Thursday, January 29, 2015

Winter Sowing

About 15 years ago, I came across a completely alien concept of gardening to me. It basically described a process of sowing flower, herb, and vegetable seeds in covered containers in the middle of winter, and then placing those containers outside to deal with the elements...snow, ice, and all. The sowing rate for this method was extremely high and it seemed so effortless. How could that be?

At the time, I was living in Florida and was jealous of how northern gardeners were able to catch such a break. Growing anything in Florida was hard work, despite its image of being a lush paradise, so just putting some seeds in some dirt and leaving them alone for months was incomprehensible. I printed out that information I found 15 years ago and saved it. I knew, even then, that someday I would move from Florida and get to experience a whole other gardening world.

We moved up here to Virginia 4 1/2 years ago. The first two years were spent renting a home and getting grounded to where we were. We bought our house 2 1/2 years ago and I was finally able to pull out those pages I printed and get to work.

Turns out, winter sowing (what it is called) has become very trendy. Take a few minutes and go on Pintrest to find out for yourself. I gave it a stab last year and was truly amazed that every single thing I winter sowed sprouted. Every. Single. Thing.

Last year I planted in styrofoam cups that were placed inside Rubbermaid tubs, but found they dried out very easily and needed a lot of pampering. I also used sterilized potting mix, which although the seeds sprouted, they were missing the extra nutrients. This year, I used regular ole', pre-fertilized potting mix and just placed it in my tubs. Here's hoping...

The concept of winter sowing is based on that most seeds require some form of stratification (cold hibernation) in order to sprout. Most sowing failures occur because there wasn't enough or any stratification in place. In fact, some seeds won't sprout without it. By planting the seeds in protected, mini-greenhouses in the winter time, the seeds get their stratification and are protected from the elements.

Most people simply use empty milk jugs, just as long as some filtered light can come in. I wanted to plant on a bigger scale and not have a "milk jug ghetto" in my yard. Winter sowing containers have to have holes drilled in the bottoms and tops for drainage and ventilation, and there needs to be at least 4" of soil depth.

When you plant the seeds, you water the soil with warm water ONE TIME, put the lid on and forget about it until spring. Any snow or rain will filter in from the holes in the top of the tubs and provide additional moisture and the lids prevent over evaporation. You can see in the image above that there is ice on the inside of the lid.

The seeds I plant in January require very long stratification periods and are mostly flowers. Right now, I have planted Hollyhocks, Oriental Poppies, Columbines, Borage, Nasturtium, and Bunny Tail Grass. In March, I will winter sow tubs with vegetables, herbs, and more sensitive flowers. When the seeds sprout, I have to keep an eye on temperatures and slowly start to acclimate them to the outside by propping up the lids. When the seedlings are big enough, I will transplant them to individual pots or even directly in the ground. I won't have 8" tall tomato seedlings to plant in May, but they will catch up!

Last year, it was interesting to see that it didn't take long for my winter sowed tomato seedlings to catch up to the store-bought seedlings I planted in May. Not to mention cheaper and better tasting!

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