top of page

Embrace the Chill: A Beginner's Guide to the Winter Sowing Method for a Blooming Spring Garden

California poppies with a blue sky background in a pollinator garden

PLUS the 5 No-Fail Seeds You Should Winter Sow Today

What is the Winter Sowing Method?

Winter might be chilly, but that doesn't mean your gardening dreams have to hibernate! In fact, winter is a great time to get a head start on growing your favorite herbs, vegetables, and flowers from seed.

It took me years to embrace the natural feeling that came over me every single December, beginning in my early 20's. You see, when I was a science teacher working in public school, December (namely Winter Break) was one of the first times each year I could really relax and settle into some of my favorite past times. Without fail, every December, I felt an overwhelming desire to garden. Odd, right!?

In order to satisfy that feeling, I'd try the usual methods: buy a few houseplants, order seed catalogues, wander the barren garden stores, look for inspiration on the internet, and stock up on seed-starting supplies. As garden supplies slowly started to trickle into my house, I would inevitably fall victim to my own impatience.

I would start seeds way too early - often in January and February. My plants would grow and satisfy that feeling for me. But in time, they'd start to die off from common issues like legginess or root rot. None would survive. And when it was actually time to start gardening with the rest of the world, I was burnt out and discouraged. I didn't want to start from scratch again, so I'd waste another growing season and more money - starting too soon.

Winter Sowing has helped me break this vicious cycle AND grow the hardiest herbs, flowers, and vegetables I could ever hope for!

Read on & give the Winter Sowing Method a try!

Enter the wonderful world of winter sowing – a magical method that lets you kickstart your garden while the snow is still on the ground. Join me as I take you on a frosty adventure, exploring what the winter sowing method is, why it's a game-changer for us gardeners, the simple list of supplies you'll need, and we'll tackle those common questions that might be lingering in your mind.

Plus - it's perfect for the beginner gardener!

What is Winter Sowing?: The winter sowing method is a simple, low-cost, and ingenious way to harness the power of nature to nurture your future garden. Instead of sowing seeds indoors, you plant them in mini-greenhouses and place them outside. Let Mother Nature do the work, using these recycled containers to protect your seeds from the winter elements.

Winter Sowing - Copying What Happens in Nature

Let's take us humans out of the equation for just a moment. In nature, flowers drop their magical life-packed seeds that have the sole purpose of regrowing and spreading the plant. Seeds tend to fall in, well, the FALL! These are moved around by wind, water, gravity, and wildlife. They settle into nooks and crevices. And 6 months later, POP! That seed germinates and starts to grow into a healthy, large plant.

During the Fall-Winter-Spring period, the seeds undergo a series of freezes and thaws. These cycles prepare the seed and ultimately tell them when it's actually time to grow! This process is called stratification. And although there are many ways to artificially stratify a seed, that's exactly what the Winter Sowing Method is, too!

Winter sowing simply harnesses the importance of stratification in a small mini greenhouse environment.

Variety of wildflowers in a meadow pollinator garden

Perks of Winter Sowing

Read on to learn why so many gardeners (especially beginners) use the Winter Sowing Method to grow their favorite plants.

1. Winter Sowing is Easy: No green thumb required! Winter sowing is beginner-friendly and doesn't involve complex setups or equipment.

2. Natural Stratification: Winter provides the perfect conditions for seeds that need a cold period for optimal germination. Think of it as nature's way of preparing seeds for a grand entrance in spring. Sure, there are some ways to mimic winter and stratify seeds indoors. But why go through all that trouble when you can "set it and forget it" using Nature's own power?

3. Cost-Effective: Forget expensive grow lights, trays, setups, and heating mats. The winter sowing method is a budget-friendly alternative to traditional seed starting methods. It's entirely possible to spend $0 on containers! One year, I posted to my Facebook feed a request for milk gallon containers. I was overwhelmed with dozens of supplies that year - for free.

4. Hardy Plants: Perhaps my favorite reason to winter sow is this - seeds sown in winter are often more robust, resulting in plants that can withstand the challenges of your environment. I have seen this with my own eyes! Those plants that are grown using the winter sowing method are quicker to take root, grow in size, and are more likely to survive the conditions of my environment.

5. It's Really Hard To Get It Wrong: If you have a busy schedule, a family, or simply don't have time to baby those tender plants as they grow, the winter sowing method is absolutely for you. Simply follow these steps below and give it a try! You'll see why so many of us are huge fans of the winter sowing method.

Step By Step Instructions for the Winter Sowing Method

Supplies You'll Need:

1. Containers: Reuse those yogurt cups, fruit bowls, milk jugs, or soda bottles. Anything that is slightly transparent with a lid works like a charm. If you can create a mini-greenhouse using that container, it will work very well. Another option is to use plastic red Solo cups in a large clear plastic tote. This allows you to grow several varieties that are separated but growing inside one "greenhouse."

Gallon Milk Jugs are my go-to choice. They're easy to save, and friends and neighbors are happy to share!

They're also really easy to prepare for the winter sowing method.

2. Seed Starting Mix: Opt for a light, well-draining mix to give your seeds the perfect start. I use my favorite seed-starting mix, which you can see here. It's low-cost and always delivers great results!

