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Growing Green - Winter sowing perennials

The spring garden catalogs have been filling my mailbox, and I am always impressed by the pictures of perennial borders filled to bursting with beautiful plants. I am usually unsuccessful trying to reproduce the striking drifts of plants in my own yard because purchasing the number of perennials needed is cost prohibitive.

So, what do you do if you want the flowers but are short on finances? Try winter sowing. Winter sowing is a seed starting method that uses your recyclables as mini-greenhouses that are placed outside during the winter months. (Yes, this works, even in frosty Minnesota!)

The trick is to select hardy perennial seeds that require some cold treatment or seeds from native plants that thrive in our area. When browsing through your seed catalogs, look for descriptions that include: needs pre-chilling, needs stratification, self sowing, sow outdoors in autumn, sow outdoors in early spring, wildflower or a common name containing weed (joe pye weed, butterfly weed...). Some good choices include delphinium, purple cone flower, liatris, Oriental poppies, monarda and dianthus. You can also try self sowing annuals including marigolds, cleome and cosmos.

Once you have selected your seeds, gather your supplies. You'll need gallon milk jugs, a ruler, a permanent marker, duct tape, a sharp utility knife and inexpensive potting soil.

1. Slit several drainage holes in the bottom of the milk jug.

2. Draw two horizontal lines around the milk jug measured three inches and four inches from the bottom.

3. Cut the jug apart at the four-inch line.

4. Fill the bottom portion of the jug with very moist potting soil to the three-inch line and sow with seeds. Seeds will be bunched close, as you will separate the seedlings when planting in the ground.

5. Duct tape top of milk jug to bottom and mark the top with the plant name.

6. Place your mini-greenhouses outdoors on the east, south or west side of your home. (Yes, right in the snow!) Don't place under decks, awnings or overhangs. Snow and rain will aid in germination.

7. Around mid-May, seedlings have sprouted and covers can be removed.

Other containers that make good mini-greenhouses include clear plastic take-out and produce clamshell containers.

I will be sowing a variety of perennials this season, and may even try to start some cool weather favorites like pansies, violas, lettuce, spinach and cabbage in the early spring.

If you try winter sowing this year, let me know how it goes. I always enjoy hearing from you!

Until next time, happy gardening!


" 'Hear! Hear!' screamed the jay from a neighboring tree, where I had heard a tittering for some time. Winter has a concentrated and nutty kernel, if you know where to look for it."

- Henry David Thoreau