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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Winter Sowing 101


In a nutshell, winter sowing is sowing seeds in mini greenhouse-like containers and setting them outside in the winter elements until Mother Nature germinates the seeds in the spring.

Benefits of Winter Sowing

  • There are very few things in life that are SO easy and work SO well as this does!
  • No figuring out sowing dates for each specific seed.
  • No indoor grow lights or set up. You sow the seeds in the winter sowing containers and you put them outside.
  • When seeds germinate outdoors, the seedlings and plants they will produce are naturally hardier and their rate of survival is greater.
  • It gives you your gardening fix in the middle of winter!

Why is Winter Sowing becoming so Popular?

Very simply. It works!

What kind of seeds can I sow with the winter sowing method?

Flowers, vegetables and herbs! A further explanation later.

blank calendar and pen

First, a Bit about Timing

It is generally accepted that you can begin to winter sow anytime after the Winter Solstice when the days are at their shortest and typically the temperatures are at their coldest.

The problem that I found with starting as early as the Winter Solstice is that here in Zone 6 Ohio, we often get some unexpected warm stretches in December. If I put the containers out that early and we get a warm spell, the seeds may germinate too early and the coming cold temperatures will kill the seedlings. 

By planting a bit later when the threat of those warm-ups is passed, I can be confident that the seeds won’t germinate until spring, as planned.

For more specific timing for Zones 3 through 7 where the weather gets cold enough to winter sow, here is a general guideline for times to sow each category of seeds.


Zone 3    

  • February - Perennials and Hardy Annual

  • March - Herbs
  • April - Frost Tolerant Vegetables
  • May - Tender Plants

Zone 4

  • January - Perennials and Hardy Annuals
  • February - Herbs
  • March - Frost Tolerant Vegetables
  • April- Tender Plants

Zone 5

  • December/January - Perennials and Hardy Annuals
  • January/February - Herbs
  • February/March - Frost Tolerant Vegetables
  • March/April - Tender Plants

Zone 6

  • December - Perennials and Hardy Annuals
  • January -  Herbs
  • March - Frost Tolerant Vegetables
  • March/April - Tender Plants

Zone 7

  • December - Perennials and Hardy Annuals
  • January - Herbs, Frost Tolerant Vegetables
  • February - Tender Plants


Want to know more about planting zones and ways to extend your season?  Try this book.

After Ten Years of Winter Sowing, Here's My Method

My method of winter sowing is based on sowing the seeds in two stages. One for the perennial seeds of cold-season plants, and a later one for annual flowers and warm-season plants. 

You can, of course, sow continuously through the winter months, but keeping it to a simple two-phase sowing system is much easier for me.

The First Sowing

(8 to 10 weeks before your average first frost date)
For us here in Ohio, it's January 15 to February 15.

My first sowing is always around January 15 because there are seeds, like perennials, that need weeks of cold weather before they become stratified and can germinate in the spring, they are the first ones to be winter sown.

Examples of my first sowing include:

Flowers: Lavender, Veronica, Phlox, Rudbeckia, Delphiniums.

Herbs: Rosemary, Sage, Oregano, Parsley, Mint, Thyme.

Vegetables: Brussel Sprouts, Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Lettuce and Beets, Salad Greens.

If you're not sure if your seeds need this cold treatment, you can look on your seed packet for words like “self-sow,” “direct sow in the fall,” “direct sow in early spring,” “cold hardy,” “cold stratification,” as well as any perennial plant.

The Second Sowing

(4 to 6 weeks before your average last frost date)

For us here in Ohio, that's March 1 through April 15)

My second sowing is on March 1.  The second sowing is done more towards the Spring for annual flower seeds and warm-loving plants in general. You could sow these in the first sowing earlier, but you risk the chance that the seeds become waterlogged over the long winter, and I don't like to take the chance.

Examples of my second sowing include:

Flowers: Annuals like Marigolds, Coleus, Cosmos, Zinnias.

Herbs: Basil, Dill.

Vegetables: Tomatoes, Peppers, Squash, Cucumbers.

A Note about Vegetables.

