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Time to start the cold weather sowing?

Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

My GH won't be heated for another month or two, and I've got a wee bit of bench space left. Plus a big picnic table on our deck. Time to start sowing some of those "hard to germinate" perennials, huh?

Who else is starting their sowing now? Or have you already started, and I'm behind the curve?

"down the Shore", NJ(Zone 7a)

Hi go_vols, I am getting ready to start winter sowing of seeds. First will be some PawPaw trees in 1 gallon pots to accomodate the long taproots. will also be starting hemerocallis, iris, hardy hibiscus. Those will go into flats, and out onto the cold porch to germinate naturally come spring.

Last year's winter sown seed successes include:

Acer palmatum
Asclepias (white)
Ram's Horn
Veronica spicata
Iris tectorum
Carex spp.
Pennisteum 'Hamlyn'
Lagurus ovatus (Hare's Tail)
Trifolium repens
Iris foetidissima
Arilbred Iris
Albizzia julibrissin

This was a far better way than those lanky plants straining for the light indoors.


Grove City, OH(Zone 6a)

Hey there go_vols: I started my outdoor winter seed-sowing in November, for the hard-to-germinate perennials that require a cold period. The flats were sunk into the ground and covered with leaf mulch. The trays will come into the warm house under gro lights in February.

It is almost time (about 1/10) for me to start my tomato plant seeds as well as hardy annuals. Can't wait; I am getting cabin fever.

I tend to do the main sowing in late September/early October. We sow perennials throughout the year but tend to sow the main section in the beginning of autumn along with the annuals.

This year I haven't so it'll be another week or two before I begin to fill up the seed house.

Westbrook, ME(Zone 5a)

I've been thinking I need to get started too. I'll be planting my coke bottles again and sticking them out in the snow. We have lots of it this year! Last year the ground was bare when I put them out.

Wayland, KY(Zone 6a)

I intend on sowing some seed this weekend.

The attached photograph shows some plants I started last year by winter sowing.

I use a mixture of half peat moss/half perlite, and place the soiless mix in 4 inch pots. I then sow the seed on top of the soiless mix, and place a few small gravels over the seeds. I then place the pots outside, usually in January. I've use this method to start annual, biennial and perennial flowers, herbs, shrubs, trees and some vegetables.

I've been using this method for the past 6 years, and it is by far the easiest and most foolproof method I've used for starting plants.

Apparently, they've been winter sowing seeds in Europe for eons.

Thumbnail by Bluejay
"down the Shore", NJ(Zone 7a)

Bluejay, sounds like the British method, with lots of perlite and fine gravel over the seed. They would then plunge the pot into the ground... Why did it take so long for this method to become better known here? I love it as an alternative to those feeble hothouse seedlings of past years. John

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Time to plant my Pelargoniums... in fact, overdue! I'm always late with them because I get busy with the holidays. I have some of last year's plants in a friend's boiler shed wintering them over, so perhaps I'll get blooms one way or the other!

I can't set out seedlings out until June 1 since late frosts are quite common. Our heaviest snowfall is generally February & March, sometimes April. So, you can see that starting plants indoors is very important here.

I don't think that winter sowing outdoors would work here. I have sown some winter-hardy seeds directly to pots that are sunken into my raised bed, but actual winter sowing outside is probably not likely to work for me. I'm a wet zone 3, any suggestions?

Westbrook, ME(Zone 5a)

Weez - I bet there are plants that would do okay outside for you. You must have some plants that re-seed on their own in Alaska. Some of the hardy annuals and the hardy perennials?? I'd be worried about the moisture more than the temps. I think once a seed freezes it probably won't be affected until the warm temps in spring come - if it's too wet a soggy than rotting might be a problem. With covered containers you can control the moisture they get and keep them from becoming water logged. With the coke bottle greenhouses I water them once when I plant them and I don't have to water again until spring when I start removing the tops. Some seeds start germinating while there's still freezing temps in spring.

I bet some of the quick growing annuals like batchelor buttons, calendula, and candytuft might work okay. Anything that needs a long growing season probably wouldn't be worth it. Perennials won't be as large because they'll be germinating much later than plants started indoors.... but they'll be sturdy and catch up quickly. Try a little experimenting and see how it goes.

