Sow in the Snow

Mache in March

Grow-How: Winter-Sown Seeds
Did you know you can sow in the snow? Starting seeds indoors is a garden rite of spring, but sowing outdoors can become a new winter ritual.

On our seed farm we use the term "winter sowing" to describe seeds that can be sown outdoors in the late fall or mid-late winter. These seeds will survive, or even benefit from, freezing and thawing. They’ll germinate early and be the first greens or earliest blooms of spring. Snow-sown seeds will surprise you!

Stratify, Naturally
When seeds come with instructions to "stratify," it indicates that a cold treatment is recommended to achieve the best germination. These varieties are often cold hardy biennial or perennial species that have adapted their reproduction cycle to withstand winter conditions. All of our familiar Northeast wildflowers, like Goldenrod, New England Aster, Teasel, Milkweed, and Dandelions have adapted to use winter’s cycles to their benefit. The cold, moist conditions break down the seed coat and this triggers germination in the spring when the conditions warm. Generally, you can stratify seeds by placing them in a moist towel in the refrigerator for 6-8 weeks. But nature does it better.

Sunflowers self-sow in the snow.

What to Sow in the Snow
We’re not talking about tomatoes or zinnias! For most heat-loving varieties, seed starting time comes just when you’re getting impatient for the end of winter. We have to start those seeds indoors to get a jump start or accept a later fruiting and blooming time when we direct sow after last frost. We also don't recommend sowing tender annuals or large seeds that are attractive to hungry rodents.

One way to figure out what might work is trying anything you've noticed is a strong volunteer in your garden in the spring. Here are the varieties we've found work well for us.

Reliable even in harsh winters:
Bloomsdale Spinach
Abundant Bloomsdale Spinach
Breadseed Poppy Mix
Mache
Evening Primrose
Johnny Jump Up
Morning Glories
Milkweed

Mostly works depending on severity of winter:
Chives
Garlic Chives
Calendula
Flashback Calendula

Works intermittently, best for mild winters:
Arugula
Beets
Chard
Borage
Onions
Moonflower
Balloon Vine

Morning Glories waiting for spring.

Put on Your Boots and Give it a Try
Winter-sown seeds are a way to get gardening, and harvesting, earlier. Okay, so you might not want to try winter sowing when there is 2 feet of snow on the ground or it’s -10 degrees, but you can do it on a snowy day when the ground is still bare in places. Depending on how severe a winter you have in your region, you can sow recommended varieties in the fall through the last month of winter.

The only planning you have to do with this method is to know what section of your garden is bare and relatively weed free. When sowing in the winter, choose a day when there is bare ground in the garden. If there is an inch or so of snow on the ground you can sweep that aside. Lightly sprinkle seeds over the surface, aiming for 4 inch spacing. You will want to over-sow by about 20% to make up for seed drift. In the spring, when you notice your first plants emerge, thin and transplant to give seedlings the room they need to grow. Be sure to pluck out any weeds that appear as well.

Early spring spinach.

Your New Winter Gardening Ritual
Although there is a limit to what you can sow directly outdoors in the winter, the rewards are great. For the right varieties the cold treatment of nature will improve the germination and the early start will produce robust and healthy plants that will benefit from maturing in the cooler spring months. As you might imagine, the downside of this method is the lack of control. A particularly harsh winter might cause a lot of snow melt and run off, causing seeds to drift away.

So(w), during the next snow thaw, put on your muck boots and winter coat and try winter sowing some seeds. You’ll be grateful in the early spring when your first plants emerge, quite ahead of everything else, plus, the act of being in your winter garden will give you a new perspective on growing and might just lift your spirits.

Explore these related products:

Mid-Weight Row Cover Cut to Length - 83 Inch Width

Mid-Weight Row Cover Cut to Length - 83 Inch Width

Fend off pests and frost with this essential organic gardening supply.

Flashback Calendula Mix

Flashback Calendula Mix

Contemporary Heirlooms

Arugula

Arugula

Bright and potent green, delectable in the cooler months.

Garlic Chives

Garlic Chives

Easy-to-grow perennial herb. Pretty white blooms in late summer.

5 thoughts on “Sow in the Snow”

  • Larry

    This is most likely a great idea! I have tried winter sowing in milk jugs and had a fair amount of success. One thing that concerns me: No where in this article could I find a suggestion nor an instruction to cover the seeds with some sort of top soil. Surely you would not leave seed exposed to the weather and whatever birds drop in for a quick, free meal? Please say it isn't so!
    Thanks for your attention! Happy gardening!
    Larry

    Reply
    • Ken Greene

      HI Larry,

      Thanks for reading and glad you feel inspired to try winter sowing! Covering seeds depends on the variety. In the case of milkweed, which self-sows naturally through the air and lands on top of the soil and actually requires exposure to the weather, they don't need to get covered. In fact, they want some light to germinate. Others, like spinach, that like to be sown just under the surface, need to be covered a bit. So the rule of thumb would be to follow the instructions on the seed pack for seed depth. As for the birds, they are always looking for a winter snack. If it doesn't snow after you plant and the ground is going to stay bare, over-sow and thin or transplant in the spring if too many come up. Hope that helps!

      Reply
      • Larry

        Ken,Thanks for the courtesy of a reply! I'm in! First thing tomorrow morning, we sow! You've been a huge help. Many thanks, again
        Larry

        Reply
  • Toni Atkinson
    Toni Atkinson 01/12/2018 at 2:30 pm

    This is a question about snow sowing. I hope this is the place to post it.
    What do you recommend with respect to watering? If I do this sowing in my raised beds that are covered with plastic for the winter they will get no irrigation. Is that okay for the period from now until I see germination in the spring? I have had pretty good luck sowing spinach and lettuce in the fall, timing it so that I have young seedlings in time for winter dormancy. I snuggle them in with hay for the winter and clip plastic to the hoops. Since the beds are covered with plastic there is no natural irrigation from rain or snow and I do not water them. Would that approach work for winter planting of seeds?

    Reply
    • Ken Greene

      Hi Toni, thanks for your question. The seeds we are talking about in this article don't need to be covered- so they are being kept moist from snow and rain throughout the winter. But even if they dry out, when the soil thaws in spring and the first rains come they will be ok. If you are covering in plastic that's a different strategy. Things can dry out in that case, and sometimes the seeds are more exposed and can get discovered and stolen by critters. For covered tunnels you would sow earlier to get things going, protect the plants in the winter, and then they will start growing again once the days start to lengthen. Hope that helps!

      Reply

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