Root vegetables are just easier to direct sow into the garden rather than have to transplant them through winter sowing. I don't winter sow root vegetables and vegetables that are easy to direct sow like peas and beans.

One word of warning. The seeds of some warm weather veggies can sprout well in the spring, but in colder climates, they will sprout later and there may not be enough time to get a harvest. Sowing indoors may still be necessary for long-season plants in colder areas.

milk jug used as sowing container

About the Containers

I have had my best success with milk jugs and don't use anything else.

Why do most Winter Sowers Prefer Milk Jugs?

  • Milk jugs will let light in. (Only use the clear ones.)
  • They are tall enough to give the seedlings plenty of headspaces to grow if you can't transplant right away.
  • Having the lid off will let in just enough rain and snow to keep the soil moist.
  • They're wide enough for your hands to scoop out those seedlings.
  • They're plentiful – (At least at my house!) If not, have people save them for you and save them from the landfill.

Some gardeners clean them and reuse them again. I put them in the recycle bin. I am able to collect plenty to start with fresh ones each winter.

Other container possibilities.

As long as the container has these features, they will work:
  • Must be plastic, or at least sturdy enough for winter use.
  • Must have a clear top so the light can get through.
  • Must be able to hold 2-3” of soil and have some room for headspace. The plants may get 6” tall if you leave them in there long enough.
  • Must be something you can put several drain holes in the bottom. (and top if there's no lid spot)


Examples of these include:

  • Ice cream buckets
  • 2 liter soda bottles
  • Clear plastic restaurant food containers
  • Deli container
  • The list is endless.

milk jug as winter sown container with seeds

Preparing the Container

We'll use a milk jug for the instructions.

First, THROW AWAY THE LID OF THE MILK JUG OR 2-LITER BOTTLE! The lids have to be removed to let moisture in when it's placed outside!

Cut the milk jug around three fourths of the jug like the picture. I start with a knife to break the plastic and then use scissors to circle around to the handle.

Cut drainage holes in the bottom. In a milk jug I put at least five. You can use anything that works; a drill, a knife, some people use a soldering iron.

If you're not using something that has a lid that you can take off, like a deli plastic container, you will need holes also in the top of the container to let rain and air through.

Bend the handle back to open the milk jug. You're ready for the soil and seeds.

About the Soil

You will find various opinions on what type of soil works best for winter sowing. I've always used normal potting soil (the cheapest I can find) and have had absolutely no problems. 

They usually contain a little fertilizer which helps the seedlings grow while they're waiting on me to get to them.

You can see in the picture that the Wizard Coleus was in there quite a while before I got to transplanting it!

How much soil?

Two to three inches of soil in the bottom of the milk jug is plenty. You just want enough soil to germinate the seed and help the seedling along until you transplant it into its final spot in your garden. 

If you do a lot of jugs (I do a hundred or so), soil gets expensive. You don't need more than 3 inches and you don't need the expensive stuff.

Important Step – Moisten the soil thoroughly before sowing the seeds so as not to dislodge the seeds later!

seeds in soil in milk jug

Sowing the Seeds

Since the intention is to transplant the seedlings out in the garden and not grow them very long in the winter sowing container, you can space the seeds much closer than you normally would. 

How many seeds you put in each container will depend on:
  • What kind of plant you're growing.
  • Whether you intend to transplant them very small or wait until they're larger. I prefer to give them room to grow inside the milk jugs. Spring is a very busy time and my attention gets lost in other projects and before I know it, they're 6” tall. (The stems are also stronger by this point and easier to handle when transplanting.)

Plant the seeds at the depth recommended. On average, the sowing depth of a seed is one and a half to two times the width of the seed. For very small seeds, just place them on top of the soil and tamp down to get soil contact.

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All about Winter Sowing

Sealing the Container

Here are a few options:

Good ole' Duct Tape.  One piece in one area should do it, usually across from the handle vertically. I found if I use more duct tape than that, I have a heck of a time taking it off later.

