A Guide to Winter Sowing {Starting Seeds in Winter}

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Results of a recent social media poll showed 96% of people who start their plants from seed do so by following the instructions on the back of the packet. They sow seeds in pots in sunny windows 6-8 weeks before the last frost. It makes sense that you would follow the directions, but what if there were an easier and much better way to get those seedling started?

Today we are going to talk about Winter Sowing.

Winter sowing involves sowing the seeds outdoors in miniature greenhouses during the winter, allowing them to germinate naturally during the spring.

What is Winter Sowing?

The idea behind winter sowing is that you sow the seeds outdoors in miniature greenhouses during the winter, allowing them to germinate naturally during the spring. If you live in a northern climate and have snow, this method works even better because the melt adds all the moisture your seeds need. An added bonus to winter sowing over traditional methods: No period of hardening off plants! My biggest downfalls in seedlings are forgetting to water them or over-watering them and then forgetting to bring them in at night when I’m hardening off the plants. This method is perfect for me.

How to Sow Seeds in Winter

So, how does one winter sow? Easily!  You need a plastic container to put your seeds in. Some things that work well are large plastic jugs (like the ones pretzels come in), 2 liter soda bottles, or clear plastic take-out containers. As long as it will hold 3-4 inches of soil, it will work.

My personal favorite is to use milk jugs.  With their shape you can squeeze a bunch together and if you save caps/lids, you can regulate watering during heavy spring rains. I will show you how to use a milk jug, but the same rules apply to other containers. First, you need to put drainage holes in the bottom and sides. Being somewhat OCD, I like to do three holes, shaped like a triangle, in each of the four “sections” of the bottom. You also want to place three or four holes about 1/4 – 1/2″ up on the sides. I use the transition of textured plastic to smooth plastic as a guide. There is not set rule as to the size of the hole, but I used a 1/8th drill bit.

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I have a helpful hint for you when you are making your greenhouses that my husband shared with me (I’m not sure where he gets his wisdom, but 4 containers later, I was singing his praises). Before drilling holes, fill your container with water and pop it in the freezer or outside until it’s frozen solid. This prevents your container from collapsing when you push the drill bit against it.

Winter sowing involves sowing the seeds outdoors in miniature greenhouses during the winter, allowing them to germinate naturally during the spring.

After you have all your drain holes in place, you need to make a hinged lid. I used the bottom of my handle as a guide, but with any container, you want your lid to be high enough to allow for 3-4″ of soil. Using a sharp knife and plenty of safety measures, cut across the container, leaving about an inch uncut. This will create a hinge.

Once you have your greenhouse made, all you do is prepare the soil and seeds. Add your soil and wet it well. Let it drain out the holes you made until the soil is damp, but not soaked. Add your seeds according to the packet as far as depth and spacing (though I fudge the spacing and have typically done okay). When you are done, just duct tape the lid closed, remove the cap and label the outside of the carton with the plant name. If you are using a container that doesn’t have a cap, make sure to put some holes in the top so rain and snow can enter the container.

Placing Your Mini Greenhouses

Once you have everything planted it’s time to put on your snow boots and jacket to get your greenhouses to their proper place outdoors. The only considerations for placement are that you want your containers to get rain, so don’t put them where there in an overhang, and they will need sunlight come spring, so if you can place them in a sunny place now, you won’t have to move them later. I put them right smack in the middle of the front yard.

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Because the milk cartons are white, they hardly show up and after a snow, no one will know they are there. On that note, if you have small children, you may want to mark the area somehow so no one crushes your greenhouses while building a snowman.

When to Start Your Seeds

This schedule is based on my Maine growing zone, 5b.

January

Perennial Flowers
Hardy Annual Flowers
Brussels Sprouts

February

Spinach
Kale
Peas
Broccoli
Thyme
Sage
Oregano
Cilantro

March

Lettuce
Carrots
Basil
Parsley
Bok Choy
Beets

April

Tomatoes
Onions
Peppers

Click Here for zone-specific planting schedules and answers to several FAQs.