This picture is of the coke bottles I put out last year. It's funny because there was no snow on the ground... we already have about 2 1/2 feet of snow this year. I pack them in boxes to keep them from blowing around in the wind. The boxes fill up with snow and there they stay until spring. I must have planted about 75 of these bottles the first year I tried it.... and there was probably 80% germination. My zone probably doesn't get as cold as yours but my growing season isn't much longer.

Thumbnail by poppysue
Jonesboro, GA(Zone 7b)

I would think they would rot with the lids left on all winter?? Don't They need some fresh air??

Westbrook, ME(Zone 5a)

I cut 3 or 4 slits in the tops with a knife for ventilation and the bottoms all have drainage holes. Rotting hasn't been a problem.

Cortlandt Manor, NY(Zone 6a)

I have winter sowed these - about a month ago - a little early - this is the first time - so I wasn't aware of proper time.

Allium Moly
Blue Gentian
Balloon Flower
Blue Star Amsonia
Bridal Wreath
Cleome Queen Mix
Coreopsis Pink
Dames Rocket
Foxglove Mixed
Geranium pratense
Astrantia Major
2 kinds of Liatris
Malva Moschata
Peruvian Lily
Purple Coneflower -Rubinstern
Rose Campion
Sanguisorba Menziesi
Verbena Bonariersis & Verbena Hastata

"down the Shore", NJ(Zone 7a)

Weez, I would guess that any perennial plant hardy in your area would be a fine candidate for winter sowing. And planting them in pots sunk into your garden as you do definitely counts!

Alyssum, your seeds should all be fine, it must have been cold enough in your zone for them NOT to start sprouting yet. Will look forward to hearing of your results!

Cortlandt Manor, NY(Zone 6a)

I actually did have some early sprouts because of the temp flux here - but just a few. I pulled them out and put them in cell packs - but only 2 of the Dracocephalum are left. I have an indoor mini-green house so I am trying to figure out how much to leave it open and closed. I think it was closed too much and caused the plants to rot. I actually am glad to have had the chance to experiment a bit now before the early spring.

This message was edited Friday, Jan 3rd 1:03 PM

In Europe we don't winter sow so much as Autumn sow. We plant seeds either direct or in various containers in autumn. Winter is much too wet and a lot of seeds appreciate the warmth, then cold and warmth again to germinate rather than just cold and then warmth.

As for plunging sown pots in soil, that's fairly rare these days.

Cochrane, ON(Zone 2b)

This message was edited Saturday, May 3rd 9:58 PM

Cortlandt Manor, NY(Zone 6a)

Baa -- I guess the gravel helps keep crown rot away? Maybe I will put some on top of mine--and it won't keep the sprouts from coming up? When do you transplant yours out into bigger pots? (Your sprouts look pretty tall in the picture.) Or do you just thin them out and plant them direct?


(that's not a Baa photo*G*)

The gravel toppings are used with some seeds to keep moisture in and slimey pests out as well as help prevent a bit of rot. The seedlings will come up through the gravel (I've seen a delicate mushroom break through concrete, the strongest survive)

I don't sow too closely together so the seedlings have more time in one pot (less work for me and less disturbance for them). I try to avoid 'pot swapping' seedlings as far as possible. Any transplants into another pot are done at the 2 to 4 true leaf stage.

Jonesboro, GA(Zone 7b)

I don't have any gravel, but I'll bet Perlite would do the same thing. I got a big bag of it (3cu. ft) for $12.95

Cortlandt Manor, NY(Zone 6a)

OOPS!! I guess I should be addressing Bluejay in KY.

Thanks Azalea, I have a bag of perlite in my garage.

Wayland, KY(Zone 6a)

Pardancanda----I too don't understand why winter ( or Autumn) sowing is not more popular here. I first became aware of it when I received some Alpine plant seeds from a gentleman in Germany. He was kind enough to give me instructions on how to start the seeds. By coincidence, at that time I was also reading a book by Sydney Eddison in which she interviewed two gentlemen in New England. Each year they were starting two thousand pots of plants by winter sowing.

I had been trying for years to start perennials under grow lights, only to have them succumb to dampening-off, or becoming too leggy. Then there was the ordeal of hardening them off. I now basically use my grow lights for tomatoes and tender annuals.

Weezingreens--- I agree with Poppysue that you should at least experiment with a couple of varieties to see if it will work in your climate. ( I notice that Baa is in Zone 9a and Broots is in Zone 2b, so it apparently works over a wide range). Many perennials won't bloom the first year anyway, so even if they're late germinating, they should be well established by the end of the summer for next year's garden.

