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CATHIE DRAINE: It's not too early to plant the seeds for summer success

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Christmas is now a pile of boxes and holiday wrappings waiting for the garbage collection. Gardeners wait for the annual avalanche of seed catalogs. The catalogs increase our urge to get our fingers in the soil and seeds planted. It is too early to starts seeds indoors… and frustration reigns.

But wait! There is a fun, inexpensive, ridiculously easy way to start certain seeds right now. The process is winter sowing. A number of years ago, Trudy Davidoff, a gardener in upstate New York, realized the obvious. In the garden many seeds spend the winter in cold soil protected by leaves and other garden debris and watered by the snow and germinated in spring warmth. She would replicate that by practicing winter sowing. Her great realization has become a business. (Enter her name on Google and wander around her various links relative to winter sowing.)

Here is the winter sowing process. (Remember it is no cost and no work!) The ideal “pot” for the project is a translucent gallon milk container or the roasted chicken containers from the grocery store. With the milk bottle, cut about 6-8 inches from the bottom on three sides of the container, leaving the back side intact so it acts as a hinge. Cut drain holes in the base of the container and also cut holes around the neck of the container for movement of air and water.

Put enough of regular potting soil in a larger container and moisten it as you would as if you were transplanting a plant. Put that moistened soil into the milk bottle or another similar container and plant your seeds. Then close the milk bottle by running some duct tape around it to keep the top and bottom intact. Put the container out in the garden where it will get sun and protect it by bracing it against the wind.

If the winter is frighteningly dry, you may want to open your gallon containers and sprinkle in some water from time to time. This is an excellent and easy method for starting plants hardy to this area.

Perennials in our area that could be started by winter sowing include echinacea, snapdragons, bee balm, hollyhocks, coreopsis, alyssum, butterfly weed, calendula, cosmos, foxgloves, hollyhocks, petunia, Black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, cone flowers, gaillardia, liatris, poppies, rudbeckia and more.

Cold hardy vegetables can also be started now. Kale, lettuce, cabbage, chard, radishes, spinach broccoli, cauliflower, and bok choy can be winter sown.

Obviously, there are some plants than cannot (or should not) be planted in winter. This includes tomatoes and most of the cucurbits.

Several years ago I germinated some black hollyhocks using the winter sowing process and it was successful, inexpensive and great fun.

Seed packets should be showing up in the greenhouses and other stores in mid to late January.

Part of the fun of winter sowing is that it really is close to no cost and there is the only initial ‘work’ of scattering the seeds in the bottles. Everything else happens in the milk bottles in the garden. The little seedlings will be hardy, already hardened off and ready to plant in the garden in late May. It is truly working with Nature.

It is quite possible that some friends or neighbors will ask if you really think you can grow milk or more politely ask what you are doing! To be part of a class (free) to learn more about winter sowing, plan to attend the Hill City Evergreen Garden Club meeting the third Wednesday in January at the Super 8 Community Room at 1 p.m. Hilde Manuel will give a presentation on the process. Plan to come and stay for refreshments.

Cathie Draine is a Black Hills native and lifelong gardener. Contact her at cathiedraine@rap.midco.net.​

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