Although we generally think of spring as seed planting season, seeds sown during winter can produce vegetables, herbs, and flowers, both annuals and perennials. The secrets to successful winter planting are first, to know which seeds will grow well in winter in your planting zone, and second, to keep bugs, birds and other local critters from eating your garden when their usual food sources are scarce.
Vegetable and Herb Seeds
Winter is growing season for a large number of common vegetables, including artichokes, beans, beets, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, corn, potatoes, lettuces, peas and spinach.
Literally hundreds of different herbs exist, and many of them flourish during the colder months. Among the more common herbs found in today's kitchens and which thrive during winter are basil, chives, garlic, several different mints, oregano, sage, tarragon and thyme. Many herbs make lovely, fragrant houseplants during the coldest months.
Perennials are flowering plants that bloom for more than three growing cycles. Common perennial seeds that grow well in winter include the aster, bellflower, a variety of cacti, Canterbury bell, carnation, clematis, daylily, hollyhock, iris, lilies, pampas grass, poppies, primroses, salvia and verbena.
Annuals are flowering plants that do not regenerate, and therefore, bloom for only one season. Annuals that generate from seeds during winter include alyssum, cyclamen, chrysanthemum, cornflower, larkspur, snapdragon, dianthus, lavender, viola, and of course, the most common winter flower, the pansy.
Deciding Which Seeds to Plant
Most seed catalogs contain germination tables that can help you select the right winter seeds for your geographic area, and include terms that describe the best growing conditions for each. Local extension centers are another great source for information on seeds and sowing. The staff will be able to provide you with details about the best seeds to start in winter, based on your interests.
Sowing Winter Seeds
Create seed starter mini-greenhouses using foil pans with plastic lids (the kind that come with take-out food). Make slits in the bottoms of the pans to allow proper drainage. Fill the pans with soil, water the soil, and allow it to drain. Sprinkle the seeds in the soil and tap then down. Cover with more soil to the depth indicated on the seed packet. Cut slits in the plastic lids and cover the pans. Label the pans with the name of the plants using heavy tape.
Place the pans in a secure place, safe from birds, insects, neighborhood dogs, and other critters. As the winter progresses, the cycle of freezing and thawing will release the seed coats. In a few weeks, the seeds will germinate and begin to peek out from the soil. Check the soil for moisture and water when dry. As the plants grow, widen the slits in the lids so the plants can begin to adjust to sunlight. When the plants are strong enough to handle, they are ready to be planted in the ground.
Even smaller mini-greenhouses can be made from milk cartons and two-liter bottles; however, the pans hold more soil and seeds and they don't require the labor necessary to cut the cartons and bottles into two pieces (trays and tops).