3 Little Known Secrets Northern Gardeners
Might Not be Telling You

– Posted in: Seeds and Seed Starting

Walking in snow is always more memorable

Once I had a visiting friend comment, “Everyone is so hospitable (here); I’ve never seen such smiley people”. I’ve realized it’s probably because we know something that the others don’t, and I think it’s time to break my silence. As much as we like the sun, heading out in shorts and t-shirts when it gets to be about 55, there’s something to be said for gardening in the colder zones (5 and lower). I admire tropical gardens, they’re my eye candy, but gardening in the cold is really where it’s at, and has taught me to be a better gardener.

Three Secrets Revealed

We’re efficient organizers. Disinfecting and putting away pots and planters at the end of the year is a lot of busy work, but failing to do so can doom you to scraping your car windows every morning before work unless you make room in your garage. Even growing your own plants, it’s surprising how many cheap plastic nursery pots you wind up keeping just in case you need to share a plant. And for those of us who just can’t toss a seed catalogue because they’re so much fun to look at; if guests leaving your powder room know you’re a gardener based on the hefty stack of seed catalogues spilling over the back of your toilet, it might be time to finally get caught up on organizing them. The amazing thing is how quickly we can do this since we’ve probably already read them.

Winter gives us the time to catch our breath. Growing in cold climates reminds me of the arctic tundra; a couple of months of warm weather and a lot of growth, followed by a deep freeze. Lucky tundra, nature takes care of itself, but if you’re a northern gardener, then you’re the one who gets to coax things along, watering, pruning, propagating, the whole shebang. April/May-November is such a busy time, and even though it can give you joy, there’s something to be said for the break winter provides. You’re suddenly given the chance to explore other interests such as:

  • Reading (Gail Tsukiyama is a new favorite author)
  • Trying a new culinary experience like skipping supper and going right for the S’mores
  • Learning how to do something you’ve always wanted to try (Last year it was learning how to play the Irish tin whistle)
  • Finding new music (Carolina Chocolate Drops are amazing)
  • Going on vacation to somewhere warm, after all winters can seem so long sometimes!

Winters might last several months, but we don’t even have to stop gardening when there’s snow on the ground if we don’t want to, we’re that good. And I don’t mean houseplants either! For diehard wintersowers, the beginning of winter gardening fun begins on December 21st with a raucous wintersowing party. Wintersowing is the process of planting seeds in moist soil, in a covered container (often in milk jugs which acts as a mini green house), and placing them outside. The freezing and thawing cycles that the seeds go thru in the winter aids in germination. Last year, I had close to 100% germination rate with no damp off. It’s been three years since I’ve kept anything more demanding than a few canna seedling inside, I wintersow everything. Here are a few shots of my favorite wintersown plants:

Shirley Poppies are good candidates for wintersowing

Wintersowing makes growing Delphiniums easy

Wintersown potted Basil flanking wintersown Rose Campion and Delphiniums

April 13, 2010 Wintersown Sweet Pea sprouts enjoying water and fresh air

The Benefits

A few of the benefits of wintersowing are:

  • You don’t have to fuss over tender seedlings that dry out quickly, or suddenly keel over from damp off
  • You don’t need a greenhouse
  • Once you place the jugs outside you can neglect them until it starts warming up
  • You can get great germination from annuals, perennials, fruits and vegetables
  • Hardening off plants becomes a thing of the past
  • Eventually you’ll be doing the Happy Dance when you see your first sprouts

Learn More

If this all sounds too good to be true, visit http://wintersown.org/to learn everything you’ll need to know about wintersowing. Gardening in the north is kind of exhilarating, if we can do that, we can do anything. And putting up with that much snow and cold makes us all that much more eager to get outside and garden when it does warm up, with a gigantic smile on our faces.

If you live in zone 5 or below, what is your favorite thing about gardening where you live?

About the author: Lisa Ueda offers home gardening tips at The Frugal Garden. Her aim is to inspire, awaken and motivate new gardeners into discovering their inner green thumbs.

About the Author

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Lydia March 15, 2011, 8:19 am

Great information. Living in the Midwest, I often get discouraged with winter. I’ve never tried winter sowing, but this winter I am going to give it a shot. thanks much

Dee @ Red Dirt Ramblings September 28, 2010, 3:49 pm

Although my climate isn’t really a cold one, I still found much of your advice applicable to my area too. Each climate has its own “tricks,” and by listening to great gardeners and bloggers people can learn these. It’s a regional thing. 🙂

Lisa Ueda September 29, 2010, 10:44 pm

Even better, it’s a gardening thing. I love chatting w. gardeners from all regions, and the way we share a common love of plants 🙂

SwimRay September 24, 2010, 11:06 pm

Another secret – there is a spring after winter, when tulips and daffodils bloom, (at least when I was in Johnson City). Here in Virginia, spring comes overnight, and summer the next day. The tulips haven’t got a snowball’s chance…

Joan Lambert Bailey September 24, 2010, 8:22 am

Last year was our first winter in Tokyo, and I remember thinking to myself as we cleaned up the last of the summer vegetables that it would be great to take a break. I just had to put in the garlic, and head home, right? Wrong. It’s daikon, winter greens, kabu, and a bundle of other tasty vegetables and even a few flowers here and there that really shine in those months. Not to mention Mount Fuji is visible those months from the fields, too. (We live in a western burb, so we can still see him at that time of year.) I do miss the break that heavy snow and ice offer, and that beautiful stark landscape. I’m incredibly grateful for my garden here, but I do sometimes miss reading fiction.

