Updated: September 2, 2020
What is winter sowing? The simple answer is winter sowing is when you recycle containers to make mini greenhouses and use them to start growing plants in the middle of winter. This gardening technique has become popular over the years because it’s an inexpensive way to get your gardening fix while it’s still cold.
It was invented when the Internet was young by Trudi Davidoff at WinterSown.org. Davidoff’s method allows plants to experience the cold winter and warm up naturally as they would naturally.
Essentially, it takes the normal growing season and moves it up a few weeks and maybe even a month or two.
Winter sowing not perfect
But winter sowing has its limitations. Namely places that have very cold winters won’t see any real growing until winter is almost over. So it’s not much help.
Instead, why not just grow vegetables all winter long under the grow lights? After all, inexpensive LED lights don’t use much electricity and your home is already heated to the right growing temperature.
Related: Growing Lettuce and Other Salad Greens in the Winter
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Winter sowing has advantages
After looking at indoor growing under the lights and winter sowing, I decided to go with winter sowing for the same reason that Davidoff did. I simply didn’t have enough room for both salad greens and vegetable seedlings under the lights.
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Now, it’s the end of February and I’ve got a thick carpet of arugula and lettuce growing in containers that I need to thin. While I’ll only be eating micro greens thinned from winter sown containers, it will be the first fresh (not store bought) vegetables I’ve eaten since November.
Winter sowing, when used together with a cold frame, moves your plants two USDA plant zones to the south.— Suburban Hobby Farmer
I also have endive and bunch onions growing in winter sown containers, but they are not ready to eat yet.
In fact, the bunch onions that I started indoors later in the winter are much bigger than the winter sown onions. This is probably because we had such a long, cold, snowy winter here in southern New Hampshire.
To learn more about this cold frame, perfect for protecting winter sown pots, click here.
Plants start growing sooner with two layers
To combat the cold, I used a trick adapted from Eliot Coleman’s book Four-season Harvest. Coleman uses row covers inside his hoop houses to grow vegetables when it’s cold.
He believes that this two layer system increases the growing temperature to the point where it’s the same as moving your lettuce two USDA plant zones to the south. Coleman is a bright guy.
I used the same two layer tactic in a simpler, cheaper way.
First, I put the seeds in winter sowing containers using the normal practice.
Then, I put the containers inside my cold frame, which abuts a south facing cement wall. This helped the greens germinate in spite of the low temperatures in March that were frequently in the single digits (Fahrenheit).
Winter sowing containers in a cold frame are an example of what I call double protected culture.
Cold frames, row covers, hoop houses, polytunnels and high tunnels are all techniques of a plant growing method called protected culture.
You’ve heard of “agriculture” and probably “aquaculture.” Lately, a lot of backyard growers are also talking about “permaculture.” “Protected culture” is like those. It refers to growing plants using protection from the elements.
Double protected culture is when you combine two protected culture methods together.
Winter salad greens
My arugula, which was from open pollinated seeds passed to me from my father in law, did best. The Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce did pretty well, too.
I’ve got a second batch of winter sown arugula and romaine lettuce that I started at the end of March. (Is it still winter sown if the calendar says spring? Even if there’s still a thick blanket of snow on the ground? I don’t know.) The seeds are just now starting to sprout.
If you try it
If you decide at some point in the future to use winter sowing containers inside a cold frame or a hoop house, keep in mind that the containers dry out very fast.
Related: Letting the Summer Garden Go
You have to be careful that the temperatures inside the containers doesn’t get too hot. I lost some lettuce and onions because I didn’t water a couple of containers in time.
Still … recycled milk jugs, left over organic potting soil, saved seeds … it’s a pretty inexpensive way to extend your harvest into winter. There’s also no need for grow lights, making it a pretty green way to grow greens.
A container of organic greens cost $4, $5 or $6 in the grocery store.
Of course, there’s no comparison between home grown and store bought when it comes to taste and probably nutrients, too. Not to mention that store bought organic salad greens go bad a few days after you bring them home.
Plus, depending on where you live, I’m sure it takes a ton of fossil fuels to transport the greens from the farm to your store.
Of course, you have to be willing to water in the cold, which isn’t as pleasant as in the summer.
Related articles that might interest you:
- I Shopped Around for Hoop House Kits. Here’s What I Learned
- A Backyard Hoop House is a Tomato Growing Machine!
- Grow Millions of Cucumbers in a Backyard Hoop House
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