Updated: Mar 21, 2022
Also known as: winter sowing
One impossible thing I did was work with a five-year-old on a project that I cared about!
I have been gardening in small pots for some years now, but really went in for it when we moved back to the US in 2017. We have always rented since then, so I have not installed an in-ground garden, but rather grow my herbs and vegetables in pots on my porch. After moving from Costa Rica, where the tropical climate means that every day is part of a growing season, gardening in Indiana seemed stunted and painfully short.
Last year I followed my cousin Jana’s advice (which I love so much that I had her on a guest author on the blog) and tried starting my garden in milk jugs in late winter. I remember that my mom was visiting around the time I was going to put the seeds in the soil (in the jugs) and she seemed doubtful that it would be a good idea to leave tiny baby seeds outside in sub-freezing temperatures.
It was my first time, so I wasn’t 100% certain myself, except that I had heard from others that this winter sowing method, as it’s called, is nearly fool-proof. Great! I thought, because every time I have tried to grow plants from seeds for my patio pot garden, I fry the seedlings as soon as I take them outside.
This failure at starting seeds indoors meant that I would plant my pot garden each year with seedlings purchased at nurseries. Not necessarily a bad thing, though slightly expensive and also depressingly late in the season. My mind and body were itching for spring and time digging in the dirt long before the Mother’s Day frost deadline.
And so I tried it last year. The seeds went in the first of March, and the milk jugs sat on the south facing porch of our house. Some of them took a while to pop up inside their little make-shift greenhouses, and once they did some of those stayed small for some weeks. But then grow they did! By the time Mother’s Day rolled around, my tomatoes had filled the entire milk jug and were poking leaves out of the top.
I couldn't believe that I had grown this plant from a tiny seed. One humble seed from a tomato became quite a few more tomatoes the next year. Wow.
For me, winter sowing was a way to just be successful at starting plants from seeds. No burning up seedlings at their first meeting with the direct sunshine. No need for grow lights. No taking plants in and out of doors when temps dipped below freezing. They were just out there, starting in early March, rain, shine, heat, or freeze. The greenhouse of the milk jug keeps them at least 10 degrees warmer than the outside temp, which is just enough in March in Indiana to get healthy seedlings.
This coming weekend, March 12, I’ll be co-facilitating a workshop on Winter Sowing that’s being held in conjunction with my friends at the Calumet Artist Residency, Living Green Garden, and the IUN Theatre Department. Those folks all know gardening better than I do, and they are pointing out that what winter sowing is really doing is extending the growing season for gardeners and farmers. In other words, conquering the freezing temperatures that would otherwise make growing anything impossible in January, February, March.
Our local farmers already know this, as many have had harvests all winter, or are harvesting spinach now in early March in their hoop houses, or are planting cool weather crops right into the ground as we speak. A simple intervention such as a greenhouse or hoop house or low tunnel can add weeks or months to a growing season shortened by winter.
This concept is quite amazing. It reminds me of Gustavo Esteva’s definition of “health,” in the great book “The Development Dictionary.” He says health is “the autonomous ability to cope with our environment.” Meaning, basically, that our environment deals us certain hands that can lead to illness, and our resilience in these moments can either be something we manage, or something we pay for for. The idea of using medicinal plants, home remedies, and preventative measures (all strategies relied upon in places where industrialized medical care is expensive or unavailable) is really a strength, not a weakness.
I can see how winter sowing fits into this line of thought. Here’s a brief how-to, which I think is also applicable to other areas of our lives.
Step 1: Plan ahead
It does take a little pre-planning to winter sow. Some people who know how to save seeds will be thinking ahead from the previous year’s harvest, which is more advanced planning than I am currently doing. Perhaps this year I’ll learn more about saving my own seeds. But for now, I start my planning in January (but could potentially go earlier). I do this by starting to save my milk jugs, juice bottles, and any other container that I might otherwise send to the recycling bin.
Step 2: Use what you have This is related to Step 1. Winter sowing could include building a low tunnel or a hoop house, but it doesn’t need to. Like permaculture, the philosophy of winter sowing can incorporate “closing loops,” by using output (old jugs) as inputs (places to put your seeds). In our culture and economy where everything is so disposable, and time so precious, I like that I have an ordained use for these jugs and am not just tossing them into the recycling bin. In the future perhaps I can limit my use of these items and invest in a hoop house, so that “what I have” is even less.
Step 3: Get your hands dirty
Winter sowing involves actually doing some work, of course. Here are the details:
You need to cut the milk jugs (or juice bottles) around the middle, leaving a small portion of the jug intact, which can serve as a hinge of sorts.
You also need to perforate the bottoms of the jugs as a drainage system. I have done this with a scissors (just cutting little X’s in the bottom), but I have seen others use drills to make clean holes.
Then you fill the bottom half of the jug with soil, add 2-4 seeds, cover with a little more soil, and sprinkle with water (or I often leave the watering until the very end, due to the next step)
BE SURE TO LABEL THE JUGS, AND TO PUT A STICK WITH A LABEL INSIDE THE JUG IN CASE YOUR OUTSIDE LABEL WEARS OFF. Do this before you start messing with the next step.
Tape the jugs back together with duct tape or packing tape (I like duct tape best but ran out halfway through this year). This helps to create the greenhouse effect of an interior that can be warmed by the sun.
Leave the jugs in a place where they can get as much sun as possible during the day. Ideally they can also get rain, too. Mine have to sit on my porch, which has a roof, so I keep track and water them if the soil looks dry or the jug feels too light.
Watch your garden grow!
Tip: If you do this activity with a three-year-old and a five-year-old, be prepared for little hands that want to plant seeds (awesome!), little bodies that can’t resist the urge to jump on your hunched back (not awesome!), and insistence that “I can do it!” when it comes to using a scissors or duct tape on a milk jug (you decide if that’s awesome or not).
Winter sowing makes me think that we all have limits that we might think are simply insurmountable. Maybe getting started on getting in shape just seems so overwhelming, or getting all of those projects done for your last semester in school just doesn’t seem doable. Or maybe parenting two small boys into mature and courteous humans feels like an impossible task. But a few simple steps might just take you to a full and lush garden in a few short months: taking some time to plan, looking around for something you already have (in your house or your schedule or your heart) that you can use, and adding just a little elbow grease. Then, sit back and let those seeds grow!
At least that’s what I’m trying this year!
Here's a note from those of us that co-facilitated the Winter Sowing workshop at IUN on March 12, 2022:
Thanks for joining us at the Winter Sowing workshop last weekend. We had a blast and hope you did too!
We hope you can make it out to a performance of "A Chorus of Oysters" It promise to be a fun and inventive theatre experience dealing with the topic of climate change. Performances are March 31 – April 9. You can find out more information and reserve tickets here.
Make sure you give your plants a watering if you didn't when you got home.
Here's a link to the powerpoint on "extending the season":
As your containers start to sprout, please share with us on Facebook at Theatre Northwest at IU Northwest School of the Arts, Calumet Artist Residency, Living Green Garden and New Backwater. Also please follow us on social media to keep up to date on events.
Also find @iunperformingarts, @livinggreengarden @coreyhagelberg @newbackwater on instagram
Also, keep an eye out for another e-mail in regards to free trees!
Corey, Kathy, Libré and Kat
Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.
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