Start seeds outdoors with winter sowing

Save money and indoor space used for starting seeds indoors with winter sowing. This easy technique allows you to start transplants from seeds outdoors without a greenhouse or cold frame.

Growing your own transplants from seeds can save you money and is often the only option for new, unique and other hard-to-find plants. Not everyone has the time, equipment and dedication to watering that’s needed to start plants indoors.

All you need are flower and vegetable seeds, milk jugs or two-liter soda bottles, duct tape and quality potting mix. Check the seed packet for information on planting details and timing. Winter sowing dates vary with the growing climate, individual gardener and seed variety you are planting.

Try starting hardy perennials and self-seeding annuals sometime during winter through early spring. Other flowers and vegetables seeds are typically winter sown about the same time you would plant them indoors, or a month or two before the transplants get moved into the garden. Keep a record of your planting dates and results to help fine-tune your planting schedule and increase future success.

Drill four to 12 small holes in the bottom of the jug for drainage. One winter sower fills the container with water and pops it into the freezer or outside in below-freezing temperatures. Once it’s frozen solid, he drills the holes into the container. The ice prevents the plastic container from collapsing during the process.

Next, partially cut the jug to create a hinged lid. Make your cut about three to four inches above the bottom, leaving the area by the handle attached so it forms a soul. The bottom of the milk jug handle is usually a good guide.

Fill the bottom with a moist potting mix. Plant seeds according to the package directions. Gently water until the excess runs out the bottom of the container.

Fellow gardener Patricia uses rolled newspaper or the cardboard tubes from toilet paper to help space and eventually transplant her winter-sown seedlings. She makes newspaper pots by wrapping 22 inch-inch-by-5-inch strips of newspaper around a 2-inch-diameter, 4-inch-tall jar. She folds the end to create the bottom for a 3-inch-tall pot. Secured with staples, she sets the pots or toilet paper rolls in the milk jug, fills it with the potting mix, tops them off with about half an inch of seed-starting mix and then plants her seeds.

Label the inside and outside of the jug with a permanent marker. Close the lid and seal it shut with duct tape. Remove the caps before setting your milk jugs in a sunny location outdoors where rain and snow can reach them. Keep the caps handy to prevent waterlogged soil during extremely wet weather.

Water your outdoor seed-starting chambers during snow-free and dry weather. This will be much less often than for seedlings growing indoors under artificial lights.

Your plants will be ready to move into the garden at the normal planting time. Just open the lids, harden off the plants and move them into the garden.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her website is


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