Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sow Early: Winter Sowing for the Veggie Garden

It was a gorgeous sunny day out today and I had just enough caffeine in me to set me into a whirl of activity.  Ok...I went a little nuts at the nursery buying seeds but hey, the front yard is getting an overhaul anyway and the way I look at it, if I have plants that need to be planted then at least there will be something besides weeds taking up space this year.  The thought makes me pretty happy actually as I've long wanted to start growing more edibles in the front yard and I have been saving my milk jugs and butter cartons for a couple weeks to sow seeds into so today was the day to get going sowing our veggies.

I was not going to buy anything more than a package of parsnips and parsley seeds
I have tried a number of different methods for cutting into plastic milk jugs but my all time favorite is my little serrated kitchen knife...the same knife I use to slice tomatoes with.  It goes through that plastic like butter once you get it started.  I've tried hot knives and Xacto knives and found both to have draw backs that the serrated knife doesn't have.  By the way its an old fashioned serrated blade.  The new fangled so-called serrated blades don't seem to work as well either.

This knife was made in heaven I'm sure of it.

How to cut the milk cartons came from a great website .   Trudi Davidoff, the founder of the site, has done a fantastic job of providing inspiration and a place for community so if you want to learn more go check it out.  I first stumbled upon the winter gardening concept several years ago at back in the day when Trudi was moderating the winter sowing forum there.  Her passion for this type of gardening and seed saving was inspiring.  The woman is a gift I'm tellin' ya. She has a generous spirit and a gift for encouraging others.  We could use with more people like her in this world and in these times.  So back to what I'm doing with that knife and the milk jugs.

The thing about using the milk jugs is that they make wonderful little green houses.  People in cold climates and those of us in moderate climates can get a lot of growing done without the need for a greenhouse by using this method.  Milk jugs are easy to cut holes into for ventilation and so some rain will help to water the seedlings as they grow making the fussing over watering way less.  The other thing is that the seedlings don't need to be hardened off and are stronger, stouter plants instead of the spindly little things that are produced when we try to grow starts in the house and sometimes in green houses.  These reasons makes me like this method a lot.

To get started you need to cut vent holes in the shoulders of the jug and the same in the bottom for drainage.  I almost forgot to cut the holes in the bottom on these but don't you.  It's really important that the seedlings get good drainage or they will rot or drown, both of which are not the results we are looking for here.

The jugs have 3 good spots for air circulation vents at their shoulders

The 3 holes I nearly forgot...that would have been very bad.

The next thing you need to do is cut around the middle of the jug starting at just below and to the side of the handle, cutting all the way around and stopping just other side of the handle.  Do not cut the top off completely, severing the top from the bottom.  You need to keep the top attached just enough to be able to fold it back on those days when its warmed enough so the seedlings can enjoy a little more sunlight.

Cut with enough attached to be able to bend it back.

Finally I decided that not only would I write out plant tags for what was sown in the containers but I would write on the outside what was on the inside...that could come in handy at some point.  The first time I wrote in regular Sharpie marker...this will more than likely fade, so I decided to do a little science project to demonstrate the difference between UV stable markers like the Sharpie industrial types and the regular markers.  We'll see how long the regular Sharpie ink lasts.

Regular Sharpie marker is doomed to disappear with sunlight.

Now to wait and see.

The jugs need some planting media in them so to keep the cost down a bit, instead of filling the containers with seedling mix which is pretty expensive, I fill the jugs part way with regular potting soil which costs about half of what seedling mix does.  I don't recommend garden soil for this as it is too heavy and when you go to separate the seedlings their roots will be more apt to tear than with the potting soil.

Note that there are two tags so I don't forget what's sown here.

Next I scatter the seed on top of the potting soil.  I don't worry about spacing.  Most of what I am sowing doesn't really care.  The ones that are sensitive to transplanting I will direct sow in the garden so you can just scatter the seeds randomly unless they don't appreciate being transplanted.

Seedling mix is a screened lightweight media that seedlings can grow through with ease.

Next I cover the seed with seedling mix to the depth of whatever the instructions say.  So if the seed is sown to a depth of 1/4" that is how much seedling mix I put over the seeds...simple simple.

Still need  a piece of duct tape on each of the cut sides but you get the idea.

Secure the top closed using duct tape and set in a warm location.  Along the foundation of a south facing wall works great.  Don't put the lids back on the jugs as this is part of the ventilation system for your new mini greenhouse and how the plants are watered when it rains.  

Duct tape, duct tape, la la la...

Sitting in the sunshine on a February day.

Cement is a great heat sink to help keep the plants a little warmer.

The containers pictured above in the black pan were sown the same manner as milk jugs were and will stay on my southeast facing front porch which gets good sun and is covered so I can manage their watering better.  Another good thing is the cement and bricks act as a heat sink keeping the temperature there warmer than out in the yard.  By the way, the tub I found at Dollar Tree and I can easily cover it with a board if the temperatures are thinking of heading below freezing.   It also work great for watering seedling containers from the bottom, which is a really good idea as most hoses will quickly dislodge seeds with the force of the water coming out of the nozzle unless one uses a mist setting on the hand held sprayer.

Here is a list of what I sowed today if you are wondering.  Leeks, Swiss Chard, Endive, Florence Fennel, Parsley, Mizuna Mustard, Kale, Collards, Bok Choy and Brussel Sprouts.  I'll be starting some annual and perennial flowers and my tomatoes and peppers this way too.  I'll let you know how it goes so stay tuned as there are a couple more tricks up my sleeve I'll be sharing with you.

Happy Gardening!

Copyright © 2011 by Patty Hicks
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  1. that is GREAT! my neighbor did it a couple years ago, but in Mn, we don't cut holes in the top! still a bit too cold. i haven't been brave enough to try this method yet.

  2. Patty - This is great. I have been wanting to start my seeds, but am trying to be patient. I'll get things going this weekend now. And what a great use for the milk jugs.

    PS - do a post on brussel sprouts. I want to try some and but don't have a clue as to how to go about it. :) Thanks!

  3. Thanks for visiting my own blog!

    I think the milk jug idea is terrific! I definitely will use this in the future. Thanks!