I have also done the bread tie trick. Put a hole in the top and bottom half and close with a bread tie. I have found this to work better than the Duct Tape, but it's a lot of work when you have a lot of containers.

labeled milk jugs


Some people consecutively number their containers on the outside with a magic marker or paint pen, and then have a chart noting which seed is which number. 

Some people write the name of the seeds directly on the outside of the container. Markers will fade in the sun; paint pens are great!

Word of advice. 

Whatever you write on the top half, also write it on the very bottom. Why? One, the sun won't fade it as quickly when it's labeled underneath. 

But more importantly, I tend to cut off the entire top half as the seedlings start to grow and need more air circulation and light, and when I did that with the label only on the top, well, you can imagine. A lot of seedlings look alike when they're that young!

milk jugs under snow

The seeds are planted in your winter sowing container.  What Next?

A little bit about watering.  On a sunny day, above freezing, look for condensation. Containers with little or no condensation will need watering.

Leave them in the snow, in the rain, doesn't matter.

I have a graveled area right next to my deck. It has good drainage and the containers are protected from any strong winds by the air conditioning unit. 

It's not so important where they're at in the winter as long as the containers can get rain and in a spot where they won't blow around and dislodge the seeds.

Leave them be! That's the beauty of winter sowing!

Don't worry about the cold. The seeds are sleeping.Don't worry about the rain. They need some moisture.Don't worry about the snow. It's a great insulator.Simply put.... Don't Worry!

What to do in the Spring

Come Spring, I start peaking in the opening at the top to see if there are any sprouts yet. Different seeds will sprout at different times, so be patient.

Sun will kill more seedlings than the cold!  I've learned that one the hard way.

Once I see sprouts, it all depends on the weather. The seedlings are protected in their mini greenhouses in early spring, but as the warm weather begins, I check a few times a week for soil moisture and I water lightly if necessary. 

Since I initially put my containers in an area facing south, I will slowly move the containers to a shadier location when I get seedlings. If the seedlings are still waiting for me to transplant and we're getting some really sunny, warm days, I will start to cut out some sides of the milk jug to create more airflow. 

You can also remove the entire top half if you choose. (You marked the bottom, right?)


Start transplanting whenever the seedlings are strong enough to handle. Just like any seedling that you would transplant, give it extra care until it's a strong and viable plant.

Let's recap the most important points

  • Take the cap of the milk jug OFF! Throw it away so you're not tempted to put it back on. Better yet, throw the lid away when you first rinse out your container and store it for winter use
  • Label, Label, Label. There's nothing worse than not knowing what's in there when they sprout!
  • Put several drainage holes in the bottom. Some people put holes in the lower sides of the container also, but I haven't found this necessary.
  • Don't sow seeds needing that cold stratification step too late. They may not germinate in the spring.

Winter Sowing -- It's Easy and It Works!

That's it! Whether you're winter sowing annuals or perennials, you'll find winter sowing to be one of the easiest ways to get a garden full of great color!

And I can guarantee you one thing. In the Spring when you see your first jugs with little sprouts in them, you'll be hooked on the Winter Sowing Method!

Good luck and happy gardening!


This post may contain Amazon affiliate links and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases without costing you

Epsom Salt in the Organic Garden

Why it's a favorite of organic gardeners

The popularity of organic gardening is increasing day by day. Organic gardeners have a philosophy that supports the health of the whole system of gardening, especially when it comes to dealing with the soil. As organic gardeners look for alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, Epsom Salt has risen in popularity as an effective organic soil amendment for garden use.

The main ingredient in Epsom Salt is magnesium sulfate which is an important soil additive for healthy plant life. It allows plants to take in nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen and enhances the capability of the soil. It assists in the creation of chlorophyll which is used by the plant to convert sunlight into food.

The benefits of Epsom Salt on plants are many including that it’s organic, it’s gentle on plants and it’s inexpensive! 

Here are some specific ways it helps with plants:
  • It enhances a plant’s green color, especially ornamental leafy plants like hostas.
  • Improves flower blooming.
  • It helps plants grow bushier.
  • Greatly improves a plant’s ability to produce fruit and flowers.
  • It’s safe, and there is little danger of problems from overuse.
  • It doesn’t build up in the soil and it won't have buildup that will clog the root cells of your plants. In fact, Epsom Salt can be used for potted plants that have developed a salt accumulation.

