Wintersowing Tutorial: Upcycle Trash to Make Garden Greenhouses & Start Seeds in Cold Weather

Photo credit: nociveglia via / CC BY

Photo credit: nociveglia via / CC BY

What is Wintersowing?

Wintersowing is a method for seed starting developed by Trudi Davidoff. I first heard of the wintersowing method several years ago on Garden Web. The idea is a simple one; creating mini greenhouses out of recyclable materials to use for seed starting outdoors during the cold winter and spring months. I thought that it was a brilliant method that was inexpensive, environmentally beneficial, flexible, and allowed me to keep dirt, bugs, grow lights, and whatnot out of my home.

I also love wintersowing with the kids. We can plant a little bit at a time over the course of the season, which keeps planting fun and manageable. We talk about the stages of growth as we check on the progress of our seeds. We also discuss different aspects of plants and their needs as we create our little growing spaces (e.g., we need holes to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide; the greenhouses hold in moisture and allow the sun to shine through, we open the lids in the warmer weather so that we don’t overheat and cook our seedlings, etc.)

Why Use a Wintersowing Approach?

There are many reasons why I love wintersowing, but the basics breakdown to cost, convenience, and success.

Wintersowing is extremely economical. The containers used are generally free and readily available. Wintersowing eliminates the need for grow lights or any special equipment. A bag of potting soil is typically my only true expense. Some years I also purchase seeds, but not always (see seed discussion down below for many resources for free seeds).

I love the convenience of wintersowing. Because I am sowing seeds in the comfort of my home across a period of weeks or months, I can do a little at a time. I don’t feel overwhelmed by my garden or a need to start all of my seeds in the same small window of time 6-8 weeks before our final frost date. I also really like the low-maintainance of the method. Once I prepare a container for sowing, it just sits outside rain or shine, and there is no mess in my home. There is no need for upkeep until the seeds sprout, and from then on it is fairly minimal. It is important to make sure that sprouts don’t dry out, overheat, or “hit their heads” on the tops of the containers, but these needs can be managed with little trouble (see resources below for tips and guidance on wintersowing). Additionally, since the seeds come to life in the great outdoors, there is no need to coddle them through a hardening off period, they re ready to plant after the final frost date in your area.

The best part of wintersowing has to be the success of the method. Since wintersowing keeps seeds contained and protected, there is little seed loss due to weather conditions or animals, as there can be with direct sowing. Wintersowing also keeps temperature and moisture conditions controlled better than indoor setups in my experience. I find that I have incredibly high germination rates with wintersowing.

What Seeds Work for Wintersowing?

In my experience, just about any type of seed adapts well to wintersowing, with the exception of plants that are notoriously difficult to start from seed under any circumstance (rosemary comes to mind). Perennial plants are very well-suited to wintersowing, but I find annuals to work great as well. I have used wintersowing to grow a wide range of annual and perennial flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables with great success.

Basic Steps of Wintersowing

To wintersow, you will need your potting soil or preferred growing medium, seeds, and your containers. You will also need a knife or other object for poking holes in your containers, a marker to label your containers, and possibly some heavy-duty tape and rubber bands. I sometimes also purchase paper cups to use within some of my little greenhouses.

Wintersowing is generally done using plastic, food-grade containers that have not previously held any toxic or hazardous materials (I stick with old food containers that I would otherwise recycle). You want to look for containers that can hold at least a 2″-3” depth of soil with some head space for your plants. If the container itself is not clear or translucent plastic, you at least want the lid to be a clear plastic to allow the sun’s rays to shine in. Sometimes a lid can be adapted by cutting away a portion of the lid and replacing it with plastic wrap or similar as discussed in the video.

Wintersowing will shift how you look at your garbage and recyclables. Once you figure out your preferred types of containers, friends, neighbors, and others are often more than happy to route their garbage to you. Some of my favorite containers are quart size yogurt tubs, large plastic clamshells from bulk lettuces, and traditional seed starting trays coupled with single-serve yogurt cups and reused large plastic bags. Other people are milk jug enthusiasts,

The video will give you an idea of how to use and modify your containers to create your mini greenhouses.

