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. This will be my Second year trying Winter Sowing , and I can’t Wait ! Last year I used Gal.empty Water Jugs X 4 , planted Perenial Flower seeds and had Great Results ! I’ve saved 10 Jugs so far and will start this week, placing them on the Sunny Side of the House . Forgeting about them last Winter , then discovering them in the Spring was such a Pleasant Surprise !!!

    • You are moving them early enough in the seedling phase that it doesn’t tend to be a problem. At that stage of growth they will redirect their roots down. Just make sure not to smoosh the root.

  2. The area where we live is horribly windy, especially in winter and spring. I’m concerned that the containers will get blown away or just blown over. There are no good protected areas, either. Do you have any suggestions?

    • It may be too windy for this trick, but I’ve lined the bottoms with rocks before adding soil. That helps with drainage as well. If you are worried that won’t be enough, can you get a hay bale or something to create a wind block?

  3. I tried this in my raised beds with 2 liter pop bottle cloches and had no luck at all. Was it because it needs to be a closed system do you think

    • Yes, we transplant just like you would with traditional starts. You can use a small garden scoop to remove them. I find it easiest to just use my fingers to pull out the seedlings.

  4. What is the coldest temperature this will work with – I live in Zone 3b so need to know how soon I could try this 🙂

    • I have a feeling it would work in 3b, since seeds don’t germinate until they get the “spring” cues from nature. I don’t know enough about growing in your area to say confidently what your planting timeline would be.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I have read a lot of tips from other website, but yours is one of my favorite. I am in zone 9b glendale Arizona , i dont see the schedule here.

    • I’m sure you can winter sow in such a warm climate, but I don’t know enough to give actual dates and planting guides. I tried googling for information for your area, and came up short.

    • Actually I’ve seen what Susan is talking about. The way I’ve seen these done is by laying the carton down on its side, cutting the top out and cover it with the plastic from a ziploc bag. You can tape that on just the same, but you’ll need vent holes. Might be worth a try for me too because we never have any gallon milk jugs. But I think vinegar jugs are good too.

      • Okay, that makes sense. I was imagining cutting it the same way and couldn’t see how that would work. I love the idea of a vinegar bottle. That would hold some good sized seedlings.

  6. [email protected] on said:

    This is brilliant. I was going to sow seeds into my raised beds early winter especially for those seeds that need a chill. I like your idea better since I won’t have to hunt for the seeds in the spring.

  7. Hmm this is very interesting. I’m definitely going to give this a try. This would be great since I often run out of room under my plant lights inside! Personally, I don’t like transplanting from pot that has more than one or two plants in it. I’m afraid to break all of the little roots that are all tangled together. Do you think that using little individual pots inside the milk carton would work?

    • You certainly can. The concept is to create a mini greenhouse. My only small concern with plant pots is that cold air can seep around the soil, opposed to when it’s a block, it warms a bit faster. It may cause delays in your seedlings, but not by any major amount.

    • try using toilet roll inner tubes inside milk cartoons
      folded flat then flat again so there square then cut in half
      so u have 2 square pots easy to sow and replant into the garden in spring
      no disturbing roots cardboard composts away

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