It's Versatile in its Use!

Another big advantage of Epsom Salt is its versatility in the way it can be used. You can sprinkle Epsom Salt over a large garden area, you can use it to circle around plants or you can add a solution of Epsom Salt to a garden sprayer

On a New Garden Area

Sprinkle up to one cup per 100 square feet and work it into the soil.


To Help with Transplant Shock

Did you know that using Epsom Salt can reduce transplant shock? Plants can become weak and wither right after transplanting, and Epsom Salt can help reduce that transplant shock to the plant roots. The solution to use for this is one cup of Epsom Salt per 100 square feet.

On House Plants

Dissolve 2 tablespoons per gallon of water and use it to water your houseplants at least once a month.


On Potted Vegetables

Epsom Salt can be safely used with all fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Water an area with a solution of 2 tablespoons of Epsom Salt per gallon of water and apply at least one time a month for more robust fruiting.

For a Large Vegetable Garden

Fill your tank sprayer with one tablespoon of Epsom Salt per gallon of water. Use this mixture to spray your garden after the initial planting, when the plants start growing and when the vegetables begin to mature.


Tomatoes and Peppers

Since tomatoes are prone to magnesium deficiency, Epsom Salt is a great way to keep the plants healthy later into the season when the leaves of the plant can turn yellow. You may also have noticed a decreased production as the season wanes on.

For tomatoes, it is important to use Epsom Salt at the beginning of the season and all through the season.

Add one to two tablespoons of Epsom Salt before sowing seeds or planting a transplant. As the tomato plant matures, work in one tablespoon of Epsom Salt per foot of plant height around the base of the plant. 

An alternative is to create a spray of one tablespoon of Epsom Salt to a gallon of water and spray the plant every two weeks.

Peppers, too, can benefit from using Epsom Salt the same way as tomatoes.


Roses and Bloomers

Apply a foliar spray of one tablespoon per gallon for each foot of shrub height in the Spring when leaves appear and then again when flowering.

Other Uses

Slug Control

For those plants that are prone to slug damage, apply a narrow band of Epsom Salt around the plant. 

Since Epsom Salt is a scratchy substance, it will pierce the skin of any slimy creature when it crosses over it.

Beetles and Other Garden Pests

A solution of one cup of Epsom Salt per five gallons of water is a great deterrent to Beetles and other garden pests.


Epsom Salt is a great alternative to synthetic chemicals. It's no surprise that it is so popular in organic gardens.


Where to go next!

This post may contain Amazon affiliate links and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases without costing you anything extra.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Growing Sage - Homesteading 101

Perennial Zones 4 – 8 (Hardiness Varies)

Sage is a shrubby perennial that’s an obvious choice for the kitchen.  From spring through mid-summer, Sage displays blue to lavender flowers which are very attractive to birds.  It has an earthy, rich, spicy flavor and it is part of the mint family.

The most popular types of culinary Sage are Garden Sage, Golden Garden Sage, Berggarten Garden Sage, Dwarf Garden Sage, Tricolor Garden Sage, and Window Box Sage.

Starting Sage from Seed

Seed Longevity:                                            2 years.
Seed Sowing Depth:                                     Surface, cover lightly.
Best Soil Temp for Germination:                   65 – 70 degrees.
Days to Germination:                                    15-21 days.

Spring Sowing                                           

Sow Indoors 6 – 8 weeks before the last frost.  Transplant out after the last frost date.

Fall:    Not recommended.

Winter Sowing

If you haven't tried winter sowing, you're in for a treat.  This method is especially good for sowing herbs.  Winter sowing is basically sowing seeds in the bottom of milk jugs in the winter, setting the milk jugs outside for the winter and leaving them there until the seeds germinate in the Spring.
For our article containing detailed information about Winter Sowing, see our separate article.

