Winter Sowing Seeds, Beginner Friendly!

Winter Sowing of Seeds for a Beautiful Season of Flowers. When you winter sow your seeds you get a head start on blooms and beauty for the following summer!

Winter sow seeds for masses of flowers you can easily transplant into your garden in Spring.

This budget-friendly way of seed sowing gets you lots of flowers and earlier blooming from some of your favorite perennials, biennials, and annual flowers.

ice bubble in winter, winter sowing
Photo by Lisa Marianna Photography

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What is Winter Sowing Method?

Winter sowing is a method of germinating seeds outdoors in recycled containers during the cold winter months.

You don’t need special equipment or a greenhouse. The recycled containers act as mini-greenhouses for you.

Planting seeds in winter is great for those that don’t have any extra space indoors to dedicate to seed starting.

All you need is some good quality potting soil, containers, and seeds along with the great outdoors!

You can garden inexpensively! Winter sowing is one method that has been proven to work.

If you want you can start with some cheap perennial seeds from the dollar store. Or even cheap annuals and vegetables too.

I have been very successful with a 50-cent pack of seeds so go ahead and give it a whirl!

The poppy below is one I grew via winter sowing and it was from a 50-cent package of seeds from the dollar store.

pink oriental poppy

Winter Sowing in Milk Jugs

This is one of the most common containers for winter sowing. The one-gallon milk jugs make perfect mini greenhouses.

Winter sowing in milk jugs is one of the best ways to do it for many reasons.

One reason is you can get a good depth of soil so the seedling’s roots have room to grow well.

Second is the height, you can grow some of the taller plants that need those few extra inches to stretch up.

And third, most of them are translucent, not transparent and that can work in your favor when the sun gets stronger.

Diffusing the sun when it is strong protects the tender seedlings from getting scorched.

how to grow

Gorgeous Delphiniums from Seed!

Add height and elegance to your garden with delphiniums. Easily grown from seed and they return year after year!

Why Winter Sow Your Seeds

Did you know many biennials don’t bloom until the second year?  Unless you sow them early! Sowing seeds in winter helps you get that early start.

That is one reason winter sowing is so wonderful plus it is just fun if you love to grow lots of Spring and Summer flowers and have a tight budget. 

Not only will you get blooms from the perennials and biennials that take a bit of establishing but you will also have a great big head start on other plants.

Plants grown from seed this way are tougher than those started indoors. Healthier plants equal better success when transplanting!

Also, many seeds need cold stratification to germinate well and they get that cold spell with winter sowing. And to get good flowering many need vernalization.

Vernalization: the cooling of seed during germination in order to accelerate flowering when it is planted.

Stratification: In horticulture, stratification is a process of treating seeds to simulate natural conditions that the seeds must experience before germination can occur. Many seed species have an embryonic dormancy phase, and generally will not sprout until this dormancy is broken

Some seeds with hard coatings also do better with sowing them in winter as the warming and cooling, even some freezing helps to soften the coat and therefore easier for the seeds to germinate.

Another plus is winter sown seeds don’t need to harden off before transplanting into the garden.

Those are just a few of the benefits of winter sowing.

Best Seeds for Winter Sowing

As a rule of thumb, if a plant is hardy in your garden you can plant its seed in winter.  No matter what the temperature or conditions.

The seeds will sprout when warmth comes and if it sprouts then you are hit with a cold front the sprouts will survive.

Pay attention to the wording on seed packets like “self-sows”, “cold hardy”, “withstands frost”, “sow outdoors in early Spring”, “direct sow early”, and terms similar to that. Also, seed names with “wildflower” or “weed” in them. AKA: Milkweed

Don’t worry about your garden zone! Or a sowing calendar. This varies by area and yours won’t fit another.

I get asked about when someone can start winter sowing in a particular zone. Hardy annuals and perennials won’t sprout until the weather warms enough, they will just stay dormant.

Zoning is relative. Though I am in zone 8, there are plenty in zone 5 that get warmer springs earlier than I do.

For more on garden zones read all about them in the article I dedicated to that topic.

Winter Sowing Annuals and Perennials

Here is a small example of hardy annuals and perennials in my area.

