Last January, I was sitting on my couch moping and wondering when things would spring back to life. The world as we knew it was shut down. The day was dark and rain was pelting the windows.
I was scrolling aimlessly through Instagram.
One simple post caught my eye. A gal in New York City (a gal who was clearly as bored as I was!) had planted a bunch of seeds in clear seltzer bottles and milk jugs and explained she was experimenting with “winter sowing.” Curious about this winter sowing thing, I went down that Instagram rabbit hole and discovered an ingenious system for sowing seeds, outside, during the winter months without the use of supplementary heat, light, or a classic greenhouse!
This was just the project I needed to push me off the couch and into action!
Developed over twenty years ago by Trudi Davidoff, a resident of Long Island, winter sowing is a system she devised when she wanted to start her plants by seed but lacked a lot of space inside. Using simple recycled materials such as translucent milk jugs, salad boxes and soda bottles, winter sowing harnesses the power of nature on many levels, and for me last year, it resulted in an incredible organic kitchen garden that brought a bountiful harvest!
At first, I was doubtful that sowing seeds in January in jugs and setting them outside in the elements would work, so rather than gambling with my expensive seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Territorial Seeds, I headed to Dollar Tree where I bought an array of packets-bachelor buttons, larkspur, kale, Parris Island Romaine lettuce, lavender and more. At 25 cents per packet, I figured my investment wasn’t huge by any means, so it was a perfect opportunity to test the task.
Wow! I planted my first seeds—Lupines, larkspur, lettuces in mid-January and by mid-February, I had growth and green sprouts coming up. Even in the midst of a massive Valentine’s Day weekend snow storm, my little plants stayed cozy enough to survive. This was the only proof I needed to go full steam ahead. Within weeks, I had sown probably more than 40 milks jugs with everything from zucchini, beans, peas, sweet peas, sunflowers, and even tomatoes!
My efforts paid off in the spring when I had tons of garden ready flowers and vegetables to plant easily from the jugs to the garden beds. Because the plants had grown outdoors, they were acclimated to the elements and didn’t need to be hardened off or coddled before going into their new homes. (A big bonus for the busy gardener!) When I transplanted them, I did make sure to cover the tender plants with the milk jugs or a clear salad box, to protect them from birds, crows and Seattle’s infamous slugs.
My garden got a huge jump start in and when the vegetables and annual flowers started appearing in the local nurseries in April and May, it was clear that I had saved myself a ton of money because the prices for basic garden vegetables had skyrocketed.
Furthermore, options were extremely limited due to the pandemic challenges at hand.
So, if you want to grow more flowers and vegetables by seed and save yourself a ton of money this spring, gear up now and get winter sowing!
The method involves harnessing supplies such as translucent one gallon milk jugs, duct tape, scissors or a sharp Exacto knife, high quality organic potting soil, a Sharpie, labels and seed packets.
I started by slitting four or five holes in the bottom of thoroughly sanitized and rinsed milk jugs, and then slicing around the milk jug equator, but leaving the milk jug intact at the handle so it can be opened up like a little cloche when weather gets warmer. The milk jug cap is discarded, as the little hole at the top will allow rain to drizzle in and maintain a moist environment. I then put about four inches of organic potting soil in the bottom of the milk jug, wet the soil thoroughly until water runs through the holes in the bottom, add a packet of seeds, label the container, and then use the duct tape to seal the equator slit. The jug is then set outside. It’s pretty much a “set it and forget it” method much like a slow cooker!
In my yard I set the jugs on a southeast side of the house where they simply hang out until they are naturally inclined to sprout. (As the season warms up, the jugs do need to be checked intermittently to make sure they don’t dry out or get too hot but that’s part of the fun and daily joy of checking the little jugs!)
I’m continually amazed by my “Milk Jugs Miracles” because they endure rain, frost, and even last year’s heavy February snow only to spring to life when the seeds are ready. This year on Martin Luther King weekend, I got started by planting leeks, Tom Thumb lettuce, Parris Island Romaine, and Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce. Incredibly, those lettuces are already springing to life! My heirloom sweet peas, planted later in the month, are now also swelling and pushing forth!
I love this simple economical method so much, I am hosting a winter sowing workshop at my Seattle P Patch in order to share the method with my fellow P Patch gardeners.
An excellent resource for further information is the Winter Sowers Facebook page, which was started by Trudi and now has over 75,000 members from all over the world.