The seed catalogues are calling your name, but your home leaves much to be desired to start this years seeds. Maybe you don’t have a south facing window, or the one you do have has no ledge to rest plants on, or your apartment is basically a window-less dungeon. You’d like to get a grow light set up, but let’s be real. You don’t have the space, your kids or pets would get into everything, and you just feel like scrapping the whole idea. Besides, who has $200-$600 for a really nice set-up with shelves and everything?
There is another way.
Do you drink milk from plastic jugs? (Or could you get someone who does to save theirs for you?)
Do you have a small deck or other flat outdoor space that gets a decent amount of light?
Great! You can start seeds this year. . . even if you live in a place as cold as zone 3. I’ll show you how.
Seed Starting Without a Grow Light or a Window?!?!
The seed starting method I’m sharing with you today sounds too good to be true–but I promise you that it does actually work, although there are a few limitations which I’ll share at the end. Winter sowing originally started out as a cheap and effective way to start perennial flowers from seeds, but the method can be applied to vegetables as well.
I live in Saskatoon, SK, which is in zone 3b and has a short growing season of approximately 100 days, give or take depending on that year’s weather and which sources frost dates you believe. Last year I tried my first small experiment with winter sowing (or milk jug gardening, as it’s sometimes referred to) and it was a success.
Winter Sowing Works–Even in Cold Climates Like Zone 3
I started a few cool-weather vegetables that I thought had a decent chance of succeeding–lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, Spinach, and radishes. The Swiss chard and radishes were a failure, but I was very pleased with how the lettuce, kale, and spinach turned out. The plants that were successful were the first to be ready in my garden, and didn’t need any additional hardening off. Plus, since they were started outside, they didn’t take up precious window or grow light space in my modest house.
This Winter/Spring I plan on experimenting with a lot more flowers and vegetables. I’ll let you know what else I can get to work. P.S.–If you’re in a cold climate like I am, the name Winter Sowing is a bit of a misnomer, especially if you’re trying this with vegetables. I didn’t put my milk jugs out until the end of March, hoping to avoid -30 or -40 weather. In warmer climates I’d expect you could actually put yours out in Winter.
How to Get Started Winter Sowing with Milk Jugs
To start your own flowers or vegetables, you’ll need…
- Empty Milk Jugs
- Potting Soil
- A Fade-Resistant, Permanent Marker
- Duct Tape
- Garden Planner, to keep track of everything
Start by cutting the milk jug into two pieces to create a place for the soil and seeds. Fill the bottom part with potting soil and spread your seeds.
For the sake of the pictures, I left these seeds on top of the soil, so you could see how far apart I spread them. If you were doing this for real, you would push the seeds below the soil, or sprinkle on a light layer of soil over them.
Next, tape the top part of the milk jug back on and label each jug with what you planted. Write down which jug has what in your garden planner as well. Last year I thought my permanent marker would be good enough, but the sun and moisture washed it out completely by the time the plants were ready.
And that’s it! Set it and forget it until the snow melts and check on it a week or two before you’re ready to plant.
The Limitations of Winter Sowing Vegetables
Not every vegetable is a good candidate for winter sowing. Heat loving vegetables that need to be started early like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or artichokes would not do well. Avoid vegetables that don’t like to be transplanted, such as carrots, beets, or really, any root vegetable you can think of.
This year I am going to experiment with pumpkins and cucumbers, but I will put them out in their milk jugs much later–probably late April.
Vegetables don’t actually need the freeze and thaw cycles to germinate. However, this method does seem to produce much stronger starters for transplanting. As I experiment more, I will let you know what vegetables are successful and when I think the best time to put your containers out is.
If you’re using the winter sowing method to start perennial seeds, like it was intended, feel free to put your milk jugs out any time in the winter.
Have you tried winter sowing? (and in what zone?) I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.
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Kristen is a former farm kid turned urban gardener who owns the popular gardening website, Shifting Roots. She is obsessed with growing flowers and pushing the limits of what can be grown in her zone 3b garden. She also loves to grow tomatoes, but oddly enough, dislikes eating them raw.