first set of true leaves and thrived in the ground.
After-transplant care is typically the same as for indoor-sown seedlings. They need a drink with just a little bit of food: about 10% strength after their first week in the ground then increase slowly as the season progresses. After After about four to six weeks and a few feedings your seedlings will be able to take a full-strength feeding.
Need some inspiration? Check out Winter Sowing on Pinterest.
Alternate Seed Flats
Plastic milk jugs and two-liter soda bottles; just cut around the middle almost all the way through--I usually don't cut through the label and fold the bottle top back there as a hinge. Make the drainage slits. Fill with dirt, water, drain , sow and cover with more dirt (the same procedure as above.) Tape the cut edges together and simply remove the cap for air transpiration.
Cardboard orange juice or milk containers can be used with a baggie. Cut them in half, horizontally or vertically, make the drainage slits and sow your seeds by the same method above. Slip the flat into the baggie, close the zipper, or tie it closed with a twist-tie or a knot. Carefully use a pointed knife to make a few slits atop for air transpiration and add a few to the bottom of the baggie for drainage.
Whipped topping tubs will need a window cut into their lids. For the base make some drainage slits then sow your seeds as above. Take a scissors and cut out the center of the lid leaving about an inch around the inside rime. Put a piece of clear plastic wrap over the tub, snap on the lid. The lid will hold the plastic wrap window snuggly in place. Take a knife and make some slits in the plastic wrap for air transpiration.
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Plastic Gallon Jug
Cardboard Half-Gallon Containers
Whipped Topping Tub
Did all my flats germinate? NO! I had eighty or so of these made and eight did not germinate. Was it the seeds? Was it the method? Was it me? I don't know. But I did have over seventy flats that did germinate. Outside!
Let me mention that I also used four kiddie pools. These were used the summer before as container gardens, they have lots and lots of soil and big slits for drainage. I simply direct sowed these and left them all uncovered. They got snowed, the snow melted, it rained while the bases of the kiddie pools were still frozen and the rain didn't drain. They all were frozen with ice at least an inch thick...aaarrrgh, panic, Panic, PANIC...I couldn't do anything about it. When warmer weather finally came the pools thawed and drained and the seeds came up! YEAH!
That's it. As you see, it is not hard to do at all. I sowed these flats at my leisure throughout the winter. Everyone talks about going bonkers in January and February because they cannot get outside and do any meaningful gardening. There are only a few varieties of seeds which can be successfully sown this early indoors...frustration and gardening fever sets in. While all the other gardeners were chomping at the bit I was being self-indulgent and playing with dirt and seeds at my own lazy-bones pace.
I took a leap of faith doing this. I kept the faith and I was rewarded. I believe in this method. It works. It really truly works. Too much emphasis has been made on indoor-sowing under lights. It takes up time, it takes up space, white flies take to the air. Damp-off kills your effort, your seedlings and your spirit. I forgot to mention there is NO EVIL DAMP-OFF. The chilling temperatures and fresh winds prevent the damp-off that sadly causes young seedlings to fail. We take a lot of time and care in our efforts. Sometimes we feel like the seedlings are our plant children. It is saddening when a flat of seedlings doesn't make it and fails.
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I encourage everyone to try the Winter Sowing Method. If you want to hold back some seeds the first time to try ti then that's great. Save some seeds to sow indoors of a variety you have placed in a winter sown flat, compare the differences in seedlings and later on compare the differences in mature plants. Learn from what you observe.
Make your life and garden easy. Let it flourish with the flowers, grasses, vines, bushes, trees and vegetables that you thought you couldn't consider to try sowing before now.
Good luck to you all!!!
Trudi Greissle Davidoff
Note: This essay was written and first uploaded to GardenWeb.com on August 17th, 2000. It describes my beginning experience with winter sowing during the previous winter. This essay was last edited December 2015.
This page last modified on Saturday, December 19, 2015
Carefully use a paring knife to make drainage slits.