If you don’t have room to start a lot of seed indoors, and you definitely can’t supply adequate light after they germinate, then try your hand at wintersown.
If you haven’t winter sown any seed yet this winter, but want to, it’s not too late.
You may even have time to sow seed that needs a brief period of chilling before it can germinate.
Original Intent of Winter Sown
One of the principles of the winter sown method is that seeds come up when they’re ready. And although this was originally intended to apply to hardy seedlings (cold weather plants), you can adapt this method for not only your cole crops for spring but for your warm weather crops as well. It’s perfect for folks like me who just don’t have room inside for seed starting and can’t supply adequate light needed for growth.
I started cole crops of cabbage and broccoli using the winter sown method. I let them germinate inside. It took 3 days. Then I put them outside.
Adapting Winter Sown Method to Warm Weather Crops
I plan to start my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants the same way.
But of course you start warm weather crops much later than cold weather crops. Here in Virginia, zone 7a/7b, you’d start hot weather crops like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers mid March or even April. Cukes and squash in April and/or May.
I’m going to make a couple of slight adjustments to save some time in re-potting to larger containers and to allow me to hold my seedlings longer if need be:
- With my grow mix in each jug I am mixing a tablespoon or so of compost as organic matter. Since my grow mix contains nothing for the seedlings to feed on, the compost will give the seedlings food and allow them to grow larger than if they were in grow mix alone.
(I had considered spraying the small seedlings with some kelp or seaweed spray after a few weeks, but decided this was just something else to do. I want to be finished with them once they’re sown in the jug — until I transplant in the garden.)
Then I’ll plant one or two tomato, pepper or eggplant seeds per jug to allow plenty of room for growth. I’ll bring inside to germinate. Once they’re up I’ll put them outside.
This year is so mild I think the jug will be sufficient protection from the cold. If below freezing temperatures are forecast after the “hot weather” plants are outside I’ll either use a row cover fabric over the jugs or one of my makeshift coldframes.
What TMG Readers are Saying
A recent subscriber to TMG wrote to me and said,
“I have started seeds under lights in my basement for many years, but this year discovered winter sowing. So far I have been amazed at what is already germinating. I ‘ve even transplanted out kale and baby bok choi under a fleece tunnel.
I may have wished for a colder winter, but given that it didn’t happen, I’m taking advantage of the warmer weather to plant things out earlier. ”
Another TMG reader wrote saying “—– the wintersown method is THE BEST THING EVER!!! It really is amazing how much easier life is this year because of it. I’m starting a few inside but nothing like last year. It is saving me a ton of work and time too! Yahoo!!!!”
If you haven’t yet enjoyed the fun and ease of wintersown — you still have time!
Wintersown-Answer to questions about seeds and transplanting
Looking at Winter Sown Seedling and the Garden
Seed Starting – Another Variation of Winter Sown
Transplanting Root Crop Seedling
Wintersown and Garden Report – Radishes – Lettuce – Spinach
Seed Starting – It’s Easy Even with Less than Perfect Conditions
Winter Sowing – It Begins and Vegetable Tidbits
Seed Starting – The Easy Wintersown Way
Organic Gardening is easy, efficient, effective and it’s a lot healthier.
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Theresa – Back in early Feb. I planted some peppers, tomatoes and eggplant using this method – my first time winter sowing. So far nothing has germinated – which is what I expect until things warm up. I wonder how far ahead the indoor-germinated plants will be – interesting.
Your post on onions was great, simply wonderful. Why, oh why does my extension service recommend planting from March 15th on for seeds?? No wonder I have never grown an onion of any substantial size. I feel like I could be successful and I understand so much more now. Thanks for such a clear explanation. Have you found your VA co-operative ext. service planting guidelines helpful or less so?
Sandra, how far ahead your indoor-germinated plants will be can depend on the variables that will exist for the indoor-germinated seedlings as well as the outdoor winter-sown germinated seedlings. Also — although winter-sown can be used many ways — remember that plants considered hardy are going to do much better and come up much more quickly when planted in Dec. and January than warm weather crops.
Before I discovered wintersown, I started all my seed outdoors in flats at the mercy of the weather. With tomatoes for example, I ran about 2 to 4 weeks behind other folks who were able to get their seedlings up to good size by the time they set them out. Each year was a bit different.
Last year I germinated the seed indoors (still in flats); moved them outside under a cold frame immediately. I was still 2 weeks behind everyone else who was able to get their tomatoes to a bigger size before transplanting in the garden.
This year, as I explained in the post, I am adapting the winter-sown method for these warm weather crops. I will plant one or two seeds per jug; GERMINATE INSIDE so growth will be able to take place; then move them outside in their jug (mini-greenhouse) where they can soak up more sun.
My objective is to germinate as quickly as possible and then supply as much light as possible to get them growing.
Regarding my Va co-operative ext. service. I don’t bother with them at all. In past years I have found them to be very conventional and chemical-minded in their thinking. With them the answer to everything is some chemical or to add lime to the soil — which I have never done and don’t intend to do.
Bottom line – I’ve never even referred to their guidelines. I think the more you garden, you get a feel for when to start. Also you can take variables (like this year’s mild winter) into consideration when you make your decision about when to plant.
Sandra, I’m so glad that you found my posts on onions helpful. If you have any more questions please feel free to email me.
Appreciate your great comments.
Great answer, thank you!
You are so welcome!