Alyssum---I've had seeds germinate in January, but I just leave them in the pots, exposed to the elements. It's amazing what they can tolerate---freezing temperatures, hail, sleet, snow, etc.

I use a large amount of perlite in the soiless mix to promote drainage. In addition to what Baa stated, the gravel on top of the soil probably acts as a mulch, and it also prevents all of the seed from washing to one side of the pot during a rainfall event.


"down the Shore", NJ(Zone 7a)

Azalea, perlite worked great for that when I winter-sowed some Iris species.

Bluejay, I tried direct-sowing some tomato seeds outside in the spring at the same time I transplanted the ones babied under lights. You guessed it, the direct-sown seeds soon sprouted, and the plants quickly overtook the 'hothouse' plants.

Wayland, KY(Zone 6a)

Alyssum---sorry, I forgot to answer your question concerning when to transplant from the pots. The answer is: it depends on the variety of plant. The entire pot of plants can be planted with some plants such as dianthus and mints (no matter how crowed the plants are they seem to do okay). But, with the majority of the plants, I just seperate them ( with the soiless mix they seperate easily, usually with the entire root system intact). I then directly plant them in the garden. I usually wait until a cloudy/rainy day, and rarely lose a plant.

In retrospect, it would probably be better to sow only a few seeds to each pot, and eliminate the need to disturb the plants root system.

Pardancanda--- Sounds interesting concerning the direct sowing of the tomatoes. Will give it a try during the upcoming growing season.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

PoppySue: I recall your pop bottle gardening technique from an older thread. I think it included so instructions, etc. Do you know where I could find that thread? I'd like to give it a try, since it would, indeed limit the amount of moisture the seeds would absorb.

I'm sure that there are things I could winter sow, such as perennials, but they get such a slow start, and are still quite small all summer. As suggested, I have self-seeders such as myosotis sylvatica (forget-me-not) that reseed all the time. Columbine, dianthus, bellis, Iceland poppy, and sometimes foxglove will reseed here. In those cases, I'd just as soon let nature winter sow the seeds for me.

My interest in fall or winter sowing would be to avoid some of the labor intensive propagation requirements of certain seeds. Some need to pop in and out of the refrigerator so often, that it's a wonder I haven't topped a salad with them! If my climate can create the proper stratification, then the off season outdoor propagation would be great. As you all say, I should experiment.

Westbrook, ME(Zone 5a)

Weez - here's the old thread. It certainly frees up a lot of space under the lights.

Newnan, GA(Zone 8a)

I wonder if flats under a cold frame would be the same???

"down the Shore", NJ(Zone 7a)

tiG, I'd imagine a cold frame would retain a lot more heat, and probably give a head start to the seedlings, rather then them sprouting 'naturally' when the weather warms up enough. Should be fine, just more work, and probably have to make sure to keep the top of the cold frame open or shut depending on how hot it gets?

Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

And (speaking from experience here), the coldframe/unheated GH means you have to remember to WATER them, since Mother Nature isn't having direct contact with them :)

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Thanks for the link, PoppySue. Now I've got to start drinking some soft drinks! DH drinks his diet coke in cans. I'm definitely going to give this a try, and since our winters are so long, I've got time to work on it.

When I was a child, my father used to start his tomato plants in a 'hot bed'. He had small raised bed in which he dropped fresh cow manure or chicken manure, then topsoil. He used an old window as a cover. The manure would begin composting, heating the soil, then germinating the seeds. Once they broke ground, he could adjust the window with a wedge or some blocking to accomodate height and temp. As I recall, he got a very early start that way.

Grove City, OH(Zone 6a)

Baa, why aren't pots sunk into the ground anymore in Europe? The continual thaw/freeze in my area does a lot of damage if I don't sink my pots, or otherwise surround them with mulch. I am in favor of trying new methods that mean a lot less work! Trying to match a hole in the heavy clay soil with a flat is very difficult.

I also prepare nursery beds for some of my very pernickety seeds. Every year I choose a different shady area and spend the summer enriching the soil, getting a really good seedbed ready for fall sowing. Plants sown direct into the nursery bed are usually ones that resent transplanting for a long time. Having them all gathered into one place makes it easy to keep a close eye on them, give them lots of the TLC they need to survive their first year.

Of course I also do a nursery bed in sun every year too. A new piece of the vegetable garden for this every year.

Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

Weezin, if the method works well for you, you could get your sunken beds ready in the fall, when the ground is (theoretically) dry(ier) and warm(er) than now (after the fall we experienced, I wouldn't claim this is always the case!)

But digging it out and covering with a tarp, or filling in with spaceholding pots or flats should be easier than digging through frozen soil....brrrr!

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

My father gardened in Indiana, which is similar to Lupinlover's clime. He probably had the spot dug out and covered ready for early spring. I don't think it would work here because spring and fall are so incredibly wet here in Seward. (I had water in my basement for three months this fall.) The hotbed method would work fine where early spring brings warm temps and lots of sun, but that's not here!

Now, the pop bottle option appeals to me because it could set them up before we get completely snowed in, then set them in a protected area that gets a bit for sun, but not a lot of snow. In early spring, we can be surrounded by three or four feet of snow around here.

Because our growing season is so short, we have to get a headstart on most planting. That is why I start so much indoors. I really don't think annuals would work well here with outdoor propagation, but biennials and perennials are surely a possibility, and freeing up space under the lights is always a welcome proposition.


I can't speak for Europe nor do I know if they sink pots there. I've never seen it done in my lifetime in England is what I meant. In the UK long term cold such as you experience hasn't been seen since the Victorian times when we had a mini ice-age.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Oh, Baa! Have to laugh! What a coincidence... a mini ice-age and Queen Victoria all at the same time. All that chill and cozying up such a forbidden fruit!

For years I have buried pots in the soil to give perennials protection over the winter. This fall, I sowed some of my more difficult perennial seeds into pots so that God could do the stratification. It is much easier to move the pots with the seedlings in them than to disturb broadcast seedlings in the beds in the spring.

Baa: What sort of winter temps do you get in Hampshire?

People could skate on the Thames! Strange times, probably some sort of reaction the the decadence of the 1700s.

As for winter temps, in Hampshire we can get as cold as 20F (gasp, fetch me a duvet) for a few days but in the main we waiver between the mid 30's a low 40's between now and March. That's if it isn't raining of course.

The photo is a perfect exampl of why sinking pots isn't a feisable option here.

Thumbnail by Baa
Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

Ah, yes, Baa! This is what my yard looks like during spring breakup. We get temps in the upper 30's and even 40's in the winter months. Our greatest snowfall occurs after the first of the year. Here, if it's too cold to rain, it could easily be snowing. We enjoy some of the mildest Alaskan temps other than Southeastern and the Aleutian Chain.

As for sinking the pots, it occurs to me that I've not mentioned that most gardening is done in raised beds here, so that satisfies the drainage issue. In fact, most of my pots of mints, etc. are buried in the soil of a bed that is raised about 2 or three feet off the ground. Poor drainage is the the death knell for many plants in our soggy climate.

"down the Shore", NJ(Zone 7a)

Baa, my friend Cilicium, from UK, still uses "plunge beds", areas he prepares whereby there is a bed made with sand into which he plunges his pots especially for starting alpines.


You said it! Very often it is the wet roots that kill plants not the frost. This is the border we made earlier this year, unfortunately the wall behind it is weak so we would have to lose a few feet of border to make a raised bed but it's something we have to do considering this problem. Turns out the garden slopes very slightly to this point so all the run off (including the duck pond) goes here, but gardens under water aren't an unusual scene anyway.


When you said in your post "They would then plunge the pot into the ground", I, quite wrongly as it turns out, thought you meant ground as in terrafirma ;D.

Alpine enthusiasts do indeed use the sand bed method as do some who specialise in hardy plants from drier climates. But it's still not a common method among your average, bog standard gardener.

Seward, AK(Zone 3b)

I like that idea, Pardancanda. It would certainly be easier than hollowing out the soil, and the drainage would be good. I could probably do this in my gravel (we have lots of gravel here!). Last fall a friend gave me a couple flats of perennial seedlings that were planted in shale gravel. They wintered over better than all the others, so I think drainage is the key here.

Grove City, OH(Zone 6a)

Baa, it sounds like you have the makings for a wonderful bog garden. Or is that not done where you live?

I have an area in my garden that looks like that for 4 months of the year: from the winter snow/rain beginning in January until early May there is at least a couple of inches of standing water from an underground stream. Alas, the stream frequently dries up during the summer dry spells, so I would have to provide an artificial water source to maintain the bog year-round. It presents a real dilemma! Raising the area would require at least a dozen cubic yards of soil, and the thought of carting it all around to the back is too daunting!

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