Wintersowing Resources

Wintersowing is supported by an enthusiastic community. There are many great places to learn more about wintersowing, ask questions, and to see the setup and successes of other wintersowing gardeners. Some of my favorites:

Trudi Davidoff has her own website about Wintersowing. The site is currently under construction but still has some information and pictures.

Gardenweb’s Wintersowing Forum is a great place to post questions and reap the advice of winter sowers of all ranges of experience and from all across the country. It is also a treasure trove of pictures about wintersowing from seed starting to planting, and for the “after” shots of beautiful gardens built from wintersown plants.

The Wintersown Facebook Page is another useful public forum for discussing wintersowing and sharing progress photos. The page has over 9,000 members. The Facebook page is administrated in part by Trudi Davidoff as she continues to share her passion for the method that she developed.

But What about the Seeds?

Of course in order to wintersow, you will need seeds. One of the most exciting aspects of starting seeds on your own versus purchasing seedlings is the exponentially greater range of plant options available to you. I love thumbing through seed catalogs looking at the beautiful and exotic plant varieties. I gravitate toward unusual colors, shapes, and sizes that I would never see at a grocery store, and are a rare find even at the farmer’s market.

Whenever I purchase seeds, I prefer to support companies who are committed to biodiversity and who are against GMO seed. If this is important to you as well, I recommend purchasing from companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, indicating that they will “not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants.” A list of companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge can be found here.

I also prefer to grow heirloom and open pollinated plants to allow me to save my own seed over the years; giving me a large stash of seed to work from. See a video tutorial of how I save tomato seeds here. Saving seeds from other plants such as flowers, peppers, peas, and beans is even easier.

I also find that because wintersowing has such high germination rates for me, I waste less seed and can successfully grow older seed. As a result, seed packets go a very long way and I often have extra seed from my own seed saving efforts to share. Seed swaps are another growing trend. I have participated in seed swaps through online communities as well at through my local botanic garden. Seed swaps tend to occur in January or February to allow gardeners to start their seeds in time for spring planting. This list of seed swaps around the country can help you prepare for next year’s events. Local seed libraries are another resource for seeds. See a partial list by state here, or search online for seed libraries in your state to find options local to you.

Wintersowing Final Thoughts

I hope that you find the wintersowing method to be as exciting and useful as I have over the years. After trying and succeeding with this gardening method, I really can’t imagine starting my plants any other way. I’m curious to know if you’ve tried wintersowing before. Do you have any experiences to share? I’m happy to field questions in the comments too so feel free to ask. There’s still time to start seeds for this year’s garden.

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Barganic Alert: Organic Authority Spring Renewal Goodie Box Goes on Sale on Monday

Have you had a chance to check out the Crunchy Parent list of crunchy-friendly subscription boxes? If you have, you may be familiar with Organic Authority. Although not a typical re-billing subscription, they offer quarterly single-purchase boxes curated around a theme and chock full of eco-friendly, non-toxic, and organic products for beauty, wellness, home, garden, kitchen, and food.

photo credit: Organic Authority

Organic Authority’s “Spring Renewal” Goodie Box will be available as a limited edition of only 50 boxes starting Monday. Boxes cost $129 and include shipping. Content value is $480. Organic Authority has revealed most of the box contents, with remaining items to be revealed tomorrow. Box sales go live on Monday, April 13th, 2015 at 8 o’clock am Pacific Time.

Products already revealed include:

