Sowing Seeds in Winter

This past weekend, while our neighborhood was under a few inches of snow, I was in my kitchen sowing seeds. I have tried to start seeds during winter months before and have had mixed success. But, there is something in my gardening DNA that has kept pushing me to keep try again every year.

In previous winters, when I have attempted to start seeds indoors, they have failed for two main reasons. I do not have proper light for the seedlings. Either a south facing window is required, of which I do not have, or supplemental lighting. I have not taken the time or money to rig up additional lighting for seedlings. The second reason our indoor seedlings have failed would be our cats. There is something quite tempting about those baby sprouts that cause the cats (typically our youngest one Lollipop) to climb up and knock them over, walk on the trays or simply nibble them.

This year I thought I would finally swear off starting seeds mid-winter. I figured I was destined to direct sow in my garden in early spring and call it good. But then, I saw a few blog posts and magazine articles about winter seed sowing...outdoors. Using items I had kicking around the garage. No baby seedling sitting required. Closed up and safe from the nibbling cats. Could it be true?!?

So, I took the steps that Master Gardeners are trained to do and looked for a University extension source that would validate this concept of outdoor winter seed sowing. And, I found a few articles to back this idea up! PennState Extension has a Master Gardener written article on "Successful Winter Seed Sowing" that explains the basics of using clear plastic or opaque containers (think 2 liter soda bottles, milk jugs, large salad greens containers) to start seedlings outdoors in these miniature greenhouses. To determine which seeds are appropriate for this type of sowing, Master Gardener Karen Brown had a few suggestions, "most plant descriptions will have notations about a seed's germination requirements or will have a few clue-in phrases such as: pre-chilling, freeze, refrigerate, stratify, colonize, self-sows. In addition, look for terms like "sow outdoors in early spring or while frosts may still occur", "sow early autumn", "hardy", "withstands frost", "direct sow early", "wildflower" or "weed" in the name."

After reading a few extension articles, I looked through my vegetable and flower seed stash from last year and chose a few to try. I chose kale, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and Fava beans for veggies. I also thought to try a few flowers varieties. I am experimenting with Zinnias, Calendula, Marigolds, and Sweet Peas. I grabbed a bag of seedling mix from the garden shed, some plant markers, and dug through our recycle bin for some clear/opaque plastic containers. I was set to give this experiment a go. 

I used a Phillips head screwdriver to make holes in the top and bottom of each container I was planning on using. I simply heated the metal tip of the screwdriver in a flame, and the hot metal melted through the thin plastic.

I added a few inches of seedling mix to each container and watered it thoroughly with warm water. In the future I would have pulled the seedling mix out of the garden shed a day ahead of time. I was battling frozen clumps of potting mix...which made for freezing fingers as well!

I placed the seeds in the soil and then covered them the appropriate amount of seedling mix for each seed type. 

The ever important plant markers! So many times I have thought I would remember what I planted where. I am not making that mistake this year. Each container was properly marked.

I placed all of the plastic containers in the trough that is my herb garden during the summer. These little seedlings should be sprouted and in the garden before it is time for me to refill this bed with herbs. This placement also has the advantage of receiving good winter sun and it is a step off of our back deck. I can also see the containers from my kitchen window. So, on warmer spring days, I will be able to quickly notice if the container's lids need to be propped open for ventilation.

As always, my backyard supervisory crew was on hand to see what I was up to. Or, more likely, if I was bringing them any goodies. Each of the hens received a good handful of scratch and the promise of fresh kale later this spring.

We will see how this little experiment goes. I am hopeful that I will have some sprouted seeds to show you in the upcoming weeks. And if not, well, then I am only out a few of last year's seeds and a winter afternoon of getting some dirt under my fingernails. What garden experiments have you tried and succeeded with or learned from?