Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Winter sown seed on Candlemas

It is halfway to Spring and snow is falling in Chicagoland in big, thick flakes. I am glad for this reminder that we are still in the thick of winter, since it was only yesterday that I got around to starting my winter sown seed project.

As a cook, I thrill to the discovery of unfamiliar recipes and cooking methods. After years of braising, baking and stir-frying, it is always wonderful to feel the occasional jolt of the new and unexpected -like when I recently found a recipe for roasted garden radishes in Saveur. Rarely do I feel this jolt in my garden reading: year after year, the magazines and books recycle the same methods and advice. I tire of the litany, in the same way that I tire of reading, yet again, a cooking article on "sexy" Valentine's menus or reusing Thanksgiving leftovers. But new excitements still lurk, beneath the oft-repeated articles on "discovering" heirloom tomatoes. Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest recently awakened my imagination, and got me thinking about the way I limit myself to edible gardening only in the warmth of summer. This primed me to be especially interested in a recent blog post at Artful Greens about an unfamiliar approach to seed starting: winter sowing.

It is no small excitement to flutter about with seed mats and grow lights, especially in the doldrums of January, but it always makes me sigh and wonder why I have complicated everything so much. All of these expensive accessories, all of the time rigging up wiring! Looking at my fussing, it should be a wonder my foremothers ever managed edible gardens and beautiful flowers. Wintersown.org encourages the curious gardener to throw the received wisdom of modern seed starting out the window. Sowing flats in the dead of winter, and leaving them outside under protection avoids all the nicking, filing and stratification we put seeds through just to mimic the treatment of a winter outside in the ground. Advocates of this method argue that not only does it save time and money, but it also yields hearty seedlings that are more productive over the long term. As further enticement, the lady at wintersown.org will even send you free seeds for the price of postage. With nothing to lose but two first-class stamps, I signed up.

My seeds came yesterday, and thanks to my husband's voracious milk habit, I had plenty of containers ready to recycle as mini-flats for my winter sowing. I found a great pictorial post on how to prep the jugs at the blog Our Little Acre. Some folks do a "U" shaped cut in the side of the milk jug and use it like a pull down flap. The cut-in-half method at Our Little Acre seemed easier in the long run, especially when removing seedlings. Above you will see my collection of nine "flats", with everything from columbine to kale, soapwort to tomatoes. If nothing comes up, all I have lost are some stamps and a pleasant afternoon in the basement, getting my fingernails dirty for the first time this year. I suspect, however, that something will germinate, and I will be converted to this new low-tech method. I am especially interested in the tomatoes. Beside what wintersown.org sent me, I may put out some Opalkas and Sweet 100's just to see what happens. I may never be able to rid myself of the heat mats, especially if I want my passion flowers and cacti. But just as a new recipe launches me on new adventure in the kitchen, this method has renewed my enthusiasm for gardening, no matter how thickly the snow falls outside.


  1. Yay, Abbie! You're going to be so thrilled in spring, when you look inside your milk jugs and see the seedlings! Be prepared for a few failures, but you'll have enough success, too, to make it worth the effort. I'm glad I could be of help to you!

    I'm only winter sowing a couple things this year. I'd better get at it! Wish me luck - one of those things is the elusive Himalayan Blue Poppy! I've tried before, with no success, but the odds are going to be in my favor one of these years, don't you think?

  2. Abbie,

    I delighted in reading your wonderful post, so personally and distinctly written. I wish you much luck with the seeds!


    Trudi Davidoff

  3. Hey, thanks for putting me onto this method. I have no space or money for special grow lights, table warmers and such, and I even said to my husband the other night, how did people do this in the 1800s? There just has to be a way!

    Well, maybe there is...