Once the calendar turns to January 1 and the holidays are over, winter in New England can feel like a long slog to spring. These last few winters, most of our snowfall occurred in January and later. The days get slowly longer, but it is still decidedly winter.
And it will be for a while.
Though sketching my garden layout and thumbing through seed catalogues for my spring garden helps fill the hole of my need for green, it can only do so much.
But what if I told you you could start getting your hands in some dirt today? Yes! There is such a thing as winter gardening, and it could be an awesome activity for you TODAY! And if you want, you can involve your kiddos so they can experience the benefits of gardening in January, too.
How?? You ask! By winter sowing!
Winter sowing is a technique that duplicates the process that a seed in nature would naturally experience.
In the wild, plants reproduce by creating flowers that produce seeds. Those seeds fall to the ground, lay dormant until winter, and then bloom when the right conditions emerge in the spring.
There is no room temp, completely dry seed storage in nature!
Some seeds even benefit from this deep freeze before
germination as they undergo a process called cold stratification.
When seeds reach these low temps, it can actually improve their germination rates and longterm health of the plant the seed grows into!
Winter sowing exposes seeds to low temperatures, but by sowing them in sealed containers the seedlings get the benefit of a mini greenhouse as they sprout.
Step by Step Process of Winter Sowing
First, collect containers like gallon or half gallon jug, large yogurt containers, or other food safe recyclables. Make sure your containers have holes in the bottom for good drainage--if necessary you can drill or cut them yourself. Cut the jugs near the base of the handle so that you can put the dirt in them. You can tape those closed when you're done adding the seeds.
Next, find a seed starting or veggie safe plant mix and get it moist
in a separate bucket. Then add the mix to the bottoms of your containers. Put in enough dirt that when your plants start really growing there is room for them to send down their roots.
Next take the seeds you want to winter sow and follow the package instructions regarding depth. However, most people who winter sow just sprinkle the seeds without worrying about spacing. You will trim and separate them once they get started. Now cover with dirt. For most seeds you just need a light sprinkle to cover them.
Now make sure your containers are secure. For jugs you cut, reattach them with masking or duct
tape. If you're using yogurt containers I usually cover them in Saran Wrap that I secure with duct
tape. Add some holes to the top so moisture can enter the container when it rains or snows.
Now, be sure to LABEL!! I usually write on my container with a permanent market and then cover that with tape
so it doesn't fade in the elements.
Lastly, bring your containers outside and set them in a place
where they won't get knocked around. That will displace the seeds and can disrupt growth.
If you have snow where you are, you can dig a little area out
abutting next to the foundation of your home or in an existing garden bed. The snow insulates them is a great fertilizer. My best luck has been to store them in a raised planter where my kids can't get to them and play in the dirt.
But you can put them anywhere!! The thing that's awesome about winter sowing is you can do it ANYWHERE! Whether you place them in your apartment balcony, in your driveway, or in your yard, it's a super accessible way to keep the hope of your spring garden alive through these cold winter months.
Your containers become mini greenhouses!
When temperatures start warming up, these seeds will germinate and sprout all on their own. When they get big enough, you can transplant them just like you would any other seedling!
Best of all, there's no need to harden them off because they've already been acclimated by being outside through their whole growing period 🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼
Here are a few tips:
Make sure your container is large enough. I do not recommend sowing in egg cartons or fruit trays because
1) there isn't enough soil for the roots to effectively establish and
2) such small amounts of soil do not stay hydrated enough and the seedlings won't be healthy
Winter sowing with your child is a real sensory experience! Plus, you and your child will learn so much watching these plants sprout in your recycled mini greenhouse.