by Erin Marissa Russell
Ready to get a jump on your spring garden with winter sowing? You’ve probably heard about how starting seeds in the winter can give gardeners a jump on spring, saving you time and energy when things are busy. Winter sowing has the added benefit of producing tough plants that have experienced the ultimate in hardening off. Your seeds will have the whole winter season to acclimate to the cold. Then they’ll start sprouting on their own in spring without needing a hand from you to get going.
Whatever your reasons are for winter sowing, starting seeds in winter doesn’t have to be confusing. Keep reading to learn exactly what you need to do to plant from seeds in winter, giving your garden a firm foundation to grow healthy and strong through this season and the next.
What is winter sowing?
When gardeners use winter sowing, they plant seeds outdoors in winter to give them a head start on the spring growing season. Seeds will take their cue from nature and germinate on their own in the spring. Then winter sown seedlings begin to grow inside of containers that act as miniature greenhouses to keep the young plants safe and warm.
You can even use winter sowing in areas that get cold enough for snow. The snow will hydrate your seedlings as it melts, fulfilling their need for water without requiring any time or attention from you.
In addition to giving you a head start on your spring gardening during the slow season, winter sowing creates tough little seedlings that don’t need to be coddled. That means you won’t have to worry about babying your transplants through a transition period of cold acclimation or hardening off.
In fact, the early exposure to the elements that winter sown plants get makes them tougher all around, resulting in hardy plants that survive and thrive in the face of erratic weather. Winter sown plants tend to effortlessly power through potentially stressful situations, when more delicate plants that have been catered to and babied might struggle.
When should I start winter sowing?
The best time to start your winter sowing varies based on your location and what you’re growing. You can visit The 104 Homestead to find specific timelines for various plants listed by growing zone for the United States, Canada, Europe, and other growing zones.
What seeds are good for winter sowing?
Not all seeds are suitable for winter sowing, so be sure the seeds you’re planning to use will work. Check the seed packaging or the description in the catalog or on the website for the following key phrases, which are signals that you can use winter sowing.
- Cold hardy
- Cold stratification
- Direct sow outside in early spring
- Direct sow outside in fall
- Direct sow outside year-round
- Self sowing
The following types of flowers,herbs, perennials, and vegetables are good bets for winter sowing.
- Anise hyssop/blue giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
- Arugula/rocket (Eruca vesicaria)
- Blazing stars (Liatris )
- Bok choy (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis)
- Black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica)
- Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata)
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
- Chamomile (Matricaria suaveolens L. Matricaria recutita)
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
- Cock’s comb (Celosia)
- Collard greens (Brassica oleracea)
- Coneflower (Echinacea)
- Datura (moonflower, devil’s trumpet)
- Dill (Anethum graveolens)
- Endive (Cichorium)
- Gaillardia (Blanket flower)
- Kale (Brassica oleracea var. sabellica)
- Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea Gongylodes Group)
- Lavatera (Tree mallow)
- Lavender (Lavandula)
- Leek (Allium ampeloprasum Leek Group)
- Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
- Mache/corn salad/lamb’s lettuce (Valerianella locusta)
- Marigold (Tagetes)
- Mint (Mentha)
- Morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea)
- Mustard greens (Brassica juncea)
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
- Petunia (Petunia × atkinsiana)
- Poppy (Papaveraceae)
- Radicchio (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum Endive)
- Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus)
- Sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)
- Snapdragon (Antirrhinum)
- Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
- Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris)
- Summer savory (Satureja hortensis)
- Sunflower (Helianthus)
How should I sow seeds in winter?
To create your miniature greenhouses that protect winter sown seeds from the cold, you’ll need some plastic containers. One-gallon milk jugs work perfectly, or you can use materials such as two-liter soft drink bottles, takeout containers from restaurants, or any plastic container of the right size and shape that will hold three or four inches of soil. Containers with lids give you the added benefit of being able to pop the top off to let in some rain when plants need water—or seal the container if showers become a deluge and seedlings have had enough hydration.
Use a pocketknife, ice pick, or other sharp tool to punch a few drainage holes in the bottom and about half an inch up the sides of each of your chosen containers. If you choose to use a drill to create your drainage holes, you’ll find the task easier if you fill the containers with water and freeze them before you begin. This keeps the sides from collapsing in on you when the drill is applied. Then cut almost all the way around the perimeter of your container, leaving about an inch intact to act as a hinge for your lid.
Now you’re ready to add three or four inches of soil to the container and wet it thoroughly. Leave the containers to drain until your soil is damp but not waterlogged. Then follow the seed packet instructions (or planting information from the catalog or website) to sow your seeds as directed.
Wherever you’d like to set up your miniature greenhouses outdoors that lets them get some rain will work fine for now. In spring, they’ll need to get sunlight so they start to grow. You can save yourself the work of moving them later if you place your containers in a sunny spot now. Be sure to avoid positioning your plants under awnings or anything else that would stand in the way of them getting some rain.
How do I transplant winter sown seedlings?
When you’re ready to move winter sown seedlings into the garden, hold your hand over the top of the container and flip it upside down, then remove the seedlings and turn them right-side up again in your hand. As an alternative, if you’ve used a milk jug or other container that’s easy to cut with scissors, you can simply remove the front, then slide your seedlings out.
Pull them apart as gently as you can, but don’t worry if you need to tear the roots to separate the seedlings. Left in their containers, winter sown seedlings will become entangled at the roots, or even rootbound. But because these seedlings have developed in tough conditions, they’re hardy enough to handle their roots being torn and severed when it’s time to transplant them into your garden. Really—winter sown seedlings are tough enough to bounce back from this manhandling treatment.
If your seedlings have grown truly thick in a clump, you can actually use your scissors or a knife to slice them into portions suitable for planting, just like you’d slice a cake. Then they’re ready to be planted in their permanent spots in your garden according to each seedling’s specific planting instructions.
Now you’re ready to get a jump on spring with winter sowing. With all the benefits that come along with starting seeds in winter, there’s really no reason to wait until the warm weather rolls in to get started on your springtime garden.
Want to learn more about winter sowing?
The 104 Homestead covers Starting Seeds in Winter
A Garden for The House covers How to Transplant Winter Sown Seedlings
A Garden for The House covers What to Sow When
A Garden for The House covers Winter Sowing 101
Penn State Extension covers Successful Winter Seed Sowing
Flower Patch Farmhouse covers Winter Sowing of Seeds
Gardener’s Supply Company covers When is It Warm Enough to Plant
Gardener’s Supply Company covers When to Start Your Seeds
Get Busy Gardening covers Best Seeds for Winter Sowing
Get Busy Gardening covers Winter Sowing Seeds
HGTV covers Winter Sowing
The Spruce covers What is Winter Sowing
Winter Sown covers Seed Lists for Winter Sowing