There is an easier, and older, way to start seedlings for the upcoming gardening season. EvgeniusD/Shutterstock

When most gardeners begin their winter planting for the coming spring season, the process involves artificial lights, heating pads, regular watering and a lot of time.

Matthew Hall-Webb, customer service manager at Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, has found that a planting method that dates back a couple of centuries is a lot less work and a lot more friendly to the environment. It’s called winter seed-starting, and it’s gained popularity in the last 10 years.

“Farmers used this method in the 1800s because they didn’t have electricity,” Hall-Webb said.

I first heard about the process when he mentioned it in a talk to members of the Cape Elizabeth Garden Club last spring. He described the method as a way to get a head start on cut-flower production without going to the expense of buying commercially grown seedlings. I told him I’d be in touch when the time was right to start planting. That time is now.

Here in Zone 5/6, Hall-Webb said he starts hardy perennials in mid-January, plants like Joe Pye weed, milkweed and rudbeckia. Less hardy flowers, such as calendula, poppies and morning glories, he plants in mid-February, while he waits until mid-March for tender annuals and most vegetables. He avoids plants in the squash family because they are simply too tender for this method. “It can be done. I know people who do it,” he said, “but it’s not for me.”

Winter-seed starting requires one-gallon plastic milk jugs (the most common), salad containers or other similar containers. These containers can hold the potting material but let in sunlight. Hall-Webb cuts off the top of the jugs, pokes holes in the bottom for drainage, and then fills the containers with a soil mixture. He uses the Black Gold seedling mix that Pinetree has on hand, to which he adds vermiculite and occasionally peat, to retain moisture. But any potting mix will work.


He labels the outside of the jug to identify what he’s planted, but since that has often faded away by the time the seedlings have grown, he also puts a label into the soil. He waters the soil and seeds, tapes the top back onto the container and places the container outside, where it will get a good deal of sun, leaving the caps off the milk jugs to let some moisture enter.

“And then you let the germination process begin,” he said.

Hall-Webb said he has used a thermometer to test the temperature inside the jugs, and he was amazed by the temperature difference between the inside and the outside.

Hall-Webb said it takes him only about an hour to plant the seedlings each of the three times he does it, though I suspect it would take me and most other people a lot longer. Even so, it’s certainly less time than it takes to set up artificial lights and seedling trees for inside growing.

On warm, early spring days, he uncovers the plants to change the air and let the seedlings breath.

Another advantage to winter sowing is that the plants don’t have to be hardened off before you transplant them into the garden, as any seedling you started indoors would require. Hall-Webb usually begins transplanting the seedlings by mid-May, but said that Memorial Day weekend would be fine throughout most of Maine.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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