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Mini-Greenhouses for Winter Sowing

Forget the lightstand, the heating pad and the cinnamon! I can avoid damping-off by sowing my seeds in containers and putting them outside on the table in the garden. Now. In January.

A Long Island gardener, Trudi Davidoff, tried it this way a few winters ago, had great success, started writing about it on the Web, and has gathered a following who swear by it.

You moisten the soil, add seeds, cover the container with plastic — and punch holes in both container and cover to admit and drain water. You don't need special trays and pots; Trudi recycles plastic food containers. Damping-off fungus won't grow in the cold; by the time it's warm enough, the winter-sown plants are beyond the susceptible stage.

The seeds go through repeated freezing and thawing. This loosens the seed coat, helping seedlings emerge. Without this natural process, many seeds need special treatment to germinate. You can use Trudi's method to start seeds of almost any plant that will grow in your garden: even if it's an annual that turns into black mush at the first frost, the seed is tougher than the plant.

When days are sunny, check the soil in the containers to make sure it stays moist; if necessary, water them. If they're soggy, cut more holes in the bottom — or a small vertical slit in the side, close to the bottom.

Many seeds sprout while the weather is still freezing every night, Trudi says — but they're used to it, unlike plants started indoors. Plants started outdoors are stockier, healthier, and more resilient than their coddled cousins.

You don't have to start them a precise number of weeks before warm weather. You can keep sowing through the winter. The seeds' natural response to changing weather prepares them automatically for spring. To harden them off, gradually widen the holes in the covers.

You could just sow your seeds in the ground in fall (or sprinkle them around). But with the portable, covered containers, you can protect them from birds, insects and flooding. You also don't have to decide, when a seedling comes up in the spring, whether it's something you planted, or a weed. You know what's in your containers is something you planted.

(Be sure to label them, so you know what it is! Trudi recommends freezer tape labels on the bottoms of the containers, where sun won't fade them.)

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 17 January 2003
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The photo is of Trudi Davidoff's collection of mini-greenhouses sprouting plants. (Courtesy of Trudi Davidoff)

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