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

Photo credit: nociveglia via Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: nociveglia via Foter.com / 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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The Halloween Fairy Spills the Beans: Resources for Natural Halloween Candies & Food Allergy Safe Treats

Crunchy Parent-Where to easily find treats for a natural, food allergy safe Halloween

As I recently mentioned, our children work in partnership with the Halloween Fairy every year. The kids go Trick-or-Treating and gather candy throughout the neighborhood. At the end of the evening they each get to keep any non-edible Halloween goodies as well as select 5-10 pieces of their Halloween loot to enjoy over the days ahead. They have to avoid their specific allergens, but we allow them to save candies even if they contain food dyes or artificial flavors, genetically modified sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc., which of course is in basically all conventional candy. I cringe a bit inside, but it’s about finding balance so that is the route that we take right now.

When the selections are complete, the kids gather up the remaining candy and leave it in their collection buckets for the Halloween Fairy. During the night, the fairy comes and takes the candy, to be distributed later to children who did not get to go Trick or Treating on Halloween. In exchange for the candies left, the Halloween Fairy always delights our kids with very special sweets and treats that are free of artificial dyes and flavors, and do not contain the allergens that each child avoids. She also gives them small gifts that are non-edible.

The children are always so excited to wake up in the morning on November 1st and see what treasures await them. The Halloween Fairy seems to know some really esoteric and amazing Halloween treats. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to interview the Halloween Fairy and she gave me the exclusive scoop as to where to find some of her favorite natural and food allergy-friendly Halloween treats. I went and toured some of the local spots myself, and am excited to share my finds with you. The Halloween Fairy even told me about some online resources for those who prefer to shop online.

We also talked about a lot of great non-edible gifts that she brings to delight children too. I will post a second interview recap in a couple of days with those ideas. For today, we’ll consider this a celebration of the edible abundance that is Halloween to many children, with gratitude that the Halloween Fairy makes that aspect healthier and safer for many children.

Just before we get to that, she asked me to mention that she takes care to consider our children’s food needs which include sensitivities and allergies of varying degrees to gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, and sesame depending on the child. What she brings my children may not meet the needs of your children in terms of ingredients or manufacturing purity. Always read labels and consider the needs of your child before adding it to your approved list for the Halloween Fairy. Now, on with the show….

Probably the most widely accessible natural candy resource that the Halloween Fairy mentioned is the local drugstore. On a recent trip to Walgreens, I spotted one of our longtime-favorites, natural candy brand YumEarth (formerly Yummy Earth). We fell in love with their products back when all they made were delicious lollipops. They have since expanded the line to include gummy candies, jelly beans, sour gummies, hard candies, and licorice. All of their candies are free from most common allergens, organic, and GMO-free. They do not use any artificial colors or flavors. Moreover, their flavors are a blend of the more unique (e.g., tangerine/mango, blueberry, pomegranate) and the classics (e.g., grape, cherry, strawberry). All are delicious. My local Walgreens carried a selection of their line that I know would be a happy find on Halloween morning.

YumEarth sighting at Walgreens.

YumEarth sighting at Walgreens.

If the drugstore selection leaves you wanting for more, the local Target store also carries YumEarth products. They are even 10% off in my Target Cartwheel app right now, and Target had some really cute Halloween-themed YE products. In addition, Target carries other natural candy options including Surf Sweets (see below).

Depending on the dietary needs of the children in your home, Target offers many choices. Our local Super Target carries Unreal chocolate products. The brand started as a response to the artificial ingredients found in common candies like M&Ms. They tweaked the concept, making their candies fair trade and free of GMOs and gluten. They also only use natural color in their candies, and leave out any artificial flavors. Their signature “chocolate drops” contain dairy, but a number of their candies, such as their dark chocolate peanut butter cups are both gluten and dairy free. Check their website for store locations. Not all Target stores carry their line.

Justin's organic peanut butter cups and nut butters at Target.

Justin’s organic peanut butter cups and nut butters at Target.

If nuts are okay for your child, Target also carries a selection of organic, GMO-free, products from Justin’s, including their dark chocolate peanut butter cups, and single-serve sized squeeze packs of sweet nut butters like maple or vanilla almond butter or chocolate hazelnut butter. Justin’s even makes snack packs of their nut butters with gluten free pretzels for dipping.

BarkThins at Target. Yum!

BarkThins at Target. Yum!

Another win for the chocolate lovers, Target has a selection of snacking chocolates from BarkThins. We absolutely adore their blueberry quinoa variety which does not contain any gluten, dairy, or nut ingredients. BarkThin’s products are also Fair Trade and free from GMOs.

Gluten free granola bars at Target. Some contain nuts, some do not.

Gluten free granola bars at Target. Some contain nuts, some do not.

