HOUGHTON - Spring can seem a long way away for gardeners looking out their windows, but there's an inexpensive strategy that can provide a head start while saving time in May and June.
It's called winter sowing, and consists of starting plants in miniature greenhouses made of gallon milk jugs. Transplant them into the garden in spring, and you could see a bumper crop come harvest time.
"It lets you get going when you're antsy," said Lynn Watson, an Advanced Master Gardener at Michigan Technological University.
Dan Roblee/Daily Mining Gazette
Advanced Master Gardener Lynn Watson puts soil in a mini-greenhouse made from a plastic milk jug, Monday, one of the first steps in the winter sowing gardening process.
Watson will be leading a Keweenaw Garden Club workshop on winter sowing at 7 p.m. Monday at the Portage Lake District Library. The club will be holding its general meeting at 6:30 p.m., prior to the workshop.
It won't be Watson's first library workshop, and PLDL Community Program Director Chris Alquist said she's been a popular presenter in the past.
"She draws a huge crowd," Alquist said. "She brings samples of veggies and fruits and flowers and actually demonstrates how to do cuttings, transplants, whatever."
"She's really hands-on and gives audiences in-depth knowledge of her topics," she added.
Watson said winter sowing is a great way to start vegetables including tomatoes, corn, squash and pumpkins, as well as sunflowers, dill and nasturtiums. While the early start doesn't necessarily lead to a harvest-time size advantage, a winter-sown pumpkin did win a blue ribbon at last summer's Houghton County Fair, she noted.
"We've won over some very skeptical people," she said.
Some of that skepticism, Watson said, comes from reluctance to believe that milk jug greenhouses left in the snow can really incubate life. Some, she said, comes from people whose winter sowing experiments failed due to inattention to detail.
Watson outlined the basic winter sowing process, but warned that gardeners would need to dig deeper, by attending the workshop or researching the process online, if they expected to succeed.
Gardeners should begin by recycling some containers, preferably plastic milk jugs, she said. Crushed jugs can be cleaned and re-inflated simultaneously by filling them with hot water. The jugs need holes cut for ventilation and drainage, and to be slit open so that soil and seeds can be added before re-closing the jug.
Next, a few inches of germination mix should be added. Nothing labeled 'garden soil,' she emphasized - it has to be germination mix.
Add seeds, close it up, and set it out until spring.
"It'll sit in the snowbank looking at you for the longest time, then it'll finally grow," she said. "They can get buried in ice, snow or rain. Eventually they just grow."
The milk jugs, acting like greenhouses, serve to control temperature and humidity.
Only extremely dry springs, she said, require gardeners to hose down the whole operation.
When the time comes, Watson said, the entire contents of the jug can transplanted into the summer garden.
"Just take a stirring spoon, scoop it out and put it in the ground," she said.
If you're unable to make the workshop but would like to learn more, go to www.wintersown.org.