The Herbal Face Food (2 oz.) antioxidant-packed, raw, serum. $100 value
B True Beauty’s All Natural Eyelash Enhancer made with organic ingredients to nourish and enhance lashes. $59 value
The Magic Pads (50 pads) to exfoliate, clarify, and fight aging. $19.95 value
Aunt Fannie’s Fly Punch fruit fly kits (2 kits) Aunt Fannie’s non-toxic formula will tackle pesky fruit flies in your kitchen $21.98 value
Zing Anything’s Original Citrus Zinger water bottle A 28 oz. BPA/Halogen/EA and Phthalates free water bottle with built-in citrus press to add a zing to your water. $15.99 value
Handigger’s Trowel ergonomically designed for wrist relief while gardening $26.99 value
Ground 2 Table’s Full Collection of Organic Spice Blends (12 total) Sample all twelve organic spice blends. $23.88 value (currently on sale for $9.99 value through manufacturer website)
Balanced Guru’s Style Me: Roots to Ends Hair Oil (1 oz.) Conscientiously formulated with wholesome ingredients and aromatic essential oils, Balanced Guru’s products are cruelty-free, sustainable, and free of synthetic chemicals and artificial scents. A safe, effective and luscious way to promote healthy hair and protect against damage. $18.99 value
ReLeaf’s Leaf Scoops to lend ease to lawn and leaf care. $34.45 value (currently selling for $23.48 through Amazon)
NeoCell’s Biotin Bursts™ Brazilian Acai Berry soft chews+ $2 Coupon to nourish hair and skin. $17.99 value
healthy hoohoo’s Feminine Foaming Cleanser ultra-mild, pH balanced, glycerin-free, fragrance-free, gluten-free, vegan and contain no harsh chemicals (like parabens, alcohol, sulfates or dyes). $14.75 value
Garden of Life’s Grain-Free Organic Plant Protein in Smooth Chocolate (9oz) Certified USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified plant protein supplement, uniquely formulated to have superior taste and texture, ideal for anyone looking for a clean protein supplement that is free of common allergens such as gluten, grains, dairy and soy. $29.95 value

The remaining items will be unveiled tomorrow (judging by the photo another garden tool and some chocolate goodies are among the treats yet to be revealed). The 50 boxes are sure to sell out fast, starting Monday at 8:00am Pacific Time. Are you grabbing one?

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Dye Eggs Naturally with Fruits, Vegetables, Botanicals (and Children)

Crunchy Parent Dye Eggs naturalls with vegetabes, herbs & botanicals

Am I the only one struggling with the idea that Passover and Easter are almost here? Maybe it’s because living in the Midwest the weather never quite feels like it has made a commitment to spring until June rolls around, and by then it’s really too late. Regardless of my feelings, the calendar cannot be denied. Spring, and all of its many holidays are upon us, bringing with them the shared symbol of an egg to celebrate rebirth and renewal.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has pinched a sprig or two of the parsley otherwise earmarked for the Passover meal and wrapped it around an egg, securing it with scrap of pantyhose, and hard boiling it in a pot full of onion skins to create the extra special symbol to sit in a position of honor on the Seder Plate. The result has always been a deep russet colored egg with a perfectly outlined parsley leaf, serving as an example of effective use of negative space. I have long appreciated the simple beauty of this symbol of spring; the image of fresh green growth superimposed on an egg, the ultimate representation of new beginnings.

This year as my mother was delegating holiday preparation tasks, she asked if I would like to take responsibility for the egg for the Seder Plate. I was thrilled to have this gentle nudge to explore the world of egg dyeing using natural dyes such as vegetables, fruits, and spices. I also wanted to see how else I could incorporate new botanicals in the egg imprinting process. Additionally, it seemed like a great way to get the children involved in the holiday preparation as well as provide opportunities for a multitude of discoveries about nature, seasons, color mixing, patterns, and more. I read, researched, consulted with my mother, and then pretty much did my own thing which is how I most often like to learn and create.

The first step was taking the kids on a walk in the yard. The children next door joined in too so we had six eager boys and girls looking for “fresh green things with interesting shapes.” We talked about why the plants needed to be green versus brown (so that they would bend to the shape of the eggs and not crumble); why rocks or sticks would not work for this project; and we gathered some found objects just to fill up the spaces in our empty pockets because that’s what happens when we look around outside. We also had a discussion about edible versus non-edible plants and decided that since we wanted to be able to eat the eggs in the end that it would be best to only use plants that we knew were safe to consume.

Searching for new leaves to imprint on our eggs

Searching for new leaves to imprint on our eggs

Next up in the process I raided the refrigerator. I wanted to have a whole rainbow of colors because I’m a “more is more” kind of person by nature (I’m working on that). I also didn’t want to have to go to the store because once I get excited about a project, I like to dive right in. I settled for using beets for reddish/pink, the yellow onion skins for a russet color, turmeric for yellow, chlorella for green, and a mix of frozen blackberries and grapes for purple. I then acknowledged that I really wanted blue too so I picked up a purple cabbage at the grocery store anyway. As long as I was there I grabbed some additional fresh herbs (sage, thyme, dill, and rosemary) that I thought might make pretty impressions on the eggs.

