Why Winter Sowing Perennials Works

Filled with native perennial seeds, these little greenhouses are waiting for spring.

Filled with native perennial seeds, these little greenhouses are waiting for spring.

Winter sowing perennials has been around for several years now, and is a great way to start native plants or a lot of plants without the investment in lights, seed-starting trays and the other equipment needed to start seeds indoors.

If you have not heard of it before, winter sowing involves planting  seeds in plastic containers, such as gallon milk jugs or the clam-shell containers from takeout food joints, to create mini-greenhouses. You can plant them anytime during the winter and then set them outside no matter what the weather. The theory is that the seeds know when to sprout and they will come up at the right time. Many perennials require "cold stratification" in order to germinate. This means they germinate only after their seeds have gone through cycles of freezing and thawing.
The freezing and thawing helps break open the seed coat. Here's a long list of perennials that require cold stratification, but among those familiar to northern gardeners are perennial geranium, turtlehead, hardy hibiscus, catmint, rudbeckia and sedum.

Native plants and hardy perennials are great choices for winter sowing.

Native plants and hardy perennials are great choices for winter sowing.

What are the advantages of winter sowing? 1) It gives you something to plant in the winter. 2) It's a good way to start seeds if you do not have enough space in the house or a good light source for indoor seed starting. 3) The seedlings are acclimatized to outdoor weather early on, and are less likely than indoor seedlings to faint when placed outside. Winter sowing works best on perennials that are hardy to our region, though with some modifications related to timing you can also winter sow vegetables.

Northern Gardener first wrote about winter sowing in 2009, and you can read that article in the online archives. It gives a great overview of the process and offers more ideas for which plants grow best in winter sowing containers. On these super cold days, just thinking about planting for next year lifts a gardener's spirits!


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  1. […] joined and soon became a classroom volunteer so classes were free when she helped. After taking the Winter Seed Sowing class taught by Michelle Mero Riedel, Anne planted over 50 milk jugs with […]

  2. […] About this time of year, the itch to start seed starting hits. Those late winter snowstorms send gardeners into their basements to find their lights and flats and double check their stash of seeds to make sure they have all they want. Some gardeners can’t wait even this long, and for them there is winter sowing. […]

  3. […] Sow! Have you tried winter sowing yet? It’s a budget-friendly way to start seeds outdoors in the winter without using lights or […]

  4. […] Start Seeds Indoors. You've got your vegetable seed already, right? If not, head to the nursery or your favorite online seed purveyor and choose your vegetable seeds for 2021. If catalog sellers are out of stock (and they may be), check nurseries or even hardware stories. Many have seed displays this time of year. Some plants need to be started indoors under lights. In northern climates, now is a good time to start pepper seeds, lettuce you plan to plant out early in a cold-frame or protected area, and some annuals that take awhile to get going from seed, such as snapdragons, impatiens, ageratum or larkspur. Toward the end of the month, you may want to start more lettuce or tomatoes. If you don't get to it until April, no worries. There's still time to start plants from seeds. You can also continue to set out winter sowing containers. […]

  5. […] Michelle Mero Riedel updated her guidance on winter sowing. Back in 2009, Michelle wrote about this method for starting seeds outdoors, in winter using mini greenhouses. It was one of our most popular articles ever. Her latest article […]

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