Winter Seed Sowing: letting seeds decide when to grow

On the back of every seed packet you will find instructions with ideal germination and planting conditions.  For northern gardeners it may seem to take forever for the soil to reach optimum germination temperature for most seeds.  We often forget that plants make seeds to reproduce their likeness, it is important to plants that their seeds survive winter conditions.  Then in spring when favorable conditions arise, the seeds know what to do.  They germinate and begin growing into a plant.

The idea behind winter seed sowing is to create a planting environment for seeds that is placed outside, yet contained, a nano scale greenhouse of sorts.  Then the seeds will decide when to gernimate and grow when conditions are appropriate.

As edible gardeners, why not enable our favorite seeds to begin life as if they had been cast from their parent plant in the wild.  Winter seed sowing is also a way to take advantage of down time during the winter to ensure a productive and early start to your springtime garden.   Before starting any winter sowing project there are a few things to consider.  After that, be creative as there are many ways to make winter sowing work for you.
Winter seed sowing
Seed selection
Not all seeds are suited to winter sowing.  The best plants to sow in winter are those that thrive in cooler growing conditions such as kale, spinach, chard, peas, etc.  It is also worth looking through your favorite seed catalog to find seeds that have any of the following terms listed in their description; need chilling, to be sown in autumn, hardy, can withstand frost, or similar.

Types of containers
One of the great things about winter seed sowing is that containers can be repurposed so that the cost of starting edible plants this way is minimal.  Many different shapes and sizes of containers will work perfectly fine, plastic milk jugs, plastic jars or bins.   Prepared salad containers are one of the best as they are square or rectangular and have removable lids.  No matter what type of container you use it must let light through and have a lid or otherwise be enclosed.  Paper towel or toilet paper tolls are placed inside each container and filled with soil which will make transplanting a snap.

Germinating seeds and young seedlings just like babies and young animals are more susceptible to disease than more established plants.  Therefore it is important to properly clean winter seed sowing containers.  It is also ideal to use a clean seed starting mix from your local nursery.

Drainage/air flow
No matter which type of container you use it must be able to shed water and allow air in and out.  Seeds need moisture to germinate and grow but too much water can prevent germination and/or drown young seedlings.  In addition, plants need carbon dioxide for proper growth.  If no air holes are present in your sealed container the seedlings will eventually run out and die.  Both of these problems can be solved by placing holes in the bottom as well as above the soil line in the container.

In getting excited about winter seed sowing you may set up many containers and then forget which seeds you planted in each container.  Labeling the outside of each container with a permanent marker just after sowing the seeds is the easiest way to keep track.  This will help when it comes time to transplant your winter-sown seedlings to the garden.

When the seedlings have become established in their paper towel rolls with enough of a root structure to hold the soil during transplanting they can be planted out in the garden.  To do this prepare an appropriately sized planting hole, then simply lift each paper towel roll out of the winter sowing container and place it in the hole you just made in the garden. There is no need to remove the paper towel roll as it will degrade during the growing season and not be a hindrance to the growing plant.

For step-by-step instructions on preparing your own winter seed sowing container, click here.

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