Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Kids in The Garden: Winter Sowing

Winter sowing is an awesome way to get some seeds started, and get your hands in some dirt in the middle of winter. The basic idea is to plant seeds in a 'mini- greenhouse'- then put them outside and let them sprout naturally when the time is right. The seeds will only sprout when it's warm enough to do so- the only danger is if you get a freak warm spell- and the seeds start to germinate and grow- and then you get freezing temps again. We don't often have that here- and if it did happen then all you need to do is take them inside. The greenhouse (I use milk jugs- cut most of the way around the equator- leave a little flap to keep the 'lid' attached and with holes poked in the bottom), will keep the plants protected at night, and will amplify the sun during the day- plus they catch the snow and rain. It's a good system - especially with seeds that need to be cold stratified (they need to freeze and thaw to break the seed coat) to germinate. What I like about it is that it frees up space and time when I need to start planting things indoors- because I can start them early to no ill-effects (as long as it's too cold for them to germinate outside the seeds will be safe)- also it's a great project to get kids to help with.

I've had mixed results with this method- here are some things I think work best:

Pick seeds that would self sow naturally in your garden or your area. that means that if they fall on the ground one year and then sprout the next- you can be sure to get some plants growing in your milk jugs.

Often in my area- they plants in the containers are slow to start- and I've found that for most annual flowers I'll often get blooms faster if I just direct seed in the garden. Lavatera, Nigella, Baby's Breath and Calendula all were much bigger when I planted them in early spring direct in the ground.

Perennials work great- and are worth the effort and time. I planted one jug of Creeping thyme for a walkway in my herb area- and it was big enough to transplant in July. That seems late- but actually it's perfect because it gives you a bit of time to get the annuals in the ground, and the veggies sorted out.

You need a sheltered area- from the wind - but one that allows full sun exposure too. This is tricky.

I've also found that keeping the container in a big sled or something is great for moving them here and there- but- it also keeps the water in during a rainfall- and even if you dump it right after- the seeds will still have floated around in there- some getting deeper- and some getting too waterlogged- and all getting messed up. This really affects germination- I've always had one or two plants come up- but sometimes no more than that- I'm not sure what the solution is - probably a sled with drainage holes in the bottom.

Some plants that really work well: Bachelors Buttons produce like crazy, my sister has had great success with Lettuce, Echinacea is not bad either, and Creeping Thyme. I'll let you know how the others fare this year...

Okay so on to the project:

Step 1: collect milk jugs and make greenhouses- there are tons of tutorials online for winter sowing, or making mini-greenhouses out of recyclables- be imaginative!

Step 2: fill with dirt- I like to put a thin layer on teh bottom and tamp down really well- the girls love to do this- then if you're going to add a slow release fertilizer this is the place to do it. Then fill with the rest of the dirt. I also like to wet my soil (or pro-mix- a sterile growing medium), first- and then mix it around to make sure it absorbs the water well. Fill the jug with about 2-3 inches of soil- gently pat down.

Step 4: Label the jugs- with the variety, and the date - just for curiosity's sake.

Step 3: Sprinkle on your seeds- not too many- but more than the amount of plants you want- if you have small children- getting enough seeds in there won't be a problem, trust me.

this is a good step to get some learning in- I usually let them hold each of the seeds and then we talk about it's shape and why it would be like that- tiny snap dragon seeds in the top photo, and giant hollyhock seeds in the bottom. Talk about the ways that seeds are spread out- by wind or animals, or just by dropping on the ground. Hollyhocks are big tall flowers- so they have papery wings to catch the wind and spread out.

Step 4: Once the seeds are in- gently cover them up and tamp them down again- then water the jug gently and tape up the sides.

Step 5: take the jugs outside and find a place to dump them. this year I'm trying under a spruce tree- facing south. I had to shovel out a little spot for them.

Step 6: Cover the jugs up with snow- or not- if you live somewhere with no snow (but then if you live somewhere with no snow- you should probably just put the seeds in the ground, and call it a day).

That's it- don't forget to check them when the weather warms up, and water accordingly, also on extra warm days you will probably want to open the lids so that the plants don't heat up. Also here's an awesome link for kids info on seeds here at the university of Illinois "Great Plant Escape".

What do think? will you try a couple of jugs this year?

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  1. Hmmm. My comment disappeared. Trying again.

    I've had good luck doing a similar thing in a cold frame. I sew lettuces in the late fall and they sprout whenever they're ready in the spring. It's a great way to get a head start. As for kids in the garden, mine is young enough to be happy with a shovel and some dirt. The trick is getting her to dig in the right dirt, where she won't disrupt anything important.

    I hear you've had a very cold winter in your neck of the woods, so full marks for starting your garden. Happy sewing.

  2. I would've never thought of a "snow garden", hope things will work out and lots of little plants will start growing soon!

  3. I've never heard of this. A fun idea. Have you seen Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots by Sharon Lovejoy? Other neat stuff to share with kids.