By Ann Maxwell

Each year when I take down the Christmas tree and store away the last shiny ornament, I am mentally taking inventory of my empty milk jugs, potting soil and horde of seeds. Unlike most Midwest gardeners, I actually start planting outside in January. It satisfies my overwhelming urge to dig in the dirt – even when there is snow on the ground.

My method of planting is called winter sowing. I first learned about it after reading about this growing method devised by gardener Trudi Davidoff. I was in the depths of the winter blahs, so I decided to try my hand at it. I read everything Davidoff wrote about it at Now I love to start my flowers, herbs and vegetables in the dead of winter. It has become my obsession.

Initially, I did my winter sowing alone. But I have since paired up with a gardening partner, Kim Tappan, and together we plot our gardens each year. We first met at a local garden club. I garden on a city lot in Ottawa, KS in and Kim lives on a 10-acre farm north of Ottawa. But, we have the same gardening obsessions and seed hoarding tendencies. We have been known to share a quick dinner and spend the rest of the evening fawning over our seeds and planning next year’s summer gardens. By sharing, we can have twice as many varieties and seeds.

Start with winter sowingsowing_Weekly stacked

To grow outside in the winter, you need to create a mini-greenhouse – or in our case many mini-greenhouses. We make ours from one-gallon plastic milk or water jugs that we collect from the Franklin County Recycling Center. I don’t drink much milk, so I depend on the recycling center, and the folks that run it know that when I come in it’s for a “withdrawal” rather than a deposit. You could also use clear two-liter soda bottles, whipped topping tubs, take-out containers or rotisserie chicken containers. They just need to be able to let light penetrate.

The basic concept is to plant your seeds in potting soil placed in the container, add water, cover, label the container and place in a full-sun, protected area outside. I put mine near the house. Kim puts hers on the south side of her barn. The seeds will sprout when the weather is right. We occasionally check on them and add water if necessary. But usually these milk jug greenhouses require little attention. Then when it’s warm enough in the spring, we plant the seedlings into our outside gardens.

Some of the seeds that have grown well for us and flourished into the summer and fall include:

  • Flowers (mostly perennial): coneflowers, butterfly weed, blazing star, passion flower, cardinal flower, cardinal vine, standing cypress, lupine, Mexican hats, blanket flower, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, mallow, yarrow, sweet William, hyacinth bean, purple and red flax, bee balm, cleome, golden rod, verbena, wallflower, foxglove, nasturtium, columbine, salvia, morning glory and snap dragon.
  • Herbs: anise hyssop, basil, bee balm, cilantro, primrose, lavender, parsley, pineapple sage and sage.
  • Vegetables: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, corn, eggplant, parsnip, peppers, spinach and tomatoes.

For instance, we really don’t recommend planting beans or lettuce since they come up so fast in your spring garden. We like choosing vegetables that have a longer germination time such as tomatoes, broccoli or cabbage. But if you plant any seed that has a shorter germination time the plants keep well in the jugs for quite a while, even if they are crowded. One thing we discovered is you can cut your big square of plants taken from the jug almost like brownies (smaller squares) for planting. Or as Kim and I call it, sometimes we will take the whole “hunk of seedlings” from the jug and plant them in one spot.

Make your own mini greenhouses

To get started, you’ll need several milk jugs or plastic containers, a box cutter, knife or scissors to cut the plastic and either duct tape, clear packing tape or pipe cleaners for closing the milk jug. Collect your seeds, potting soil and a paint pen to label your containers.

First make a horizontal slit with a sharp knife right at the side of the lower end of the milk jug handle. Then place the scissors into the slit and cut around the jug and stop cutting about 1½ inches from the starting point, leaving this portion intact to make a hinge. Then poke drainage holes in the bottom of the jug and along the very lowest portion to provide adequate openings for drainage and watering. You can water from the bottom so as not to disturb the seeds/seedlings. The small opening at the top will be left uncovered to allow snow, rain or ice to enter.

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