So what are you waiting for? Don’t wait for the last frost. Don’t spend hours counting backwards. Go throw some seeds in some milk cartons and toss them out in the yard. You’ll thank me in the spring.

Recommended Reading:

Winter Gardening for Beginners by Lindsey Pylarinos
The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman
The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour

Winter sowing involves sowing the seeds outdoors in miniature greenhouses during the winter, allowing them to germinate naturally during the spring.

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I am a non-traditional homesteader. What is a non-traditional homesteader? I'd like to think we are the people who don't fit the mold. I am a busy mom on a small bit of property with not a lot of financial resources, but I am figuring out how to live the life I want. A homesteader's life.

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Comments

A Guide to Winter Sowing {Starting Seeds in Winter} — 130 Comments

  1. Great idea, thanks! I do have one question. Do you lift the lids on warm days, or leave them taped shut until you’re ready to transplant?

  2. I live in montana and one day the weather is 60 then is 20 below. My question is : wouldn’t the constant warm and cold trigger germination? Also second question. Can you use these for sweet peppers that need to be in Soil that is 75-80 degrees? Thank you.

  3. I am not sure that planting in plastic is safe because of the leaching out of the chemicals. I usually start my plants in peat pots. Do you have any information on this subject?

  4. I assume that the milk jugs need to be the clear (soda type), or semi transparent sort (water type), not the white ones (milk type), correct?

      • So we cannot use the regular milk jugs then? They need to be mostly clear? Also so the seed just freezes in the wet soil and then in when it starts to warm up, it thaws like the ground outside does?

        • Correct and correct. Light block bottles won’t work since they do just that, block light. Standard “milky” milk bottles work just fine though. As far as the seeds freezing, that’s okay. The idea behind this method is that the seeds take their cue from nature and begin sprouting when nature says it’s time. They start sooner than they would normally because your container heats up like a mini greenhouse.

    • I don’t know much about gardening in Norway, but cold and snow are no problem with this method. Make sure you swing by on Thursday when I talk about how to winter sow for the various gardening zones. I’m not sure if yours work the same way or if they are a US thing, but it should give you some direction.

  5. I was wondering how difficult it is to transfer The plants from the container into the garden without damaging them? Have you ever tried peat cups to plant in?

  6. <3 this idea!! I've decided this year to just grow heirloom veggies so I can save the seeds and know there are no GMO addititves. I plan on getting the containers I've been saving for cloches and use them now to start my seeds. What a wonderful site! Thanks for sharing and answering all our questions. 🙂

  7. This will help so much as I have cats that eat all my seedlings that I start inside. I love that you dont have to harden the plants. I also deal with high winds most of the time. Going to have to get creative on how to keep them from blowing away. I need to look up my zone. Central KS. Ill be checking back on Thursday! Thanks!

  8. What kind of soil do you use? Do you purchase a bag from the store? My ground is too frozen to dig anything!
    I’m excited to try this!

  9. What about super cold nights? In February, we normally have a few 20 below zero or colder nights – won’t this kill the seeds before they can germinate?

    • They are protected in their little greenhouse. Before they begin germinating (which is triggered naturally by the warming weather), they are dormant, so no harm will come to them.

  10. I live in Northern BC zone 2b . I am wondering if we can do this here as well. Our winters are pretty cold and smow is usually gone by May. We usually don’t plant until Mid May.

  11. Last Fall, I made a hoop tunnel garden (3′ x 15′ x 20’+). What would you suggest for planting seeds in this?

    Last season, I had volunteer tomato plants in my garden, that sprouted the same time I was planting purchased plants from dealers. Both plants produced tomatoes at the same time, making me wonder why I spent $$$ on the larger plants. This year, I will plant more interesting tomato seeds. I am so looking foward to planting your way. Thanx much!

    • You can certainly start plants and seeds earlier when you use a plastic hoop setup. Not knowing the specifics of your growing area, I can’t tell you for sure when a good time to start would be. I would suggest sticking a thermometer in the covered area and tracking the temperatures for a bit.

  12. I live in central Mississippi, zone 7 I think. Would like more info. on Winter Sow planting for my area, especially what can be planted and when. Thanks.

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