The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Winter sowing vs. cold frames

Winter sowingWhile I'm on the subject of techniques that I consider to be overhyped, I can't resist a post about winter sowing.  According to the official website, "Winter Sowing is done outdoors during Winter using mini-greenhouses made from recyclables; there are no heating devices, no energy wasting light set-ups or expensive seed starting devices."

Just take a container and turn it into a pot by poking a few holes in the bottom.  Then put in your soil, drop in some seeds, and cover the pot with a clear plastic lid doctored with a few slits.  The container acts like a mini greenhouse and germinates the seeds a few weeks before they would germinate if sown directly into the garden.

Winter sowing is basically a replacement for the easy-to-do-wrong method of starting your seedlings on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights.  Beginning gardeners often fall into a couple of traps when using the windowsill method, both of which result in leggy seedlings that transplant badly --- they usually can't get enough light to their plants, and they start the seedlings too early.  Damping off is another potential problem since moist potting soil tends to grow a nasty fungus that will kill your seedlings.  Then, when you bring your remaining seedlings outside to plant in the garden, they have a severe shock --- they're used to the climate-controlled conditions inside your house, so unless you slowly harden them off, many will die.

Cheap cold frameBut while winter sowing is preferable to starting seeds inside, I think that a cold frame is even better.  Like winter sowing, it gives your seeds a few weeks' head start, but the cold frame provides more protection from freezing temperatures since the seedlings are in direct contact with the temperature-mitigating earth.  Your seedlings have more room to spread their roots through the soil, ensuring a healthy plant, and the permeable row cover fabric I use to cover the frames ensures that you don't have to water your seedlings or worry about them overheating.

Over the last few years, I've tried starting seeds both indoors under a grow light and outdoors in these cold frames and I've decided that the cold frame is preferable for lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes.  On the other hand, peppers are just too tender --- they came up no sooner in a cold frame than when directly sowed in the ground, so I'm starting a few indoors this year.  Read my post about how to build a cold frame for a couple of dollars worth of screws and give it a shot --- I suspect you'll never go back to either windowsill starting or winter sowing.

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This post is part of our Square Foot Gardening lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I'm curious to know if you're still using the cold frame method for starting seeds instead of using lights, heat mats, windowsills, and/or winter sowing. Or do you only direct sow your seeds? I've got all my seeds finally and want to start making a garden to-do timeline, but that depends on a lot of factors, such as whether I try to get a head start or just let the seeds do their thing on their own time.
Comment by mitsy Sat Jan 19 12:42:07 2013

Mitsy --- I mostly direct-sow, but I start tomatoes, broccoli, and cabbages under quick hoops. This year, I think I'm going to start peppers inside --- Mark was really keen on the sweet peppers last year, and if you want them early, you need to start them inside. (They're even less cold-hardy than tomatoes.) I'll probably start a few tomatoes inside while I'm at it, even though the quick-hoop ones usually catch up to the inside-started tomatoes pretty quickly. I haven't quite decided about onions --- I think I might start them inside and transplant, but they do well under quick hoops too if you have enough.

If you don't have grow lights, I think the biggest mistake most people make is to start seeds too early. Did you download the garden spreadsheet I linked to in this post? It has all my planting dates along with which ones are indoors and in quick hoops. I hope that helps!

Comment by anna Sat Jan 19 18:15:39 2013
Thanks! I forgot about that post with your spreadsheet. Very helpful. I'm going to try artichokes, which is what prompted my question.
Comment by mitsy Sun Jan 20 09:02:41 2013

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