By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Many gardeners know the benefits of planting crops, such as garlic, in the early fall and winter months, but did you know that many common herb, flower and vegetable seeds can be treated this way, too? Winter sowing is the age-old practice of planting seeds directly in the garden sometime between late fall and mid-winter. Because they are living organisms, seeds have the ability to sense the environment around them, which allows them to determine when weather conditions are just right for germination. As a result, winter sown seeds often germinate earlier, have higher rates of germination and have less problems with seedling diseases such as damping off. They also tend to grow faster and stronger than their indoor-sown counterparts, which allows gardeners to get a jump on the growing season.
The origins of winter sowing lie in the simple and natural processes that seed-bearing plants have used for millions of years. Once a plant’s seeds or fruit are ripe, they either simply fall to the ground or are eaten or otherwise carried away by various creatures and eventually wind up on the ground where they spend the winter in a dormant state, germinating only when conditions for the growth of the new plant are just right. This is how nature gardens.
Of course, it didn’t take long for humans to recognize this natural processes and learn how to effectively mimic it.
I’ve been practicing the art of winter sowing for over twenty years. Normally, I simply sow the seed where I would like the final plant to grow, such as in an existing garden row or flower bed. When the seedlings emerge in spring, they are thinned and/or transplanted as desired.
This method has several advantages over starting seeds indoors, including less time, money, and space. Winter sowing also frees the gardener from many of the early spring chores, such as cultivating and sowing, which are now done in the slower months of early fall and winter, depending on the climate. Simply plant the seeds as directed on the seed packet and cover with a light mulch of straw or chopped leaves to help keep the soil – and the seeds – in place, and to maintain consistent levels of moisture and temperature.
Recently, I was surfing the internet for information on seeds that require stratification (a period of moist cold) for germination and came across an interesting approach to winter sowing seeds. Back in 1998, Trudi Davidoff began participating in online seed swaps. Within a short time, she found herself with a very large collection of seeds. Never having started flower seeds before, she began to look for some way to start her burgeoning collection without taking up every inch of space in her small cottage home.
As she pondered how to accomplish her goal, she noticed how plants in the wild seemed to have no trouble at all propagating themselves. She knew that many of the flower seeds she had needed stratification in order to germinate, and suddenly it hit her – she would plant her seeds in flats and put them outside and let Mother Nature do the work for her. Her plan was exceedingly simple and very effective.
After a couple of years starting seeds outdoors, Trudi started sharing what she had learned with her seed swapping friends on GardenWeb and eventually started her own website – WinterSown.
Trudi’s method was simple. Recycle any kind of container with a lid and turn it into a mini greenhouse. Fill the bottom half with soil and seeds and tape the two halves together. Put the whole thing outside and let the seeds decide when they wanted to germinate.
This simple, but brilliant idea has slowly been making inroads into the gardening community. The principle is exactly the same as planting seeds outdoors, but with a few improvements.
With Trudi’s method, each mini greenhouse is labeled and sealed so that seeds don’t get washed away, eaten by birds or forgotten. They are easily tended to, nearly care-free, and almost entirely free to make. And should there be a failure in germination, no time or space in the garden will have been wasted. But best of all, there is absolutely no limit to the kind or number of greenhouses one can have, and they take up absolutely no space indoors.
I will continue to sow certain seeds directly in my garden beds – especially those plants that have long tender taproots like beets, carrots, dill and fennel. But armed with this new information, I will definitely be starting more cold weather vegetables, ornamentals and herb seeds outdoors using Trudi’s mini-greenhouse method with a twist.
And although January has already come and gone, you can still winter sow almost any kind of seed right now and still get a jump on spring!
As a veteran gardener, I really appreciate the pioneering spirit that Trudi has brought to the gardening world. She took a simple concept and made it new and fresh. Not only that, but she freely shared her experiences and knowledge with others, which in and of itself, is a wonderful thing.
Instead of showing you how to make Trudi’s Winter Sown greenhouses, I’ll let Trudi do the talking. Here are some great links that you can use to start your own winter sowing adventure!
Step by step instructions on how to turn a recycled milk jug into a mini-greenhouse (with pictures) at WinterSown.org (NOTE: this is an archived website, but there’s still lots of good info here).
Learn and share information with other winter sowers at the Winter Sowers Group on FaceBook
Lots of advice and questions answered about how to winter sow at the Winter Sowing FAQs on GardenWeb
© 2013 Jill Henderson
Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.