Have you ever wanted to start your garden early? Well now you can, with the practice of winter sowing in milk jugs. You’ll be able to stay productive through the winter months and then hit the ground running as spring arrives.
The idea of sowing seeds in winter might have some of you scratching your heads in confusion. I assure you though, it’s a rewarding endeavor. You see, every season has something to offer us, there is always work to be done, and even during the coldest parts of the year, the garden awaits!
Gardening during the winter comes with a variety of options too. Some people like to plant cold-hardy edibles in the fall and harvest them throughout the winter. Others like to start seeds early in preparation for spring, either indoors or outdoors. Depending upon how ambitious you are, you can utilize all of these options.
Whichever methods you prefer, giving your seedlings a head start is a smart way to extend the growing season, especially if you live in the Northeast like I do.
Today, I would like to share one of my favorite winter gardening practices with you. Let’s explore how to start seeds outside in milk jugs. It’s fun and super easy, even for beginners. Before long, you’ll be doing it like a pro.
What is Winter Sowing?
Most people are familiar with spring sowing, which usually involves sowing seeds outside after the risk of frost has passed. However, as you grow and expand your gardening know-how, you’ll realize opportunities in the garden are endless, as savvy gardeners and farmers alike are always coming up with new innovations.
Winter sowing involves the practice of sowing seeds outside in soil-filled containers. Here in Connecticut (zone 6a) I like to start my seeds sometime in January.
Winter sowing in milk jugs is a fabulous gardening method because it can be performed during the coldest and most severe times of the winter season, even when it’s well below freezing outside. Best of all, this process is low maintenance. Once you’ve sown your seeds, and apart from occasionally watering them, you can basically forget about them until spring. This method supports a seed’s natural life cycle and facilitates its natural processes.
Why Winter Sowing in Milk Jugs?
Clear plastic milk jugs or other similar containers protect your seeds while also allowing for ventilation, moisture retention, and heat capture. In short, milk jugs are like miniature greenhouses for your young plants. They will protect your seedlings through winter and give them an advantage as the weather begins to warm with the arrival of spring. Additionally, upcycling your milk jugs for use in the garden keeps them out of the landfill.
How to Prepare and Use Your Milk Jugs
For winter sowing in milk jugs, you’ll need your containers, preselected seeds, strong tape, scissors, a box cutter, garden gloves, organic potting soil, a hand trowel, and weatherproof garden markers.
- First and foremost, keep and collect your used milk jugs or other plastic containers. Rinse and clean them well. When you’re ready, find a spacious table to work on, either inside or outside is fine.
- Begin to label your milk jugs with a permanent marker. Include the date and name of the plant.
- Then cut a few drainage holes in the bottom of your milk jugs.
- Next, take your milk jugs and cut them mostly in half (horizontally) just below the handle. However, we don’t want to completely separate the top of the jug from the bottom. Instead, we want to create a hinge. Your hinge can be located on one corner or on a flat side of the jug. For this step, you can use a box cutter or scissors, whichever you’re more comfortable with. If using a box cutter, be sure to cut away from your body and hands, for safety. You may also want to put down a protective mat to protect your table surface from unwanted nicks and cuts.
- Your jug should now open fully while the top of the jug is still attached to its bottom portion. During this step, we are opening up the jug so that we can deposit soil in the bottom. Keep in mind that we will want to close the top of the jug and position it back in place above the bottom later on. The caps are not needed and can be discarded.
- To begin sowing your seeds, put a generous amount of soil into the base of the jug. Your soil depth should be about 3 to 4 inches deep, depending on the size of your jug. For taller jugs, you can add more soil.
- Take some of the seeds you would like to sow and space them on the surface of the soil. For smaller seeds, you can sprinkle a light dusting of soil to cover them. For larger seeds, add more soil on top. You can also push the seeds down into the soil to the desired depth. Generally, seeds should be planted to a depth of 2 times their width. Super tiny seeds may not need to be covered at all. Read the planting instructions on the seed packet for individual requirements.
- Water your seeds well so that the soil is moist but not sopping wet. You can pat down the soil gently, but you don’t want to compact it.
- Now you’re ready to fit the top of the jug back into place and begin to seal up the seams with durable tape. Ideally, you want to find a clear tape with a strong adhesive hold. Strong gorilla tape will also work, as it has a strong adhesive grip and will be able to endure the harsh winter elements. Also noteworthy, you can use glued-in zippers (instead of tape) if using more durable containers with a heavier plastic structure. Using zippers is a handy option for containers you wish to use repeatedly, year after year.
- Once you’ve sealed up all your milk jugs, you can place them directly outside in your garden. Shade is best to prevent early sprouting.
- As winter comes to a close, the jugs can be moved to a place with morning sun. When temperatures approach 60 degrees during the day, you’ll want to open up your containers to prevent scorching and then seal them up again at night. When spring fully comes in and the risk of frost has passed, you’ll be able to open up your jugs and place your vibrant seedlings right into the ground.
Soil for Winter Sowing in Milk Jugs
Choose a nutrient-dense potting soil with lots of well-composted organic matter mixed in. Miracle Grow puts out a nice organic general-purpose potting soil for container gardening for vegetables or flowers.
If using your own soil, you may want to fertilize your plants in the spring with a compost tea. Worm castings work great, fish emulsion is reliable, rabbit droppings are excellent too, or you can simply purchase a premade organic fertilizer from your local garden supply store.
Selecting Your Seeds
You will want to choose cold-hardy seeds for this process. Additionally, if your seeds require stratification to come out of dormancy, you may want to start winter sowing in milk jugs in December or early January. Some seeds actually benefit from the cold and can only germinate after enduring the extended chills of winter. Other cold-hardy seeds (that don’t need stratification) can be sown in February and March.
With the winter sowing in milk jugs method you can grow perennial flowers, herbs, veggies, and native shrubs or trees. Vegetables like kale, lettuce, collard greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, bee balm, and leeks do really well with winter sowing in milk jugs.
Here are my two favorite places to buy seeds:
It is such a joy being active in the garden all year. There is always something to look forward to, as mother nature continually blesses us with her bounty.
With every season, there are fresh harvests, lessons to be learned, and new things to be discovered. Best of all, when we grow our own medicine and food, we have the satisfaction of knowing they are truly organic, nutrient-dense, and wholesome.
If you’re like me and adore plants, you already understand how much fun it is to plan out your garden. During the bleakest and most dreary times of the year, you can take pleasure in mapping out your spring beds, choosing your plants, and starting your seeds early. This winter, look ahead with me and anticipate the soon arrival of spring.
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