Wintersowing (Part 2) After the planting

Wintersowing part 2

Well, I hope some of you have saved some gallon jugs and seeds, and are trying the easiest way to start healthy seedlings I have ever seen: wintersowing.

My column two weeks ago covered the almost no cost, and definitely little hassle seed-starting method that lets Mother Nature worry about the watering and sunlight instead of having to set up your own seed-starting system inside.

This method has been tried by many now, and is successful for most. And for all of us who tried it, none of us are going back to the indoor method again! So, a quick review, of part one in case you missed it:

You take a gallon jug from milk or water and put four dime-sized drainage holes in the bottom. You take the lid off and recycle that; you never put the lid back on the jug. That is how nature takes over the watering from rain, snow and ice.

Then you cut a ‘U” on the flat side of the upper half of the jug; it’s like a garage door. Write date and plant name on inside of “U.” Fill with moistened potting mix, sow seeds shallowly. And put outside. That is it! But what happens when you start to see some green popping up in there?

The main reason wintersowing fails? People leave the lid on the jug. The second reason? They don’t know the difference in winter-sown seedlings versus ones you raise inside or buy at the store. This is the important difference, and if you know it, you will be thrilled with the success.

You know when you start seeds inside and they get all lanky and spindly, like the teenage boy who grew eight inches over a summer? These seedlings rarely make it outside. Their above-ground structure is a weak foundation for the constant Midwest winds. And their root systems are usually very limited. Why?

Because they were grown in a too-warm environment, causing too speedy growth — like concrete that sets up too fast, but not strong. Wintersowing is the exact opposite. And this is vital to understanding the whole reason we wintersow.

The seeds are subject to cold and will only awaken when the time and temperature cues hardwired into their genetics allow. Wintersown seedlings have little going on upstairs, but a riot of growth underground. Their root systems are massive, and their tops are nice, tight and stocky.

The number one rule is not to confuse what you are used to with either purchased seedlings or those you grew inside with wintersown plants. Here is the key. Wintersown plants can and should be transplanted when their first two sets of true leaves appear.

These are teeny tiny plants. But like the old Frank Sinatra song says “if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.” That is how wintersowing gets you the best seedlings possible. They don’t germinate until outside conditions are ready, and you know, it can be tough in the Midwest early spring.

So when do you transplant wintersown seedlings? Very early. Now a little botany lesson. Plants that are grown from seed are divided into two groups by the number of “seed leaves” they have. If soil were clear, you could see that when a seed is planted, it drinks in water (called imbibition) and swells; the seed coat softens and the little root (coleoptile), and the little shoot (cotyledon) burst out going in their appropriate direction (geotropism-roots grow down and shoots grow up). The seed leaf of most of our edibles are those two paddle like solar panels, I like to call them. Because there are two, they are called dicots. Seeds that are monocots (one seed leaf) are plants like grass, corn, Hosta and daylily.

After the seed leaves pop up, the rest of the leaves that emerge will be true leaves, they are the regular leaves of the plant in shape, just smaller sized. When you have two sets of true leaves, you can transplant wintersown seedlings.

This is completely opposite of inside transplants. Why so soon? Because when you pull the wintersown seedlings out of the container (by slicing down the sides of the U flap to the bottom of the jug) you will see the huge root system.

This occurred because of the slow Mother Nature’s way of cold to warm. The tops grow slowly, but the roots take off. And just like any good builder can tell you, a building is only as strong as its foundation. These little wintersown seedlings are powerhouses.

Several gardeners who have tried this method are shocked when their tiny wintersown seedlings end up larger, more fruitful, and floriferous and stronger than their store-purchased transplants. And no need to do any hardening off for the wintersown tinies; they can go right out, because that is where they grew up.

Now, if you are too squeamish to try this move so early, you can wait until your seedlings are larger, but remember, that little milk jug greenhouse will grow quickly and need more water that you might need to supply.

The other issue many wintersowers end up with is too many seedlings in their container — like 400 too many. Again, no problem. Instead of doing individual transplanting, use the “hunk of seedlings,” or “HOS” method. And once again, let Mother Nature do all the rest. The strongest will survive.

Hunk of seedlings involves taking a little chunk, say postage stamp- to palm-size of your overseedlings, and planting them. They will grow on, and the stronger will take over. Sometimes with this method, I will let the hunk grow on for a bit and then divide it in half again. Not only fun, easy, but so economical.

And remember, if you have any questions, I am happy to help. Call me at the Extension office or email me at [email protected] There is still time to wintersow. I usually start mid- to late-February. I can’t wait to hear about your results.



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