Herb Scissors

Herb Mincer

Growing Sage

Plant Size:                                                     1-3’ Height.
Growing Soil Temperature:                            55 – 80 degrees.
Spacing:                                                         12 - 18”.
Container Size:                                              12” x 12” good size for Sage.
Soil:                                                                Well-drained.                                                             
Watering:                                    Light, only during dry spells.  Avoid overwatering.
Light/Sun:                                    Full sun to light shade.
Fertilizer:                                      Add some compost throughout the year.

Other Care Tips:   

  • Prefers cool to warm temperatures and will need some shade during the hot weather.
  • The plant should be replaced every 4-5 years.
  • Remove flower spikes before they have a chance to flower.
  • After three years, trim off woody parts to encourage new growth.

Dividing Sage

Best to divide Sage every 4-5 years when the plant becomes woody.  Dig up the entire plant, and using a sharp shovel, divide it into sections.  Remove all woody parts and replant the tender sections planting at the same depth.

Softwood Cuttings of Sage

Take cuttings in spring when new growth is several inches in length.  Side shoots of 4" in length are perfect. Cut the stem at an angle and remove lower leaves leaving an inch or two of the stem bare.  Plant cutting bare side down into a well-drained soil mix.  No fertilizer is needed at this stage.

Wrap the container in plastic to keep in humidity.  Avoid having the leaves touch the plastic.  Place the pot in light but out of direct light.  Keep soil moist but never soggy.  Remove the plastic when cutting grows roots.  A light tug that gives you some resistance means it has rooted.

Harvesting Sage

Start to harvest Sage once you see good growth on the plant.  Best harvested when tops of blossoms are barely open.  You can gather leaves at any time.  Sage is most flavorful as flowers begin to open. Purple-leaved Sage tends to be more aromatic than green-leaved Sage.

Storing Sage

Damp Paper Towel

This method works well for hardy herbs that have woody stems as well as a few soft-stemmed herbs.

Clean and thoroughly dry the Sage.  Arrange lengthwise in a single layer on a slightly damp paper towel.  Loosely roll up the herb and transfer to a plastic bag or plastic wrap.  Label and store in the fridge.  Sage will stay fresh in the fridge using this method for up to 2 weeks.


For best results, use frozen Sage within 1-2 years.  By freezing herbs, you will lose some of the herb's texture but preserve the flavor.  Here are a few freezing options to consider:

Tray Freeze

Strip leaves off the stems of the Sage and spread onto a cookie sheet on a single layer. Freeze in the freezer, then place it in a labeled freezer bag to store.  Since the leaves are frozen separately, you can easily remove the amount you need.

Ice Cube Trays with Oil

This method works well for hard-stemmed herbs that would probably be cooked when adding to a dish.  The oil reduces some of the browning and freezer burns.
Clean and thoroughly dry herbs.  Mince and firmly pack herbs into an ice cube tray 3/4 full.  Add Olive Oil to fill and freeze.  Transfer frozen cubes into labeled freezer bags to store.

Flat Freezer Bag

Trim off the stems and place them in a labeled freezer bag.  Squeeze out the air, flatten the freezer bag, label and store.


Sage contains more oil than most other herbs so it dries more slowly.  It is one of the best herbs to dry.   For best results, use dried Sage within 1-2 years.

Hang to Dry

Pick your Sage in bunches right before you intend to store them.  Tie the bottom of the bunch together with twine and hang upside down to dry in a dry, low humidity area. For added protection against dust, you can put the bundles inside paper bags with plenty of holes for ventilation.  When the herbs are dry, the leaves will crumble easily between your fingers.  Store in an airtight container.

Using Sage

  • Sage can be overwhelming so start with small amounts.
  • Use leaves fresh in recipes or add them sparingly to salads.
  • Dried sage is commonly used with Thanksgiving stuffing. 
  • It can be paired with pork, beans, potatoes, and cheese. 
  • You can mix it into a soft cheese for a tasty bread spread.

To see the other herbs in the culinary herb series, click a tab below.


This post may contain Amazon affiliate links and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases without costing you anything extra.

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