These little frozen seedlings are Violas, Larkspur, and California poppies with a bit of Feverfew tossed in for good measure.

These self-seeded this past Fall and have sprouted. We had nearly 3 feet of snow around Thanksgiving, then enough rain to wash that away. Then we were hit with lows around 20 degrees F. 

winter sowing of seeds, larkspur and california poppy seedlings

This past week (late December) we were in the low 50’s during the day and down to the low 30’s at night. The little sprouts have just hunkered down to wait for more warmth in Spring to continue. 

Despite the fickle weather, they have weathered it all just fine.

Related: I am a Lazy Gardener. (click here to read how Lazy!)

Planting in Milk Jugs or Winter Sowing Containers

For an article all on the best Winter Sowing containers, you can hop on over here!

How to Winter Sow Seeds in Milk Jugs

Start with some recycled 1-gallon milk or water jugs. My sister gave me these, she has 4 boys and they go through a lot of milk.

I wash and sanitize them with a bleach solution. Then using a hot metal skewer or old steak knife I pierce holes in the bottom for drainage.

I hold the skewer, knife, or Philips screwdriver over a flame (I have a gas range in my kitchen) until it is good and hot then press it against the bottom of the milk jug until it pierces it.

I do it over and over until it is too cool then I reheat it and do it again until there is plenty of drainage holes in each jug.

I have also used a xacto knife and made an X in the plastic bottom and twisted it to open it up a bit.

Using scissors I cut all around leaving a 1 1/2-inch wide band beneath the handle to act as a hinge.

Some use a box cutter for this but I find scissors much easier.

winter sowing of seeds, milk jug cut

You can see the hinge in the next photo.

Add a few inches of potting soil to your container, sprinkle on the seeds and press them gently yet firmly into the soil. You need good contact between the seeds and the soil.

Next top with vermiculite (in the lower part of this post you will see I also have used horticultural sand).

You can also top with a light sifting of potting soil or for the seeds that need light to germinate just leave them without a top coating.

The seed packets should tell you if a seed needs light to germinate.

winter sowing seeds filled with soil

Vermiculite and or sand is supposed to retain moisture without crusting over.

Some will say to use a seed starting mix but that is not necessary for this method as winter-sown seeds aren’t as susceptible to damping off and the fungus that plague indoor sprouts.

If you are using good-quality potting soil you are fine.

Do not use potting soil with additives like water-absorbing crystals, synthetic fertilizer (aka Miracle Gro) and things like that. If I am not using my DIY potting mix I use EB Stones Ednas Best or Fox Farm Ocean forest Potting Mix.

One particular flower I want to get started is these Madonna Shasta Daisy seeds. Daisies are excellent for winter sowing and this variety blooms over a much longer time than the other daisies I already have.

daisy seed packet before winter sowing the seeds

Write the name of the plant that you have sown onto the container and if you want, the date.

In the video linked below, I show how I add additional identification inside in case this gets washed away in the weather.

milk jugs turned into mini greenhouses for winter sowing seeds

Duct tape to close up the milk jug and if it needs some water set it in a deep dish to soak it up. I add some Organic Rev to the water and that seems to really help the germination and health of the seedlings.

Place it outside in an area that is semi-protected so it won’t get blown over by the wind.

(another gardener who winters sows sent me a note saying she writes the name of the plant on the duct tape too and that seems to hold up best for her)

I seat the winter sowing containers into the soil of a raised bed to secure them a bit better if we get any strong wind. Pretty soon I will have this all filled with these jugs.

As you can see in the photo you DO NOT want to put the lids back on the jugs. The opening allows water and air to get in.

Though to most onlookers, this is not the most attractive thing to view but to me these milk jug greenhouses are gorgeous.

I know I will have tons of flowers to plant out this coming Spring for such a small price and that has got beautiful written all over it!

I used these raised beds for my vegetable garden all last summer and I loved them!

Other recycled containers you can winter sow in

I not only sow seeds in gallon jugs. Here are some other containers I have used.

I save different plastic containers that have separate lids already.  I like the Organic Spring garden salad mix from Costco.  (also available at many grocery stores)

I have also used these to start seeds in Spring, they work great for that too.

