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January 4, 2018

Winter Sowing Seeds

Filed under: Book Excerpt, Nature/Enviroment — Alison Aten @ 1:54 pm

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At Farmer Seed and Nursery in Faribault, Minnesota, workers were surrounded by seeds for farm and garden customers.

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Mary Lahr Schier is the editor of Northern Gardener, the bimonthly magazine of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, and the author of the new book The Northern Gardener: From Apples to Zinnias, 150 Years of Garden Wisdom. The book features tips and tricks for the northern gardener collected from 150 years of Minnesota State Horticultural Society publications. In the excerpt from the “Seeds” chapter below, Mary explains “Winter Sowing Seeds.”

A catalogue is a stimulus. It’s like an oyster cocktail before dinner, a Scotch highball before the banquet, the singing before the sermon.
Gertrude Ellis Skinner, co-editor, Austin (MN) Herald, 1916

The arrival of seed catalogs, usually just after New Year’s Day, is more exciting than any holiday gifts for many gardeners. Page upon page of enticing photographs and charming descriptions are enough to make gardeners want to settle down with a Scotch highball (or whatever their preferred beverage) and spend the rest of the winter planning the garden and shopping for seeds. But after the rush of the catalog season, the seeds arrive and the challenge of getting those seeds into the ground and growing the garden begins.

Starting seeds is not difficult, but it does require different strategies for northern gardeners compared to our southern friends. Many plants cannot be grown from seeds planted directly in the garden. Our growing season is simply not long enough. So, if you want to grow tomatoes, peppers, or other longer-season crops, you have two choices: buy the plants as transplants, or start seeds indoors.

In many cases, buying transplants makes sense. If you are growing just a few plants, starting seeds indoors may not be worth the time and expense. In that case, wait until mid- to late May and buy plants from a reputable nursery or the farmers’ market or get them from a friend who starts seeds indoors. Then you can plant them directly in the garden or a container and wait for the magic to happen. However, growing plants from seeds means you will have a larger selection—most nurseries offer only a dozen or two varieties of tomatoes, for example, compared to the hundreds of varieties available as seed. Growing your plants from seeds also gives you control over how the seeds are raised. You decide what goes into the planting mix, how much light they get, when they go outside for hardening off. Plus, it’s life affirming to watch those little seeds send out a green tendril that breaks through the soil and becomes a viable plant.

. . .

For northern gardeners, there are three main ways to start seeds: outdoors, indoors, and through the winter-sowing method.

. . .

Winter Sowing Seeds

What if you could start seeds without lights? For many gardeners, winter sowing has become an easier way to grow plants—especially perennials—with little care and no lights. Winter sowing became popular in the past ten years as an easier way to start plants from seed. Essentially, you plant the seeds in a mini-greenhouse and set them outside during the winter. As the weather warms up, the seeds germinate, and eventually you have plants ready for transplanting in the garden. Winter sowing does not work for all plants. And if you plan to start vegetables in winter sowing containers, you need to wait until March or early April.

Here’s how it works. Gather your seeds and clear containers, at least four to six inches deep. Clear gallon milk jugs work especially well, but some gardeners use large lettuce or spinach containers or two-liter soda pop jugs. You’ll also need potting soil. It does not have to be a seed-starting mix, but it should be sterile. Garden soil may harbor weeds or bacteria. To set up the mini-greenhouses, first wash the jugs and dip them briefly in a 10 percent bleach solution to sanitize them. Then, poke holes in the bottom of the jugs for drainage and a few in the top to allow snow or rain to drip in. I use a soldering iron for this job, but a sharp scissors or awl will work, too.

Next, cut around the jug about four to five inches from the bottom, leaving the handle in place, so it functions like a hinge. You want to be able to push it back to add the seeds and soil. Dampen the potting mix as you would for indoor seed starting, and fill the jugs to a depth of about three inches. Plant the seeds as deep as the package says. Before closing up the jugs, place a label inside so you know what kind of seeds you planted. Since the mini-greenhouses will be outdoors in all kinds of winter weather, any writing on the outside of the jug will be worn away by spring. (Trust me on this one—put the label inside!) A good way to make labels is to cut up plastic mini-blinds and write the name of the plant with permanent marker or a laundry pen.

Once the containers have been thoroughly marked, seal them up with duct tape. Some gardeners leave the caps on the jugs, some don’t. Then, set the containers outside in a sunny spot and wait. As spring arrives, you will need to check the containers regularly to make sure they have enough moisture. When plants start to grow, gradually make the air holes on top larger and eventually cut the tops off the containers. Do not rush to put the plants in the ground. When your seedlings are strong and the weather has warmed up, plant them in the garden and enjoy.

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For winter sowing, gardeners plant seeds in mini-greenhouses that are set outside. As the weather warms, the seeds will germinate and be ready for the garden come spring.

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Seeds chosen for winter sowing can handle the snow and cold.

Best Plants for Winter Sowing

Native plants, hardy perennials,
cool-season vegetables, and annuals
that reseed readily do best in winter
sowing containers. Winter sowing
works especially well for perennials
that need stratification—going
through a freeze/thaw cycle to crack
the seed coat.

Here are a few plants to consider
for winter sowing:

Perennials. Anise hyssop, asters,
black-eyed Susan, blanketflower
(Gaillardia), blazing star (Liatris),
catmint (Nepeta), coneflower, coreopsis,
hollyhock, lupine, milkweed,
penstemon, perennial sunflower
(Helianthus).

Hardy annuals. Ageratum, calendula,
cosmos, marigold, morning
glory, petunia hybrids, poppy, salvia,
snapdragon, sweet alyssum, annual
sunflower, zinnia.

Vegetables and herbs. Beets,
broccoli, cilantro, dill, kale, lettuce,
parsley, radish, spinach.

For a mid-April start, try tomatoes.

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