Winter sown spinach
What does it mean to “winter sow” your seeds? At its simplest, it means to sow your vegetable seeds directly into your garden soil in the late winter. This is after all what God designed the seeds to do in nature: fall from the plant, wait out the cold weather, then germinate and sprout in place.
At its most complicated, winter sowing involves planting your seeds in plastic containers set out in the garden in winter. You later transplant the seedlings from the containers into their garden bed. You can learn how at Winter Sow Your Seedlings.
Either method works. The reason I like the simplest approach is primarily because I’m a lazy gardener. I want to get the greatest and most varied harvest possible with the least amount of work. That laziness is also why I winter sow without the use of covering materials for the plants.
The second reason I like the simple approach is that you only do it with cool season vegetables rather than trying to do all your seedlings outside. By the time my summer seedlings would be coming up on their own I’m already in need of sizeable seedlings to take the place of my earliest crops. Tomato plants winter sown in containers are just going to be too small. So I start my summer crops indoors.
How to Winter Sow Directly in the Ground
Timing is important. You don’t want to start too early and have a warm spell cause your seeds to sprout early and then freeze. Start too late and your plants won’t be large enough to harvest before you need to replace them with summer crops. In my zone 6b garden in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I winter sow seed in early to mid-February.
Winter sown kale
To make sure my ground isn’t frozen at that time, I cover all the beds in a deep layer of straw for the winter. This also keeps winter weeds (purple deadnettle anyone?) from springing up. At sowing time I just dig a small hole in the straw and pop my seeds in the ground, leaving the straw pulled back until the seedling grows.
Some Personal History
I started winter sowing this way years ago when I learned that peas planted in February wait to come up until the weather is right for them. After watching the California poppies, love-in-a-mist, dew drops, and columbine come up on their own year after year, I started winter sowing the other places I wanted them in the flower beds. Dill and cilantro come back in the same place in the herb bed for me every year without any effort on my part.
My forays into winter sowing of more vegetables started just last year. On a sunny winter day in February I planted a large number of vegetables directly in the garden. They all sprouted beautifully and grew into lovely plants that gave us a good harvest. The exception was basil – don’t do it!
Winter-sown beets and peas
List of Winter-Sown Crops
This year I’ll be winter sowing even more types of vegetables. I’ll also be doing some side-by-side comparisons of the same vegetables grown indoors before transplanting and the ones grown entirely outside. I’m looking for size comparisons, days to harvest, and general health. My first attempts at this lazy way of winter sowing turned out well in 2020. If it works well a second year than the number of vegetables I start on light tables will significantly decrease.
The following vegetables, herbs, and flowers are ones I either winter sowed in 2020 or will be doing so in 2021. Ones I’ve already successfully trialed are marked with an asterisk.
Vegetables Herbs Flowers
Lettuce* Dill* Sunflowers
Kale* Cilantro* Four O’Clocks
Tatsoi* Parsley Marigold
Spinach* Borage* Petunia
Swiss Chard Anise Hyssop Cosmos
Broccoli* Summer Savory California Poppy*
Cauliflower* Nasturtium Love Mist*
Cabbage* Dew Drops*
Winter-sown carrots, beets, and cauliflower
Join me in trying out direct winter sowing this year and let’s share our experiences so that we can all become lazier gardeners!
Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth GardenerandGrit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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