Lisa Ueda September 24, 2010, 9:34 am

Funny I made you nostalgic for a winter break, but you reminded me of how much I enjoyed living in Japan (Osaka and Kyoto prefecture). I didn’t garden then, but enjoyed the outdoors, hiking up the mountains w. friends, and stopping by all of the shrines that dotted the hillside. A quiet beauty.

boodely September 23, 2010, 8:00 pm

Wintersowing? Where have I been?! I want to try it!

Lisa Ueda September 24, 2010, 9:20 am

It will change your world :).

Ilona September 22, 2010, 7:17 pm

I’ve been a longtime cold climate gardener… and while I embrace almost all the points, I have to say I have never quite attained that first one;) Although sowing hardy seeds, I’ve never tried the winter sowing, but I really, really want to.

Lisa Ueda September 22, 2010, 7:58 pm

Organization’s a struggle for me, especially this time of year, I think I’m in denial that it’s almost winter. And wintersowing the first time, 3 months of peaking in your milk jugs thinking nothing’s going to happen, and then a mist of green, happens every time.

Lisa Ueda September 22, 2010, 7:08 am

@islandgal246 – It was after seeing my mom’s yard in the subtropical Florida Keys that I learned I could never keep up with that kind of growth 🙂 Never fails though, when I vacation in the winter in a warmer place I think “Hey, I could do this”.
@Jodi – Once you do this you’ll probably never get back, and even if a variety or two doesn’t work out, you’ll have enough surplus to trade what you’re looking for. Cukes, squashes, lettuce and spinach are good ones to try this method out on in case you can’t convince him 100%
@Mary Schier – It’s almost a relief when the first good snow comes isn’t it? (Except for the shoveling)
@Carolflowerhillfarm – Thanks 🙂
@Lynn – It still might be awhile yet ;), we’re having upper 60s and 70s
@Cyndy – Definitely try again, once your find the right combination, you’ll really find your success taking off. The biggest newbie mistakes I’ve made were to 1-Not add adequate drainage holes 2-Not premoisten the soil enough 3-Wintersow half hardy annuals like love lies bleeding too early. They sprouted when it warmed up too early and then died when the temps dropped. Now that I’m passed that I usually get really good germination rates.
@Liz – Even if with just one item to experiment on, it’s amazing to see them sprout and thrive, I highly recommend it.
@Cynthia – I’m so glad I’ve brought a smile to your face. CDC is amazing aren’t they? I’ve been playing them in my office for the last couple of weeks; enough that I think my new nickname is probably office girl who likes fiddle music.

Kimberly September 22, 2010, 1:29 am

Having lived and gardened in both Pittsburgh, PA and the Bay Area for many years, I prefer gardening in Northern California 🙂

Lisa Ueda September 22, 2010, 8:05 pm

While it’s true I enjoy gardening in Wisconsin, I’m originally from Souther California and have never gotten used to the cold :). I’m cold from about November until June.

Cynthia September 21, 2010, 1:10 pm

Living in Wisconsin so reminds me of my years of raising my now grown children in Syracuse NY. Your posts always bring me back to the NorthEast in such delightful ways. But it is your Carolina Chocolate Drops note that really took my breath away. This was a hard winter, hard spring and worse summer….and I found the CCD just in time to save me from a frantic disconnect. Good call!

Liz September 21, 2010, 12:28 pm

I like the idea of winter sowing–maybe I”ll try it this year.

Cyndy September 21, 2010, 12:25 pm

Hi there – I tried winter sowing for the first time here in Connecticut last year – not much success, but I’m inspired to try again using your secrets!

Lynn September 21, 2010, 11:16 am

Yes, yes, yes, but I’m not looking forward to that long break just yet. Wintersowing is the coolest thing, and fun, and uplifting. And your lead photo is sweetness. Happy Fall!

Carolflowerhillfarm September 21, 2010, 11:15 am

I will have to try this! Wintersowing… what a great concept and act. Great post! ;>)

Mary Schier September 21, 2010, 11:04 am

Lisa is so right about the benefits of gardening in the North. I already have a list of books I’m going to read and non-digging related gardening projects for the cold months — plus a trip to visit the folks in Florida! Winter sowing is also fun, though I’ve had trouble with some kinds of seeds. (You’ve got to be careful that things are damp but not soaking or mold ensues.) Plants that seem to really take to it are the hardier perennials, such as lupines–which I’ve had great luck with. Nice post.

Jodi September 21, 2010, 9:47 am

What a great concept! My husband talks about wanting to use our sunroom in the winter to germinate seeds, so I’ve been picturing plastic shelves with dirty pots that tempt the cat to do horrible things. I’d much rather have milk jugs on my deck (considering I have a teenage boy in the house, we accumulate plenty of gallon jugs in a month). So, this is actually a concept I can live with and appreciate! I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks, Lisa!

islandgal246 September 21, 2010, 9:13 am

We never get time to catch our breath in the tropics. Our tools never get cleaned and hung, we are always busy weeding, trimming , cutting back, treating and watering. When it rains too much we are worried about too much water killing the plants. IT NEVER ENDS! LOL