Cures for Winter Blahs: Winter Sow Herbs

By Deb
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Deb’s family owns a small herb farm and herbal skin care business in Porterfield, Wisconsin. It is there that they play and work with herbs on a daily basis.  Deb is a Master Gardener Volunteer, organizer of a local herb group, and a teaches herb-related and soap-making classes for a local technical college, folk school, and right on the farm. (

Most avid herb gardeners spent January eyeing up their seed catalogs and then placing their orders for spring. Does the stretch in between seem unending? Well, it need not be.  There is a wonderful way to quench your thirst for gardening during the winter months as well–try winter sowing! I am going to show you, step by step, how easy it is.

Here are the materials you will need to get started:

• Sharp scissors or a knife
• As many milk cartons as you can muster up
• Your fistful of seed packets that you intended to plant in the spring
• Waterproof maker
• A water source
• Man’s best friend–a roll of duct tape
• A bag of potting soil
• An outdoor location for setting them out

There is plenty of information on the Internet about how to winter sow. One of the best is by Trudi Davidoff. Take your list of seeds to her website and there you will be able to identify if your seeds can be winter sown or if they should be saved for direct sowing or greenhouse starts. DO NOT try to winter sow all your seeds. 

The beauty of this project is that it costs pennies to do and you will be reusing old milk jugs to boot. Roll up your sleeves and get planting. 

Poking drainage holes in a milk jug. Photo by Pat Doubek

First, grab your first milk carton and poke a drainage hole in each quadrant of the milk jug bottom. 

Cutting the top of the milk jug. Photo by Pat Doubek

Next, cut your milk jug all the way around just above the handle. Keep the handle joined.  

Hinged milk jug with drainage holes. Photo by Pat Doubek

Your milk jug should now be hinged by the handle and have drainage holes in the bottom.

Adding the potting soil. Photo by Pat Doubek

Now, add the potting soil to the milk jug. It doesn’t need to be terribly deep.  

Label your milk jug. Photo by Pat Doubek

Write down the name of the seeds you are sowing on a piece of duct tape with a waterproof marker.  

Label your milk jug before watering. Photo by Pat Doubek

Place your label on the bottom of the milk jug before watering or even when you are poking the holes. It needs to be dry. I also like to write it on the top of the jug, as it is easier to see from above.  This minimizes the chance of having no label at all come spring.

Water the soil before seeding. Photo by Pat Doubek

Give the soil a good watering before placing your seeds in the milk jug.  This will keep your seeds from floating down river. 

Placing your seeds. Photo by Pat Doubek

Place your seeds in the soil based on the planting depth and spacing required on the seed packet. I find they can be placed rather closely. Pat the soil down. You can also add a light layer to the top of the seeds instead of pressing them in. 

Taping the jug closed. Photo by Pat Doubek

Secure the sides of your milk jug together with duct tape. The tape may be hard to stick if your milk jug is too wet but with several pieces you have a better chance.

Place your milk jug outdoors. Photo by Pat Doubek

Place the milk jug in the snow or anywhere outside on a picnic table, sidewalk, ledge or balcony.

As you can tell, this is basically a tiny greenhouse for your plants.  Once it gets warmer and you see sprouts, start to care for them like any other nursery plant. As soon as the ground is workable, be sure to get your babies in the ground. The first year we started doing this we filled nearly 10 raised beds with a variety of herbs that have come up year after year.  

If you pine for spring days and fingernails with dirt crammed under them, go ahead and give winter sowing a try!

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