I diligently chopped up the produce as needed and put 2-3 cups of fruit or veggie matter in each pot along with a quart of water. For the chlorella and the turmeric, I went with 2 tablespoons per quart of water. I then brought the pots to a boil and lowered the flame, allowing each pot to simmer covered.

Berries/grapes, turmeric, and chlorella

Berries/grapes, turmeric, and chlorella

I had read a host of differing methods for the dye preparation and dyeing process. Some people hard boiled their eggs in the pot along with the coloring agent, but others suggested that such a method would not allow the colors to properly develop before the egg became horribly overcooked. Some methods instructed the dye to simmer for 30 minutes to an hour or more to allow the color to properly deepen, although others said to cook until the desired shade was reached. I read instructions to add several tablespoons of vinegar to each pot at the start when preparing their dye, whereas some added the vinegar once the dye had cooled or even brushed the vinegar directly onto the egg shell before dyeing. I decided to hard boil my eggs in water first and allow to cool in the fridge. Then, I prepared my dye to a deep dark shade, checking the colors with the kids to decide when we thought the color was ready.

Alina and Asher inspect the dye colors as they develop.

Alina and Asher inspect the dye colors as they develop.

When the dye was done, I strained the liquid dye into glass jars, discarding the solid material. I could have moved forward at this point, but it was getting late so I stored the covered glass jars in the fridge overnight. The next morning, I added the vinegar to the dye just before dyeing each egg.

We opted to use both brown and white eggs to add another element of mystery and discovery to the process (i.e., how would the same dye look on differently colored eggs?). Asher enjoyed making patterns with the eggs as we prepared to dye them.

brown, white, brown, white, brown, white

brown, white, brown, white, brown, white

Each child worked with varying levels of assistance to consider how they wanted to decorate their eggs and apply the herbs. We found that dabbing a small amount of coconut oil onto the back of the leaves helped us adhere them more securely to the cold eggs. Then I carefully wrapped each egg in a small bit of old, clean pantyhose and tied it gently to secure, a process that I found moderately challenging without disrupting our plant placement.

wrapped eggs awaiting their dye baths

wrapped eggs awaiting their dye baths

I will add here that if at all possible I would recommend calling each child over to this activity on his or her own to decorate eggs and then return to their play or activities when the next child takes a turn. As it was, trying to manage the enthusiasm, desires, and need for assistance of three children at once at this point in the process resulted in exactly three out of my three children bursting into tears before all was said and done, which was not part of the original plan, and of which I took no photos.

Once our eggs were ready, we placed them into glass jars of our dyes, debating about the colors that the eggs would ultimately turn (would the deep wine-colored beet dye result in darker or lighter eggs than the ruby red grape/berry dye? Would the purple/pink cabbage dye really turn the eggs blue as promised?). I tucked the jars in the fridge and checked on the eggs after several hours, opting to leave them in for longer. Many I left in the dye bath overnight and well into the next day.

out of the dye jars and set to dry

Out of the dye jars and set to dry

Our results were a mixed bag. We all had our favorite shapes and colors and discussed what we would do differently next time. We found that the chlorella was a bust, not dyeing the eggs at all. The turmeric didn’t work much better for us, adding only the palest of yellows to our white egg. We decided to relocate it to the blue jar and overdye it. We were quite shocked to see the red grape/berry dye turn the egg a deep purple, and we loved every shade of blue that the purple cabbage dye created. We all preferred the white eggs as our canvas, and found that sturdy or single leaves with well-defined shapes made our favorite impressions (parsley, pine, dandelion, clover). We also found that soaking the eggs in the cold dye bath versus boiling them with the dye seemed to keep the dye on the surface of the egg shell, making the colors very vulnerable to rubbing off with handling. I suspect that cooking the egg in the dye bath may help fix the dye to the shell, but I’ll have to experiment with that and see. My mother’s eggs that are cooked with the onion skins have always held the dye better than mine did, hence my theory. In the end, the russet colored egg with the humble parsley leaf print is still my favorite, although that pine needle one is a close second, and I do so love the blue colors…back to “more is more” I guess.

Have you had experience dyeing eggs or other materials such as fibers with natural dyes? Please share any tips or stories in the comments. For all of those who are celebrating in the days ahead, may you have a peaceful and joyous holiday.

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