Thursday, March 21, 2013

Winter Sowing: my first attempt

Last year I built a grow light shelf with my dad.  Well, perhaps more honestly, my dad built a grow light shelf while I chatted at him, watched him, took Instagram photos and did some sanding.  Anyway, I didn't have the best of luck with starting seeds under lights.  I'm not sure if the light bulbs weren't the right wavelength, or if it was too cold in my basement, or if the light was suspended too far from the seedlings, or the if the growing medium was too shallow, or what exactly the problem was--but most of my seedlings were leggy and those that did germinate and survive to the transplant stage didn't do well in the garden.  I'm going to give it another try this year, but I also want to try something else.

Winter sowing.

I had no idea what it even was, until I saw this fascinating post.  In a nutshell, you turn a four-litre milk jug into a mini greenhouse by punching holes in the bottom, and cutting almost all the way around the jug, approximately halfway up, leaving a little bit uncut to act as a "hinge".  Then you put potting soil in it, plant some seeds, close it up, tape it, label it, and put it outside.

In the winter.  "I beg your pardon?" you say?  Yes.  When it is snowing and cold and very un-spring-like.  Then you just let nature take its course.  You leave the cover off the jug, so that moisture in the form of rain, snow, sleet, or ice pellets can make its way in, and you wait.  Apparently, when it gets properly warm enough, your precious seeds will wake up and bid hello to the new season of growth, and you'll have vigorous seedlings that are already more or less acclimatized to the conditions.  How amazing does that sound?  I can't offer any proof yet as to its success, but in the post above the gardener mentioned that his winter-sown seedlings were stronger and more successful than his light-shelf-grown seedlings.

So I'm giving it a try!

I started with some milk jugs, some that I have saved, or some that came from a very handy source--the coffee house that I worked as a cook in last summer.  I punched holes in the bottom with a tiny little screwdriver (be careful you don't stab yourself in the hand), and I cut around with a rather dull knife (again, caution should be exercised in this step!).

I have a hard time printing neatly on the jugs...  I so don't have teacher handwriting yet!

My reliable gardening helper scooped soil, moistened it, and started planting!!  Here, a yellow bean seed.

We both think that swiss chard seeds are pretty cool.

Blurry (sorry!) but he was just so interested in how his seeds were planted, I couldn't not post a picture of him examining his work!

My darling boy also taped the jugs shut for me.

Ready to go outside!
All lined up on a bench on the back deck, waiting far more patiently than I for spring.
A few pointers:

1)  Winter sow your seeds approximately when you would plant them indoors under a grow light.  Meaning, have a look at how many weeks before the last frost date they should be planted indoors, and put them in the jug and put them outside.  So you would plant the more cold-hardy varieties first and the more tender annuals later on (I'm waiting till April to plant the tomatoes and basil, but I could be planting lots more now!).

2) Keep an eye out for seeds that sprout during warm spells when you know it is going to get cold again.  Perennial seedlings or plants that are cold hardy to your zone should be fine, but the tender ones will need to be covered up with a blanket or something at night or during cold spells to protect them from freezing.

3)  Once they do sprout, make sure they have enough water in there if it hasn't been raining for  a bit.  It gets hotter in their little "greenhouse" so you don't want them to dry out!

4)   Once it is properly spring (and not just on the calendar but you can actually enjoy the weather and the plants will do well in it!) then you can open up your greenhouses during the day.  I'll post pictures of my little plant friends when they start coming up later on this year!

5)  The gardener who inspired me to do this has this other post that explains when to plant what.  He very conveniently lives in a zone 5b area, like I do, so it was super helpful!  You could adjust it to your own plant hardiness zone.

And because it is hard on all of us to see the fruits of our labour (well, on Susannah, James and me at least, I'm not sure that Craig is waiting with baited breath), the three of us have been planting marigolds indoors.  This crop went out to fellow education students, but James and I just filled two more egg cartons with marigold seeds yesterday morning and Susannah and I planted some grapefruit seeds yesterday afternoon--I hope those come up!  I'd love even an unproductive grapefruit tree in our home. :)

Baby marigolds :)