Of course, not all sweet treats need to be candy to be enjoyed for Halloween. Target has a host of dye free and food allergy friendly granola bars and cookies, as well as dried organic fruits, and delicious toasted coconut chips free from GMOs.

Organic banana chips and coconut chips at Target. Puts some natural sweetness into Halloween.

Organic banana chips and coconut chips at Target. Puts some natural sweetness into Halloween.

Another favorite shopping destination for us, that the Halloween Fairy seems to favor as well is Trader Joe’s. There you can find a host of more natural sweet treat options. They do a very nice job of highlighting items that are vegan, as well as those that are gluten-free or free from gluten-containing ingredients.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Honey Mints are great for a more natural or food allergy safe  Halloween with only three ingredients.

Made with only three ingredients, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Honey Mints are great for a more natural or food allergy safe Halloween.

I am a huge fan of the Trader Joe’s three-ingredient, dark chocolate honey mints. They are a much purer, healthier, and creamier version of York Peppermint Patties. Other family favorites include TJ’s vanilla meringues, gluten free ginger snaps, and naturally colored and flavored fruit jellies, among so many other great options.

Trader Joe's natural Fruit Jellies.

Trader Joe’s natural Fruit Jellies.

It came as no surprise to me that the Halloween Fairy mentioned Whole Foods as a great place to find Halloween treats that could be enjoyed by children with differing food needs. On a recent trip to Whole Foods, Alina and I quickly stumbled upon an entire food-allergy friendly, dye-free Halloween display with brands like YumEarth, Justin’s, Annie’s Homegrown, Surf Sweets, and TruJoy.

Whole Foods Halloween display of natural and food-allergy safe candy treats.

Whole Foods Halloween display of natural and food-allergy safe candy treats.

Alina was especially captivated by a bag of Surf Sweets gummy spiders and Truejoy’s organic fruit chews, which are comparable to Starbursts. The aisles of Whole Foods were packed with myriad candy, non-candy sweets, and less sweet options that would be very well-received by my kids come November 1st morning.

Food Allergy safe chocolate candies at Fresh Thyme market.

Food Allergy safe chocolate candies at Fresh Thyme market.

My talk with the Halloween Fairy even inspired me to check out my local specialty grocer, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market. They are a small healthy, fresh, grocery chain in the Midwest. Fresh Thyme had wonderful food allergy-friendly chocolate candy options; a host of raw, organic, vegan, and gluten free macaroons and granolas, and even raw, sprouted cookies. I also saw micro-brewed, natural, sodas that would be a huge treat for my girls; some of which were even stevia sweetened to temper the sugar rush that is Halloween.

All natural and stevia-sweetened sodas.

All natural and stevia-sweetened sodas.

If you follow me on Twitter you know that I even walked out with my own bag of Hail Merry macaroons that were somewhat alarming in their deliciousness. I am sure that other smaller grocery chains that cater to a “healthier” demographic would have similar offerings. You may want to direct the Halloween Fairy to them if she is less familiar with the smaller markets in your neighborhood.

Delicious Hail Merry macaroons offer another natural, gluten-free, vegan treat option from the Halloween Fairy.

Delicious Hail Merry macaroons offer another natural, gluten-free, vegan treat option from the Halloween Fairy.

The Halloween Fairy is as busy as the rest of us this time of year, if not busier. Sometimes online ordering can simplify or ease the process of getting all of the goodies that will be “just right” for the children that she will be visiting. She shared with me that one of her very favorite online resources is Natural Candy Store. Everything that they sell is free of artificial flavors, sweeteners, and dyes; as well as being free of preservatives and hydrogenated oils. They also have an amazing special diets search option that allows the buyer to select the exact allergens that they need to avoid, as well as the level of stringency for each ingredient (e.g., “no milk ingredients” vs. “strict milk free”).

I recognized many of our favorites from the Halloween Fairy at this site, including some absolutely delicious stand-ins for Snickers, Butterfinger, Milky Way, or Three Muskateers bars. I cannot express how special it is for my children to receive those “real” candy bars once a year. They look forward to it so much, and always hope that the Halloween Fairy remembers these favorites.

Other candies that the kids often see but don’t get to enjoy due to allergies included versions that they could eat of candies such as taffy, Tootsie Rolls, and candy corn. I also loved these fun Halloween lollipops. They reminded me of a year that the Halloween Fairy got especially ambitious. She ordered lollipop molds in Halloween shapes and made her own lollipops for my kids-oh Halloween Fairy, bless your heart.

Actually, the Halloween Fairy has surprised the children with many successful homemade goodies over the years. This can be a great option to ensure that she knows exactly what ingredients were used and to save money versus purchasing all of her specialty treats. She has left small bags of popcorn or vegan caramel corn, vegan pumpkin seed brittle, maple candy, crisped rice marshmallow treats, and homemade marshmallows. We really think that the Halloween Fairy rocks.