Once we have eaten up the salad I give the container a good wash in hot soapy water, dry then poke drainage holes in the bottom and a couple in the top with a hot skewer.  

You want it to drain very well so make sure there are plenty of holes.

Winter sowing of seeds, when you are sick of the snow and want to plant!

I use regular potting soil, nothing fancy is needed, but I do lighten it up a bit with some perlite.  

Perlite is the little white dots you see, it just makes the soil mix have really good drainage.

Must you use a specialty mix?

Seed Starting Mix vs Potting Soil

I did a test on whether using a specialty seed starting mix was definitely superior to potting soil when starting seed. See how it turned out!

Or I use my DIY potting soil. I show you how I make it in this article.

Winter sowing of seeds, when you are sick of the snow and want to plant!

I don’t fill the clean salad container with the soil mix, I just use a few inches.

Water it well. This saves you from having to water after you have sown the seeds which can displace them if you are not very careful.

Winter sowing of seeds, when you are sick of the snow and want to plant!

In the depths of winter, I sow hardy annuals or perennials.  Ones that I can direct sow in Fall or Early Spring work great for this.  

Many are listed in this post on cottage flowers that reseed themselves. 

Here is a great selection of seeds at a great price, most can be winter sowed except the Zinnias and Sunflowers.  

I follow the directions on the seed packet for the depth to plant the seed but I tend to sow them more thickly or closer together than the seed packet suggests.  I just fly that way.

Many seeds need light to germinate so after pressing them into the damp potting soil mix I top them lightly with horticultural sand or chick grit.  It supposedly helps with many issues of seeds starting in containers.

(make sure the chick grit, which is crushed granite, does not contain supplements)

I think it looks pretty.

Winter sowing of seeds, when you are sick of the snow and want to plant!

Did you forget to water the soil before you sowed your seeds? I do that sometimes too.

Just set the container into a tray of water and let it absorb from the bottom. Or very, very carefully water from the stop so you don’t wash the seeds around.

You can put these containers outside in the winter weather like the milk jugs but these I will keep in my greenhouse.  I want to see if they germinate faster than those that I place outside.

My greenhouse is not heated and it gets plenty cold inside so they will do just fine.

Winter sowing of seeds, when you are sick of the snow and want to plant!

Before you know it you will have tons of seedlings ready to pot up or out into the garden.

These below are Delphiniums

plastic tub of pansy seedlings ready to thin and pot up

Maintenance of Winter sowing containers

Most of the winter you can just ignore them but after the weather begins to be sunnier you will want to check on them.

Check for condensation on the inside of the containers on any sunny day above 32 degrees F.

If you don’t see condensation you should give them some water by setting the container in water to absorb it through the bottom.

Check for sprouts. They are easily visible down the spout or through the sides of the clear containers. You may be surprised how soon some germinate even when it is still quite cold out.

As temperatures rise you will need to open the tops of the containers or they will overheat and cook your seedlings. Just be sure to close them back up at night.

Once you are opening the containers you will need to stay on top of keeping them watered. With such a shallow amount of soil, they will tend to dry out fast.

Planting out Seedlings

Once the soil in your garden can be worked and your winter-sown seedlings have their true set of leaves you can plant them out.

If you want to pot some up to grow on in larger pots or give away visit here: Go here for how to thin seedlings.

In Spring I can start the seeds of the more tender annuals and perennials this way too.

Click here to see how I start seeds indoors!

Here is to tons of beautiful flowers in our future!

Late Summer Garden 2016

There are tons of methods for sowing in winter. Have you tried winter sowing?  If you have, how did it go for you?

I walk you through it all in my video!

Click here to visit my Garden Shop on Amazon,  I list lots of helpful items I use to grow a fabulous garden!

Happy winter gardening!

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FAQs about Winter Sowing

You can use the Winter Sowing method but you will need to wait until milder weather. See this vid for how you can do it.

You can use the winter sowing method to plant tomatoes but they will do best if you wait until warmer weather. I shared a video on how I did it here: How to Sow Tomatoes using the Winter Sowing Method

Yes, but you would be more successful following the guidelines of winter sowing zinnias and tomatoes for the best results.

