It may not be time to get those tomatoes growing just yet but this is a great time to plant some cold-hearty vegetables even in the colder climates. I live almost halfway between the equator and the north pole and even I can get a jump on a few crops this time of year. The plants I love to get started as soon as I can are peas and lettuce. Baby lettuce greens are such a luxury in my world in the winter so I am especially pushed to get those growing. There are a couple of ways to do this. One of my favorite ways is to build cold frames with straw or hay bales and old double paned windows. These cold frames are easy, quick and only involve finding recycled doors and/or windows and using straw that can later be used for mulching plants in your garden. Its as simple as creating a warmer environment for the plants than your climate allows at that time in the season by insulating them with the straw and the windows. Here are some pictures of my cold frames, (as well as the milk-jug sowing I’ll talk about next) from last year, some of our garden seedlings and my curious then 1.5 year old son.
If you don’t happen to be married to someone who salvages any potentially useful thing from a variety of places you may not have what you need to build a quick cold frame. That’s ok! You can still do some “Winter Sowing” -or planting seeds while the weather is really too cold for them to grow. Another quick way to do this is to use a variety of plastic containers for mini greenhouses. A friend of mine who didn’t even grow up in an area with winters introduced me to this idea. You can use old milk jugs, fruit clam-shell cases and more. For more detailed instructions check out WinterSown.org. They have a great deal of helpful information on the topic AND an opportunity to get free seeds. -Yes free. Last year I received many different lovely species of heirloom tomatoes and a few peppers -all delicious. Here are a couple of pictures of plants I grew in milk jugs. Simply cut a slit around the bottom third of the milk jug, poke holes in the bottom for drainage and fill the bottom portion with seed starting mix. Then, put your seeds inside. At this point, tape up the slit in the milk jug and put the cap on. This is my favorite part: put it outside somewhere. I love to just stick mine on top of a snowbank. Last year I put a few on top of the ice in our pool. It makes me feel as if I am conquering winter. Anyway, watch it every day and when the seeds germinate take the cap back off. Then, watch your seeds grow.
The premise behind winter sowing is that by planting the seeds directly outdoors with a little help with heat conservation (either by cold frame or mini-greenhouse like a milk jug) you are allowing the seeds to germinate and grow as they would in nature. This is opposed to starting the seeds indoors under a light or in a window where they just don’t get the same amount of sunlight. Winter sown plants end up being heartier and healthier in my opinion. Although I do use my cold frames to grow plants I can eat early in the season, (like lettuce) I also use them to start and/or grow seedlings I will later transplant in our garden when the danger of frost has passed. They do seem to be healthier this way and it keeps the hundreds of seedlings out of my house where who-knows-what could happen to them at any time.
The time is now so get yourself a milk-jug, some lettuce seeds and get winter-sowing!