Theresa I live in Nebraska – zone 5b. Our frost free date is the end of April or May 10th, depending on the source. I would like to try winter sowing of seeds. What is the mild winter temperature when you set out milk jugs of warm weather crops, like tomatoes and eggplants? I have two small hoop houses we made last fall. My lettuce is very small and garlic I planted last fall looks healthy. They kept over the winter with Christmas tree bulbs on day and night. I’m not sure when to plant in my raised bed hoop houses. It has been very chilly here in Nebraska. Tomorrow will get up to 55 degrees-one of the warmest days in a while! We built the raised bed garden last spring so I am also new to planting in raised beds and I am not sure of the timing since I have read that you can plant earlier. Sharon
Hi Sharon –
I plan to seed my warm weather crops any day now. I’ll put them in the jug, put them inside to germinate and then set the jug outside. Temperatures here have been 32 to 60 degrees and somedays more.
You probably could start your warm weather crops about mid March — but — keep in mind I don’t live in Nebraska so I don’t really have a feel for your weather.
You can certainly plant in your raised bed hoop houses now. The seed will come up when conditions are right for it to come up. I assume you are talking about crops such as lettuce, kale, swiss chard, spinach, broccoli and cabbage. The row covers will give it a little extra warmth.
If you are talking about warm weather crops — you might try my approach of starting inside, moving the jug outside immediately after that and then transplant to the garden when a little bigger.
Gardening is a constant learning experience. Go ahead and take a chance on planting a bit early. Make sure you save some seed for backup in case you need to plant again. Making consecutive plantings of most crops is also a great way to go.
Have fun with it. Don’t take anything too seriously. Enjoy it all. Let me know how you do!
Best of luck.
Hi there. I experimented with a modified winter-sown method this year. Modified in the sense that my seeds did not overwinter all season long….I started my jugs in late February-early March of this year, using the soil from my garden, and put them outside.
I am in zone 5a, just about half-way up on the coast of Maine.
I planted ‘Rainbow’ carrots; ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes; ‘Sweet 100’ cherry tomatoes; ‘Roma’ tomatoes; ‘De Cicco’ broccoli; ‘Waltham’ butternut squash; ‘Howden’ pumpkin; and ‘Straight 8’ cucumber.
The warm weather crops definitely did not like the cold! I started all the tomatoes, squash, cucumber, and pumpkin indoors and moved them out to an open, southwest facing porch after they germinated. All of these seedlings were covered at night.
The tomatoes gave up the ghost quite early on. Not a one left at this writing. The pumpkin and squash actually lived, to the tune of 3 seedlings each (out of 6 of each variety planted, in 2 jugs each).
One jug of cukes lived (once again, 6 seeds planted,in 3 jugs, 3 seedlings in total survived.)
The carrots germinated outside in their jugs, and lived remarkably well.
This was definitely an experiment, as transplanted carrots aren’t ‘supposed’ to be attempted, ha!
The broccoli, as expected, did very well. I have transplanted it into wherever I have the space at the moment.
The cukes, pumpkin, and squash that lived I have transplanted into the ground in a hoophouse. So far, so good.
The carrots I have also transplanted into the garden. So far, so good.
I have started a new set of tomatoes, cukes, squash, and pumpkins. These I will grow ‘conventionally’…meaning, growing them inside, or at least into the hoophouse, and planting them after the danger of frost.
Do you suppose if I have started these failed seeds at the beginning of the winter, and let nature take its course, that my results would’ve been different? Or is it better to coddle the warm-weather ones a bit more?
I also have a question about seed starting in the garden. I do use mulch, and we just had a good amount of rain. The soil was workable today, so I planted beets and carrots. Thinking to take advantage of capillary action, I firmed the soil over the entire bed firmly. I have not watered them yet, but did lightly pull mulch back over the planted areas.
Do YOU water seeds that are directly planted in your own garden? Once again, conventionally, I would water these as a matter of course. Or do you grow strictly transplanted seedlings?
Thank you for your detailed report of your experiment.
As I have explained in other posts — the wintersown method — basically planting in a jug, taping closed, leaving the cap off for ventilation, and leaving outside for the seed to come up when it will — was originally started for crops that like the cold.
As I have explained in other posts — and as you found out by doing — warm weather crops cannot be planted too early in the year and left outside.
Here in zone 7 I start crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in mid to late March. I plant in the jugs just as I would the wintersown stuff. I put the jugs on tops of my washing machine and let the seeds germinate.(Temperatures there are about 60 to 65 degrees.) Then I place the jugs outside under my make shift coldframe so they will have that extra protection from the cold, but at the same time have enough light to grow.
You might want to look at this post:
Cukes and squash I start at the end of April and into May and do the same thing. The weather has warmed more by now — so they won’t need as much protection as the other warm weather crops started in March.
As you have also found out, carrots don’t object too much to the cold and do well outside in the jug until they can be transplanted.
I think the above will answer your questions: “Do you suppose if I have started these failed seeds at the beginning of the winter, and let nature take its course, that my results would’ve been different? Or is it better to coddle the warm-weather ones a bit more?” But to further elaborate:
There is always a possibility that ANY seed wintersown in a jug and left outside on its own will still do well. It just depends on the variables that nature hands you every year. I have seed that falls naturally (like tomatoes) — and stays outside in the garden all winter and then comes up in warm weather.
But when we purposefully start seed we want to give it the best chance we can to do well and not be stressed. If we have unseasonably warm weather and tomato seeds germinate outside — they will die when the cold returns. That is why it is more practical to wait to start the seed until about 8 – 10 weeks before you would normally set these crops out in the garden.
Regarding your questions:
“Do YOU water seeds that are directly planted in your own garden? Or do you grow strictly transplanted seedlings?”
It is very seldom that I water seed when directly sown in the garden in the spring. The reason for that is —- the soil usually has plenty of moisture in it during the spring months. If by chance — there is a spring drought — I would water after I added my light layer of mulch.
When I’m starting crops for fall — most of the time it is very dry in August or September. So after I plant — I add my light layer of mulch and water with at least one watering can full of water.
Hope I have answered your questions fully, Cora. Just let me know if you need more info.