I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. A good remedy when I feel snappish and sorry for myself is to cross something off from my never-ending to-do list–preferably a project that has been hanging over my head for a while. That way, I get a morale boost from getting it done, and I can’t berate myself at the end of the day for not being productive. Today’s morale-boosting project was winter-sowing.
Winter-sowing is the easiest way to cold-stratify seeds. Instead of putting seeds in a sealed plastic bag with some moist potting soil and sticking them in the refrigerator for a specified number of weeks, and then potting them up and growing them under lights, you pot them up right from the get-go and put them outside, using the cold temps of winter to your advantage.
Kevin Lee Jacobs and many others use gallon milk or water jugs as mini-greenhouses in which they start their seeds. I have done that in the past, and will probably do so again in the future, but for my mental health I needed to sow seeds today and I hadn’t had the forethought to set aside some cleaned milk jugs.
I will let you in on a little secret: just about anything in gardening can be done successfully more than one way. Typically, experienced gardeners do things a certain way because that’s how they learned to do it–and it worked–so why change it? With some people, it can become close to a religion: their way is the right way, the best way, and everyone should do it their way–but unless they have scientific experiments to back it up, it’s just their strongly-held conviction.
I tell you this because the way I am about to show you was how I learned to sow seeds to grow indoors many years ago, and I think this method works pretty well when you have small quantities of seed. But it’s certainly not the only way to winter-sow.
Nan Ondra is the reason I have small quantities of seed for many interesting plants. She is an amazing plantswoman, a prolific writer, and a generous soul. Through her blog, Hayefield, she has given away seeds every fall where time allows, and I have taken advantage of her generosity.True confession: by the time I actually sow these seeds, I have to go back to Nan’s website to refresh my memory on some of them.
1) Select your seeds
I sort through my seeds, deciding which ones are suitable for winter-sowing. Any winter-hardy perennial is ideal. Cool weather annuals are good, too, but I often scatter-sow them where I want them to grow in the garden. They usually don’t need as long a cooling period, so if I want to winter-sow them, I save them until last, in case I run out of time. I decided on fourteen packets of seed, and I almost quit right there. When you’re tired and irritated, everything seems like a huge project and too much work. But I was firm with myself. If I only did one thing today, it would be getting these seeds sown.
2) Gather your supplies
Potting soil. It should be a freely draining mix. One thing I did remember to do ahead is bring in frozen potting soil from the garden shed and let it thaw down in the basement. Tip: the big plastic tub that some brands of kitty litter come in is an ideal container for a household quantity of potting soil. But my bin was just about empty.
Labels and an ultra-fine waterproof marker. Fortunately I had a stash of yogurt containers in my seed starting area. I needed to cut some more labels.
Plastic clamshell containers. I save deep clamshell type containers when I come across them to use as mini-greenhouses for winter-sowing. If they’re not deep enough, the pots won’t fit. These containers let in light and moisture, which is what you want for winter-sowing.
Grit. A fine grit comes in handy for covering the larger seed or sowing the smallest seed directly into it, but it’s not strictly necessary. A lot of my rock gardening friends use this technique–and don’t cover their pots at all–in which case the grit keeps the seeds from washing away.
I made several trips down to the basement because I kept forgetting things. The temptation to call myself an idiot was strong, but I resisted. When I’m already in a bad mood, it’s easy to find fault with everything I do, but I just focused on getting this project done.
3) Set up your workflow
I find if I do certain things “all in one go” it lets me concentrate without interruption on the pleasure of actually sowing the seeds. I lay down newspaper or some other disposable protection for my work surface–it makes clean-up a breeze. I write the names of all the seeds on their respective labels before I begin. Then it won’t matter if I get my fingers dirty or damp as I’m working, and I can just grab the appropriate label. Finally, I fill the pots with soil and tamp it down a bit, so there’s a smooth surface to receive the seeds.
Time to sow!
It’s time to get the seeds out of their packets and onto the surface of the soil. This is when the therapy happens. I pick a label and insert it in the side of a pre-filled pot. I open the corresponding seed packet and pour the seed into the fold of a small greeting card I save for this purpose. Then, using the tip of a knife or a pencil point, I push each seed off the card and onto the surface of the soil.You would think this would be tedious, but I get absorbed studying the shapes of the seeds. Both the Baptisia sphaerocarpa and the Thermopsis villosa have seeds that look like tiny beans. Turns out they are in the legume family, just like beans are. I also like setting the seeds down in an orderly pattern, but this only works with the largest seeds. For most seeds, I hold the card above the soil surface and tap the card with the knife. As the seeds distribute themselves along the fold of the card, I tip the card slightly and let the seeds drop, one by one, as I continue to tap the card. That goes a little quicker and still results in a fairly even distribution of seed. Never mind that it’s dismal outside. Never mind that I had a lousy night. I’m sowing seeds. They are embryo plants. They will germinate and grow after they’ve gotten exposed to enough cold. Yes, cold is good for them! Winter has a purpose! I am using winter to work for me, instead of just wishing it were over.
Finally I cover the seeds with grit.As I said, it’s not strictly necessary, but if you’ve ever tried to keep a gravel walk weeded, you know how easily seeds germinate in grit. For the really fine seeds, I put the grit down first, and sprinkle the seeds on top of the grit.
When I was done sowing all the seeds, I set the containers in a pan of water so the potting mix would get moistened from the bottom up. Then I put the containers into the clamshells and brought them outside to the picnic table.
By entering the small world of seeds, I got a better perspective on my own minor troubles. Observing the seeds was thought-provoking, sowing them was soothing, and by doing so, the promise of spring was made more real. Gardening brings you back to the long view of things: the seasons change, and change again, and winter is but one of those seasons.
The tagline for this blog is Hardy plants for hardy souls. A plant is considered hardy because it can survive winter. A hardy soul is a person who can survive winter, and winter-sowing seeds is one way I nurture hardiness in myself.