Of course, some years the Halloween Fairy likes to let her Amazon Prime account do the heavy lifting for her. She can order and have everything delivered right to her door in a snap. Sunkist Fruit Gems are a great Amazon option because they seem almost impossible to find in stores. Perhaps it’s because they are gluten free, colored and flavored naturally, and are made in a peanut free factory. They also have a satisfying gummy texture that doesn’t make the crowns on my teeth twitch, so that’s a win. YumEarth and Surf Sweets can also be found on Amazon. For the gum chewers, Amazon carries Spry, Glee, and Pur, all of which are free of artificial flavors and dyes, and are sweetened with xylitol.

With so many options, the Halloween Fairy could easily shower your child or children with Halloween abundance to rival that of any conventional candy-eating kid. Of course, not every family is looking to place so much emphasis on the candy that surrounds the holiday. As mentioned earlier, the Halloween Fairy also talked with me about some of her favorite non-edible gift ideas. She mentioned many of the things that she has left for my kids and many others over the years that have been well-received, and have helped to carry on the memory of Halloween longer than an overindulged-Halloween-induced stomachache might ever last. In fact, they are so delightful that you may just decide to go candy-free for Halloween altogether.

I will be recapping the non-edible suggestions from the second part of our interview in the days ahead. Please be sure to subscribe to CrunchyParent.com so that you don’t miss out on this, and other exclusive magical interviews. Happy (almost) Halloween!

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TBT: Wet Felted Wool Ball Tutorial with Needle Felting Option (video)

Wet and Needle Felted Wool Balls

I am keeping my fingers crossed that in time we will be able to recover some of the more frequently searched for and referenced posts from the CrunchyParent.com blog in its first version before we lost all of the content from the site (more about that here). It is amazing to me, and very gratifying, that even through I had stopped posting new content to the blog almost seven years ago and it had disappeared from the interwebs completely for five years, people still find their way to the site through old links from other blogs. It seems inhospitable to have nothing to greet them about their topic of interest other than an error message. Fortunately I was at times a contentious blogger, saving my posts as actual files rather than typing the content directly into my hosting site. We’ve saved the hard drive from the computer that I used at the time, so there is still the possibility of finding some or many of my old posts and revisiting them here.

In honor of Throwback Thursday, I’m going to attempt to capture the essence of a video tutorial post that I had made in 2008, back when I posted to the blog anonymously and used pseudonyms for the children and didn’t show my face in videos (I’ve since gotten over all of that). The first video in the two-part tutorial series shows a very accessible way to craft a wet-felted wool ball using nothing more than your hands, wool batting, dish soap, and water (which means that you probably have at least three of the required ingredients already!). These wool balls can be made in any size needed and are great for gentle indoor play for children of all ages (including babies provided that they have direct supervision to ensure that they don’t gum off any loose wool and choke on a hairball). The balls can also be used as cat toys and as wool dryer balls to cut down on drying time and eliminate the need for artificial fabric softeners.

Part Two of the series shows you that by adding a dry felting needle and some imagination to your supply list, the sky is the limit for the complexity and types of designs that you can create. The picture above shows some of the balls that I made years ago, and that my children and their friends have played with for hours and hours.

For those looking for supplies, I have always been happy with the felting needles and colored wool batting that I have purchased from Peace Fleece. I especially like their batting bundles because they give me great color variety and it would take me a long time to go through a full pound of a single-colored wool. For the natural colored wool batting used for the core of the ball, my go-to supplier has historically been West Earl Woolen Mill (their website is as bare bones as one can get, but call them for pricing and ordering information). As mentioned in the video, this type of undyed wool is incredibly useful in natural crafting for needle felting and wet felting, constructing Waldorf style dolls, stuffing soft toys, and more. Of course ebay, Etsy, and Amazon can all be great resources for wool batting, roving, and other felting supplies. I have even noticed that my local chain-store craft stores like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabric carry a limited selection of needle felting tools, kits, and supplies, wool batting, and roving as well if you prefer to shop locally or just can’t wait for craft supplies to arrive by mail. In addition, you may be lucky enough to have a local fiber, craft, or Waldorf School store nearby that might stock the necessary materials or supplies. As an additional tip, I personally find it easier to wet felt with somewhat coarser wool batting versus finer wool roving, but your experience may differ.

If you try out the process and have any questions, please post in the comments. I’d also love to learn about any wet felting tips or resources that you have to share as well as pictures of your finished projects. Please remember to subscribe to CrunchyParent.com and to the Crunchy Parent You Tube channel for more craft tutorials, cooking demos, “crunchy” subscription unboxings, and lots more.

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