Monday, November 4, 2013

Winter Seed Starting

An article I wrote for the winter edition of the newsletter printed by the botanical garden I worked at.

“Is it spring yet?”  That is a question you may hear me ask anywhere from Christmas onward, much like an anxious child on a long trip.  I have heard that a true gardener enjoys all seasons, and indeed I do, but there is something special about the rebirth that occurs during spring.  Winter erases the previous year’s mistakes, and the bounty of garden catalogs inspires dreams of new plants as far as the eye can see … or at least to the edge of my property.

Even though it will be awhile yet before I can get out and plant in the garden, there is still a plenty of prep work that can be done now.  For instance, ordering seeds and plants.  It is not easy narrowing an order down to a size somewhat smaller than the catalog it is made from.

Seriously, for those who like a great deal and larger selection, seeds are the way to go, and it is a good time to get started.  There are a lot of inexpensive germination mats and grow lights that help to get a jump start on the season and satisfy the need to “play in the dirt.”

This is also an excellent time to start seeds that need stratification.  “Strat-i-fi-what?” you ask. Simply put, some seeds need to experience winter before they will germinate.  This is why many people consider themselves a failure when it comes to starting seeds.  For some seeds, the pre-chilling can be as simple as throwing the pack of seeds in the freezer for a few weeks.  Some people use zipper bags with some sort of moistened growing medium to put the seeds in before placing them in the refrigerator.  I am not sure Grandma would eat from our fridge if she found something containing “dirt” in it.

What works best for me is to let nature do the work.  I put potting soil (either high quality or a germinating mix) into a pot, moisten it well, sprinkle the seeds on top, cover the pot with a sandwich bag to protect the seeds and hold in moisture, and sit the pots outside in a somewhat sheltered area.  For me, under the eaves on the south side of my house is perfect.  Unless I know the seeds require covering with soil (larger seeds or ones that require darkness), I generally do not, as some seeds require light to germinate. Though I try to get the seeds out by mid-January, it can still be successfully done as long as there are at least a few weeks of cold weather left.  I have used this method for the past couple of years, and have had very good germination rates with it. When the temperature is right, the pots burst with seedlings.

How do you know if the seeds you have need stratification? It may be on the seed package, but often times it is not. My rule of thumb is, if it is a perennial hardy in my area, I give it the cold treatment. This technique will not work for most vegetables, annuals or perennials not hardy in your area.  I seldom plant the entire package of seeds at once so as not to have an overabundance of seedlings to thin out. This also provides backup in case of a crop failure.

So the next time you are at the store or are browsing a garden catalog, allow yourself to be enticed by a package of seeds that may have intimidated you in the past. You can be successful if you work with nature.


  1. Great article. Just like Winter Sowing, just a variation of it. What I love about this method is that you don't have to buy lights, harden plants off in the spring or anything else. I plan on doing this in January with milk jugs. But If I run out of them, which I probably will as I have tons of seeds to start, I will be using your method. :)

    My only question is about seed starting soil. I was thinking of purchasing potting soil now. What would you recommend?

  2. I always used quality potting soil. Definitely a good idea to get now because it can be hard to find out of season.

  3. I will be getting that in the next couple of days then for sure. Thanks for letting me hog your blog and answering all my questions! I appreciate it!

  4. Not a problem. I've enjoyed it. :D