Guide to Winter Sowing

You want to start your garden from seed, but maybe you don’t have a greenhouse or a grow light set-up. Perhaps you don’t have time and attention to devote to needy seedlings. You’re in good company. Winter sowing has been a game-changer for my little backyard garden. It is so simple and low-maintenance, and I have had great success with it every time. I hope you’ll give it a try in your own garden this year.

Affiliate disclosure: as an Amazon Associate, I may earn commissions from qualifying purchases made from links in this post.

What is winter sowing?

Winter sowing is a method of seed starting that involves sowing your seeds in milk jugs or similar recycled containers and leaving them outdoors to freeze, thaw, and eventually germinate when conditions are optimal. There is no watering necessary, no calculating last frost dates or trying to figure out the best time to start your seeds.

My favorite part about winter sowing is that it allows me to get my hands in the dirt long before its time for me to start seeds indoors. My last frost date is not until late May, more often early June. It is very difficult for me to hold off all the way until mid APRIL before planting anything. So winter sowing keeps me from getting ahead of myself, and quite frankly it helps keep me sane through February and early March.

Seed list for winter sowing

The one tiny drawback to winter sowing is it will not work with every type of seed. Your tomatoes and peppers, for example, are not going to be too happy to germinate if they’ve been freezing and thawing for several months straight. Anything that doesn’t transplant well should also be avoided. This environment is conducive, however, to many other kinds of seeds. Look on your seed packet for phrases like “cold stratification” “direct sow in spring” “direct sow in fall” “cold tolerant” or “perennial”. If it says any of these things on the seed packet, chances are it will work great for winter sowing.

Here I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite vegetables, flowers, and herbs for winter sowing. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a few I’ve had success with and some I’ll be trying this year. If you’re unsure about a variety, I’d encourage you just to try it! You’ll never know unless you try. You’ll only be out a couple of seeds and a bit of dirt if you fail, so pretty low stakes. Worth it if you ask me.

  • spinach
  • lettuce
  • kale
  • chard
  • broccoli
  • chamomile
  • cosmos
  • butterfly weed
  • foxglove
  • hollyhock
  • cilantro
  • dill
  • parsley
  • oregano
  • thyme

When to start winter sowing

If you’re in a cold climate like I am, you don’t need to overthink this too much. I’ve winter sown in December, January, and even as late as March all with great success. If its still winter, its going to work out just fine. And if you’re a bit late and temps are starting to warm up, you can still give it a go! The greenhouse effect of the milk jugs will likely still give you a leg up over direct sowing. The only time you need to worry about exact timing is if you’re starting a seed that requires cold stratification. In this case, you’re going to want to make sure you give it enough time out in the cold before the weather warms up.

Needed Materials

You’ll need just a few things for this project, most of which you can likely find around your house. I start hoarding milk jugs around January, and as soon as they begin to pile up I get started on my winter sowing.

You’ll need:

Step 1: Prep your containers

First, you’ll want to get your containers ready. Make sure you have washed them out thoroughly with soap and water. You won’t be needing the lid, so you can discard that. Use your scissors or a knife to poke some drainage holes in the bottom. Be sure to do this first, before you start cutting.

Then, starting about halfway up, start cutting around the milk jug, leaving one side or at least a section intact so that it can hinge open and closed.

Pre-moisten your soil and fill the bottom of your containers.

Step 2: Label and sow seeds

Here’s your friendly reminder to label your containers! Then, go ahead and sow your seeds, covering them up with a bit of soil. Don’t worry too much about spacing. These will all be transplanted out of the milk jug before they get too big, so they won’t need too much room. I like to sow my seeds quite densely, sometimes even doing a few rows of different varieties in each jug. You can get quite a lot of plants out of each one if you plant them this way. Make sure the soil is evenly moist, and tape your little greenhouse closed. Leave the top hole uncovered so that moisture and air can get inside.

Step 3: Watch and wait

Place your milk jugs outside, somewhere sheltered but not completely covered. Then go back into your warm cozy home and wait until spring. Seriously, there’s not much more to it! The snow and rain should keep the soil adequately moist, but you can check up on them every once in a while if you’re concerned. Just be careful of over-watering.

Here is where my little winter sowing greenhouses live. Truthfully, they’re not the prettiest to look at so I try to keep them out of sight, tucked behind a few planters.

When the weather does start to warm up, you will want to watch for germination. Once you see sprouts, you’ll need to open up the milk jug on warmer days so that your seedlings don’t get overheated. You’ll want to monitor moisture levels more closely during this time as well. You can replace the cover for added protection at night if your nighttime temperatures are still chilly. As soon as your plants are big enough and your garden is ready, go ahead and plant them out!

I have always been so impressed with how strong and sturdy my seedlings are from winter sowing. You don’t have to harden them off or anything. They have survived the freezing and thawing of winter and early spring, they germinated outdoors on their own when the time was right, and they are all the more vigorous for it. I’ll be sure to give an update on how these seedlings do throughout the gardening season!

I hope you’ll give winter sowing a try this year! I’d love to see what creative ideas you come up with and how you’re making it work for your garden. If you try it out, tag me on instagram (@vine.and.harvest) and let me know!

Until next time,



1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s