Winter sowing tutorial

Yeah, it’s February. There’s snow on the ground. But I’m gardening. GARDENING!

I stumbled across this article about winter sowing a few months ago, and I was instantly fascinated. I’ve started seeds the traditional way before, both sowing indoors under lights and direct sowing outside once it gets warmer. Both methods worked okay for me, but the idea of winter sowing appealed to me for two reasons. 

1. Being able to do a lot of garden prep work when I start getting cabin fever in the dead of winter is awesome, and

2. I don’t have to find space in my house for the seedlings, nor do I have to invest in shelving, lights, etc… that means I can start lots and lots and lots of plants for cheap/free.

Cheap and free is good because I have big plans for my yard. I hate grass. Mowing blows, it turns brown when it gets too hot and dry, and it’s not pretty! I do not understand lawn-people. I would be much happier to look out into my yard and see something like this:

Though I suppose I’d still like to have somewhere to walk, and also somewhere to grow veggies, so maybe something a little more like this:

See more of my garden inspiration photos on Pinterest!

In either case, you get the point. Out with the grass, in with the plants!

Yesterday I winter sowed my first flats, WEE! It was actually fairly warm (40-ish), but we got snow last night and now all of my containers are covered in a light dusting of snow. I’m actually getting a little bit of a late start- lots of winter sowers have seed-sowing solstice parties in December!

Lots of perennial seeds and hardy annuals need a cold period, so as long as I sow before the end of February, I think they’ll get their fill of the chill (heh). In March I’ll start sowing the semi-hardy plants, and towards the end of March into April, I’ll sow the tender annuals like tomatoes.

So far I’ve planted the following:

  • Lupine – Russell Hybrids
  • Foxglove – Foxy mix
  • Hollyhock – Fordhook Giants
  • Oriental Poppies – Pizzicato mix
  • Columbine – Harlequin mix
  • Cleome
  • Ruby Grass
  • Northern Sea Oats
  • Anise Hyssop
  • Globe Gilia
  • Black Eyed Susan
  • Zinnia – Pink Profusion
  • Penstemon – Huskers Red
  • Passion Flower
  • Blackberry Lily
  • Marigold – Queen Sophia

I bought the first 5 packs of seeds, but the rest I got for free from the awesome people in the Winter Sowing group on GardenWeb.

So how do you winter sow? It’s unbelievable easy.


1. Get yourself a container. You could buy them, but there are LOTS of recyclables you’ve probably already got that you can use! Gallon size milk/water jugs and 2 liter pop bottles are some of the most common, but don’t stop there. We mostly drink almond/coconut milk from the 1/2 gallon cartons, so I was pleased to find that those make good containers.

Good winter sowing containers

  • gallon and half gallon plastic water/milk jugs
  • 2 liter pop bottles
  • plastic coated paper 1/2 gallon milk/juice cartons (the kind with the plastic pouring cap)
  • sour cream/cottage cheese/yogurt containers in 16 oz or larger sizes
  • large plastic tubs from lettuce mixes and spinach
  • large foil lasagna pans with plastic lids
  • any container that will allow light to pass through the top – the “rule of thumb” is to press your thumb against the container and if you can see your thumb imprint, it’s transparent enough.
  • for opaque lidded containers or containers with no lids, cut off the top and use a large clear plastic bag as the lid

022. When you finish off your spinach/milk/whatever, wash the container with hot soapy water.  After they get a bath, I set the containers aside until I’m ready to start sowing. When that time comes, I make a bleach solution in a big bucket- 10 parts water 1 part bleach. Dunk your containers in and again set them aside to drain/dry. Wear gloves! Bleach is nasty stuff.


3. Make drainage holes on the bottom of your container. Some people use a heated screw driver or an awl. I found that my drill worked best. For larger containers, I drilled 12-15 holes. For smaller containers, 5-8 holes.


4. Fill the container with 3-4 inches of potting mix. I used Miracle-Gro Potting Mix. Avoid “Moisture Control” formulas. Set the container in a sink or bathtub and wet the potting mix thoroughly. Let it drain for a few minutes.


5. Sow your seeds. You can count them out if you want to, but most winter sowers sprinkle in a pinch and leave it at that.

Most winter sowers also collect their own seeds for saving and trading, so the seeds are free. No need to sit around and try to count out a specific number of poppy seeds.  When the seeds sprout and it’s time to transplant, you cut up the “hunk of seedlings” into brownie-like chunks and plant like you would any other seedling.

Cover the seeds with a layer of soil approximately the same width as the seed. For tiny seeds like poppies, just a dusting a soil. For larger seeds, perhaps 1/4″ of dirt. Pat the top layer of soil down so the seeds make good contact with the soil.


6. Put the lid on your container, making sure to cut a few ventilation holes in the top. If you’re using a milk jug, you can just leave the cap off!

Also make sure to label your seedlings. Duct tape and a permanent marker or paint pen works well. It’s a good idea to label in two places in case your writing wears off or is bleached out by the sun. I labeled mine on the sides and also labeled a piece of plastic cutlery and put that INSIDE my container. 

Take your containers outside and that’s it! Who am I kidding, that’s not what it looks like outside…


That’s more like it.


7. They’ll get snowed on, rained on, iced on. That’s all good and well.

If you have dogs in your household or neighborhood, you might want to put your containers up on a table or in some other vessel to keep them from being knocked over- milk crates or under-the-bed storage totes would work well.

It’s also a good idea to choose an area with some shade, at least once things start to warm up outside, or your containers may dry out too quickly. When the snow melts, check your containers for condensation. If there’s condensation they don’t need to be watered. If there isn’t, give them a drink.


8. Keep your eyes peeled in spring for your first sprouts! Since the containers act like mini greenhouses, don’t be surprised to find seedlings peeking out much earlier than you’d normally see action in your garden.


9. Now you can start opening the container during the day and closing it again at night. Once it’s full spring, you can start transplanting your seedlings into your garden!

5 thoughts on “Winter sowing tutorial

  1. Can a container be too big? does placing them on the east side of the house give them enough sunlight? will it be too warm setting containers on east side besides the house?

    1. I don’t think a container could be too big. “Too big” would probably always be preferable to “too small” mostly because the less soil in the container, the faster it will dry out.

      The east side of the house is good – it’s often recommended to put them in an east or northeast location as morning sun is less harsh (and drying) than afternoon sun.

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