How To Winter Sow Vegetables and Ornamental Plants (with video)

Looking for a cheap, easy way to start vegetable and ornamental seeds? Want hardy, disease-resistant plants? Looking for an jump start on the growing season? Then try my favorite seed starting method: "winter sowing."

Although many gardeners think seeds need lots of light and warmth to grow, winter sowing proves that many seeds actually thrive without either of these things. 

Essentially, winter sowing mimics nature by exposing seeds to lots of cold and rain. The seeds crack open during snows or frosts (so you don't have to nick seeds open by hand, as many gardeners do), and begin sprouting when it is safe for them to do so. For this reason, winter sowing may only be done in winter. The earliest time to begin winter sowing is after the winter Solstice (at the end of December); you may continue winter sowing as long as it's cold enough during the late afternoons that you need a jacket to feel comfortable.

What Can be Winter Sown?
Not all seeds are suitable for winter sowing. Most tropical plants are out, but almost all wildflowers and herbs are good choices. Seed packets that indicate the seeds easily self-sow or should be planted in the fall for spring growth, colonize easily, are "hardy," may be direct sown in the garden, or needs pre-chilling, stratification, refrigeration, are also good choices, as are seeds from cold regions (for example, plants with cold-place names in their titles, like "Alaska Peas").

Some edibles that can be winter sown include artichokes, beans, beets, Bok Choy, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, chard, chives, collards, early types of corn, garlic, kale, lettuces, okra, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, shallots, spinach, squash, and tomatoes.

Potting soil (fresh, but not the moisture control type)
Scissors or drill
Plastic containers
Duct tape and Sharpie pen or metal p
lant markers and a pencil

Almost any type of plastic container with a well-fitting clear or nearly clear lid works fine. I prefer the clear, lidded boxes bakeries use for selling cookies and donuts, but many gardeners use plastic milk jugs and soda bottles (with the lids cut off, then taped back on), Cool Whip tubs, or whatever else they have l
aying around. Ask your friends to help by saving containers, or visit your local grocery store and ask for the bakery containers, like I use. I sometimes purchase mine from the bakery section; they sell me enough for a couple of years for just a few dollars.

How to Winter Sow

1. Using a pair of scissors, carefully poke about five holes in the bottom of each container. (It's probably better to use a drill, frankly, but I keep using scissors!) These are water drainage holes to prevent seedlings from becoming too wet.

2. Cut two or three slashes on the lid of the container.

3. Fill each container with new potting soil. The soil only need be a couple of inches thick, but some gardeners prefer to use about five inches of soil, so the roots grow fuller and deeper.

4. With a watering can, water the soil well and allow it to drain for a minute.

5. Plant seeds in the soil. Plant only one type of seed per container, because it’s sometimes difficult to tell seedlings apart.

6. Label each container; if you use duct tape, make sure the container is dry before applying the tape. It’s best to place labels on the sides of the containers not on the bottom (where they interfere with drainage) or on the lid (because they’re apt to fade in the sun and you’ll eventually cut away most of the lid, anyway). If you’re using metal plant markers (which is what I do), just lay them inside the containers.

7. Close the containers and place them somewhere out of the way. They should not be sheltered; you want the containers exposed to the weather. For example, you could place the containers along your fence line, but not beneath your carport. Don’t worry about giving the seeds “enough light.” Most seeds can germinate without any light at all. After closing the lids, you’ll notice that within a few minutes, the containers appear foggy. They are now acting as a mini greenhouses for the seeds, keeping them relatively warm and moist. This mimics the best conditions of nature.

8. Check on the seeds every few days. The contents of the container will freeze and thaw repeatedly. That’s okay! In fact, it’s good.

9. When green shoots begin to appear (often toward the end of winter, but sometimes a bit later), check the containers for moisture content. It’s just fine to do this when it’s cold, but don’t open container lids if it’s freezing. If the soil seems less than moist, give the seedlings a little water, then put the lids back on the containers.

10. As the seedlings grow, check them at least every other day. To help them acclimate to the outdoors, begin adding an extra slash or two to the container lids every week or so. When there is more open space on the lids than there are actual lids, you may transplant your seedlings. They may be tiny, but that’s okay. These baby plants are hardened and acclimated to outside conditions; there’s no need to follow traditional “hardening off” procedures.

12. Once you plant the seedlings, give them a gentle drink and keep them moist but not wet.

By the way, if your winter sowing containers are drying out too much, it’s probably because they have too many drainage holes. To remedy this problem, dry off the bottom of the container and use duct tape to cover one or more drainage holes.
If your containers look too wet, use a knife to carefully make additional holes in the bottom-sides of the containers.

For more information about winter sowing
- and other seed sowing methods, including indoor sowing and direct sowing - check out my ebook, "The Proverbs 31 Woman Guide to Starting Seeds."


  1. Did not have much knowledge about this fascinating subject but I think your work in such plants, but I think they could leverage and innovate my garden with some of them.

  2. Pondering over this and trying to decide the best things to start so I have a successful garden!!!

  3. Liberty, I'm working on a freebie that will explain all seed starting methods. I hope to have it available within a month. In the meantime, though, I highly recommend Winter Sowing. It's pretty foolproof and cheap, as long as you select the right seeds.

  4. I just saw today's post about selecting seeds... I think my name was written all over that post! But, you reminded me of Park Seeds, which is a good thing. I'd forgotten they existed, even though I used to get their catalogs quarterly... :)