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26 Comments

  1. It’s lovely seeing you dig in the dirt again. I can’t wait for winter to turn to spring. I have a few raised beds that need planting with some continuous blooms (something I didn’t get to last year). I always used to start my veggies inside under lights but I hate fighting the deer so I go to the farmers market instead now. We’re getting snow again here today.

    1. We get sunshine for the rest of this week and a high of 50 on Saturday. It will feel like a heat wave after the cold temps we have been getting. Next week we get more rain but I hope it will melt some of the snow piled up around my house. I don’t dare hope it will melt far enough for me to see the actual dirt. I won’t fret on it much, as long as this wet and snow stops come April. Though it can continue on through May here, which that does drive me bats. I keep telling myself we really do need this to end the 5 year drought so I don’t go stir crazy.

  2. I’ve never heard of starting seeds that why. That would be for seeds that need to have the cold to germinate, right? Well, you learn something everyday! Thanks for sharing that, I’m looking forward to digging in the dirt too. I’ve been seeing Seed Packages in the Stores, so I guess there’s hope.

    1. This works especially well for the seeds that need cold stratification but many other hardy annuals and perennials respond well to this type of start too. The more tender ones I will start in April. Our last frost date is typically the third weekend in May.

  3. Thank you for this posting. New to me, but so is a garden. It’s been cold here in Shingletown also though the sun is out today (and yesterday). The days are getting longer which is very noticeable on the first sunny day after many gray skies. In a few days, we can kiss January goodbye ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. We have had a few days of sun too, what a mood lifter. I am noticing the bit of added daylight too, love it! We usually get a false Spring in February where we get about two weeks of sunny skies with temps near 60 degrees. After the cold, cold days it seems like a heat wave. Then March can be cold and snowy again.

  4. Thanks, for sharing such great ideas! This is the time of year I start itching to plant.

  5. Want to get out and overturn the dirt in my yard. It’s been raining and I heard something about not overturning when wet. I can’t remember why. Can you? I do get out there after it rains to pull weeds. Makes it so much easier!

    1. Trying to till or turn the dirt when it is very wet can tend to cause it to compact and clump rather than be crumbly.

  6. Hi from Canada.
    I was wondering how you heat your greenhouse?

    1. I don’t, it isn’t insulated which is a bummer. I had a fabulous insulated one when we lived in Idaho, I loved it. The one I have now is not in a spot that gets any sun in the winter, we have way too many huge evergreens that surround us. But by about this time of year when the sun is higher in the sky and the nights do not drop too far I can get a start on the more tender plants, and I have some christmas rope lights I use as bottom heat which helps.

  7. Did you have any success with winter sowing kniphofia? I would love to try. Thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I must confess, no I did not. But I was not the best steward of my winter sowing project either so I am not sure you should judge by how well I did. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Does echinacea need to have cold weather to germinate? I have 2 seed packets with different instructions. When I grew it 25 years s ago I just sowed it directly in the late spring.

    1. You don’t HAVE to cold stratify to germinate echinacea but you will supposedly get a better germination rate if you do cold stratify. Late Spring for me is still cool enough. I should do a test and see.

  9. This made me want to get started. It’s raining cats and dogs but I have a few jugs, some soil, and some seeds. I can at least get a head start. Thank you.

  10. This is fascinating. We are gardeners and occasionally start seeds inside, but usually under a heat lamp. I love the idea of using these containers and putting them outside. Thank you for this information.

  11. Have you ever tried this idea with vegetables..like peppers? That is 80% of our garden and when I start indoors they get too leggy and I loose most of them.

    1. Wait to start tender veggies and annuals until mid-March or early April! I am working on a post about how to sow those too.

  12. Maybe a foolish question but do we put the lid back on the milk jugs? Picture shows no lid. Iโ€™m excited to try this.

    1. Thank you for that question, I will make sure to add a note in the post NOT to put the lids back on. The opening is needed for water and air to get in and to let excess heat out.

  13. WONDERFUL and diverse info and I am an old hand at gardening.Thank you ๐Ÿ˜Š

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