3. Seeds: Choose varieties that are suited for your growing zone and are amenable to winter sowing. My native perennial flowers LOVE the winter sowing method. Check out which seed varieties are available today.

Read on to see the 5 No-Fail Seeds You Should Winter Sow Today

4. Labels: This is very important step. You see, many seedlings look alike when they are just starting to germinate. It's important to use a labeling or organization system that allows you recall what you planted all those months ago!

Since the containers will be exposed to the outdoor elements, it's entirely possible that your labeling may wash away or be sun-bleached.

Therefore, I recommend using all three strategies to effectively track your plants:

  • Label inside the container - use Sharpie on a handy plant label such as this.

  • Label outside the container - I use Sharpie to write a number and the plant name on the outside of the container then cover it with packing tape for a layer of protection.

  • Take a photo of your final container layout and draw a map to match the photo. Here's last year's photo of my layout:

5. Utility Knife or Scissors: For crafting those nifty mini-greenhouses from your containers. I find that serrated knives work best.

6. Duct Tape: Because, let's face it, duct tape fixes everything!

Step-By-Step Guide to Winter Sowing Today:

1. Prepare Your Containers: Poke drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Cut your containers in half, being sure to leave a hinge. I highly recommend putting in drainage holes first! You can use the stability of the container to help you poke holes.

Here's a video to show you how simple it is to prepare a milk jug for the winter sowing method.

2. Fill 'Em Up: Add the seed starting mix to your containers and moisten it, creating a cozy bed for your seeds. I fill my containers just below the hinge line so that there is room for water and the seeds don't accidentally fall out of the cut.

3. Planting Time: Sow your seeds according to the package instructions, and cover them lightly with more seed starting soil. I have great success with simply covering the seeds with 1/4 - 1/2 inch of soil, and not burying them too deeply.

4. Label Everything: Avoid seed mix-ups by labeling your containers with the plant type and date of sowing. As I recommend above, take great care in identifying your containers so that you can easily track them in the spring. Some of us grow hundreds of jugs each year! It can get a little chaotic!

5. Mini-Greenhouse Magic: Close the lid of your container and secure it with duct tape or the tape of your choice (I have used blue masking tape without issue). This creates a mini-greenhouse effect, protecting your seeds from the winter elements.

6. Wait Patiently: Place your mini-greenhouses outdoors in a sunny spot that will likely get snow or moisture (not in a greenhouse window, for example), and let Mother Nature work her magic. Check on them occasionally, and get ready for the exciting moment when tiny green sprouts appear! If they appear entirely dried out, it's okay to add some moisture using a pouring cup. I live in the high desert and occasionally have to do this.

7. Time to Transplant! Once the seedlings seem to be getting crowded in their mini-greenhouse and look ready to be potted individually, I recommend transferring them to their own quart or gallon size pot. They would benefit from a little hardening off but it's not essential - since they were raised 'outdoors' anyway!

Common Fears and Questions

What can I grow using the Winter Sowing Method? What grows best?

Good news! You're only limited by the amount of space and the number of containers you have. If you have seeds to grow a plant, it will likely do well with the winter sowing method.

For example, Winter Sowers like me have grown the following with great success:

  • Native wildflowers

  • Hardy perennials

  • Delicate annuals

  • Vegetables (leafy greens, cruciferous veggies)

  • Herbs do VERY well with this method!

A word of caution, though. I avoid the winter sowing method for plants that are highly sensitive to transplant. For example, carrots, daikon radishes, potatoes, and other plants whose roots are the harvest goal - they don't like to be "disturbed" during their growing season. These are better being direct-sown when it's their season to be planted.

I stick to the winter sowing method for foods, shrubs, and flowers that I can imagine finding in a garden store. You can picture them - they are in the little 8-pack trays or sold in quart- or gallon-size pots. These do very well with the winter sowing method. They won't be bothered when you open the containers and transplant them to their next home in the dirt.

But what if it's too cold? Will my seeds drown in snow? Will I end up with popsicle plants?

Fear not, fellow gardener! The winter sowing method is surprisingly resilient. The containers act as protective shields, and the plants are tougher than you think.

Here are a few answers to common concerns:

1. Is it too cold for my tender plants to survive?

Plants have been braving winter for eons. Your seeds will be just fine, snug in their mini-greenhouses.

2. Are those little babies drowning in snow? I haven't seen my containers for months!

The drainage holes in your containers ensure excess moisture escapes, preventing seed drowning.

3. Are those baby plants just popsicles in there?

Once the weather warms up, your plants will thaw and resume their growth. It's like giving them a winter nap.

4. What kind of container is best? Can I use an old milk jug, a soda bottle, a large tote filled with Solo red cups, etc.?

You are only limited by your imagination when it comes to containers for the winter sowing method! Try them all. Get creative! Our family now saves every cottage cheese and salad green plastic container just for this reason. There is no need to spend any or much money to use this method. Explore what you already have available.

Start Today!

Winter sowing is like planting a surprise party for your future garden. It's easy, budget-friendly, and a delightful way to embrace the winter while planning for the bloom ahead. So, gather your containers, your seeds, and a sense of adventure – your garden is about to embark on a chilly but thrilling journey!

Have you tried the winter sowing method of gardening? Please send photos and share results on Instagram @planterboxgarden


bottom of page