Featured

Here’s My New Blog

This is it! I’ve been talking about launching a new blog for several years. I’ve been planning to set up this website, thegardenerwife.com, ever since I started writing The Gardener Wife newsletter two years ago. And now, finally, I’ve begun my blog.

My posts here are going to be organized around the three themes* that run throughout my newsletters:

  • GROWpractical gardening tips
  • EATgarden-to-table eating
  • ENJOYgarden style living

I’ve been writing an email newsletter since June 2018 and now have several hundred subscribers. If you’d like to join them, you can sign up for The Gardener Wife newsletter right here.  It’s not just about gardening—it’s about garden-style living! You’ll still get practical tips for growing; plus, with my garden-to-table recipes you’ll learn how to use what you grow (or what someone else has grown). 

What people are saying—

Excellent! Well written, informative, fun!!

… you’re right on. Keep it coming.

April Wong Loi Sing

Lots of good, no – EXCELLENT info!

Donna Hirsch

Wow! What a great newsletter. You are soooo very thorough in your writing. I love it.

Diane B.

You can subscribe to my newsletter right NOW!

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What else do I do—

I’ve also been posting on social media. Here’s where to find me, @thegardenerwife:

  • on Instagram – for lots of photos
  • on Facebook – for more details and information + garden-related events and news
  • and even on YouTube – for occasional videos
Giving a Gardening Presentation

Plus, I’ve continued to give garden talks.

Need a speaker for your club, library, or other group?
Email Debbie@thegardenerwife for information on my topics and presentations.

The Gardener Wife

Other services that I provide are listed on my Work with Me page. I’m doing all this because . . .

want to help you to GROW SOMETHING, something beautiful–even better, something to eat!

Thank you for stopping by and catching up on what I’m doing!

Working on The Gardener Wife Newsletter

*NOTE: You can find my blog themes in several locations throughout this website:

  • the drop-down list under “Blog” in the upper right corner of every page
  • the list under “Blog Post Themes” at the bottom left of every page
  • the big colorful buttons on my homepage.

For example, if you’re looking for recipe ideas and aren’t interested in gardening tips at the moment, you can click on EAT in any of these locations—and you’ll see a list of my garden-to-table eating posts. If you want to scroll through all of my blog posts, then you could click on “Blog” in the upper right corner of every page.

Tour of My Gardens

Debbie Rea filming a video tour of her gardens 7/10/21
Help from a Friend

My garden was on a local garden walk this past weekend. Being one of the host gardens was a blast because I love showing and explaining what is going on in the garden. Plus, it motivated me to spruce up the garden as much as possible during the week before the walk. I had lots of help from my husband and from a dear friend, and now we get to enjoy the results. I’m going to share those results—how the garden looked on garden walk day—and I’ll also answer the questions that visitors asked as they toured it.

Video Tour

First, here’s the nickel tour that I filmed at the start of the garden walk. (And here is the YouTube link, in case the video below does not play on your device.) This video gives you a peek at all of my gardens: the Shakespeare Street Garden (front yard perennial garden), the vegetable container garden along the driveway, the Midsummer Night’s Dream Fairy Garden, the kitchen garden (plus, to the east of it, the new hugel kulter bed, the apple trees, and the beginning of the Wishy Washy Edible Container Garden), the cottage garden, the asparagus bed, the ornamental container garden (a.k.a. my “flower bestrewn deck”), and the Mackinac Island Garden (courtyard garden in the side yard). My husband likes to call that the “award winning Mackinac Island Garden” because I received an award from our village government last year for creating this special themed garden.

6-1/2 Minute Tour of The Gardener Wife’s Gardens

For edible gardening fans, here is a 4-minute video tour of just the kitchen garden.

Sunflowers at Arbor Entrance to the Kitchen Garden

The day of the garden walk was wonderful. We had cloudy skies but no rain—perfect for taking photos! A few sunflowers by the kitchen garden entrance and the passion flowers on the cottage garden trellis had started to bloom the day before. And hummingbirds were very active. We filmed them in the cottage bed (shown in photo section below), plus on the flower bestrewn deck, and in the Mackinac Island Garden.

Questions and Answers

Here are the answers to the most commonly asked questions I got on garden walk day. If you have any other questions, write them in the reply section below this post.

Q: What is that pink flower in the cottage garden bed?

A: Queen of the Prairie, Filipendula rubra—a native plant

Q: What do I do with the cherry rootstock you gave away?

A: Get scions of the variety of cherry tree you want to grow, and graft them onto the rootstock with the budding technique. Here is a master gardener publication on grafting techniques. You could also search online for videos on how to do it. I recommend joining the Midwest Fruit Explorers to anyone interested in grafting fruit trees. They offer helpful workshops, and members share scion wood freely.

Q: What is the purpose of those red disks under your tomato plants?

A: Their main purpose is to prevent soil-borne fungal diseases by not allowing water to splash soil up onto the plant. They also suppress weeds and prevent cutworm attacks. In addition, they direct water down to the root zone of the plants. The ones like mine have been discontinued, but there are similar products available now which should work even better, called Tomato Automators and Tomato Halos.

Garden Walk Photos

The best part of the garden walk was seeing and talking to my newsletter readers, social media followers, and garden club friends. If you came through my garden or just now enjoyed the walk vicariously through these videos and pictures, please drop a note in the reply section below to let me know what you think and/or to ask any questions you have.

Now that the walk is over and I’m taking some time off from grad school, I plan to resume writing my newsletter. If you haven’t already subscribed to it, I invite you to sign up for it here. Subscribing to my newsletter is not the same thing as subscribing to this blog or following me on social media. There may be some overlap in subject matter, but I usually write different types of content for the different platforms. If you already are a newsletter subscriber, thank you for patiently waiting for the next issue. I hope to write to you again soon! And thank you to everyone who came out on the garden walk!

Pruning Lilacs

Lilac in bloom
Pruning Lilacs

Said to say, my lilac performed very poorly this year. (Bloom photos in this post are from previous years.) Perhaps I forgot to prune the lilac during all the excitement last year as I was finishing up the Mackinac Island Garden and preparing a rose tea party. In any case, I made sure to prune it this year, near the end of May. My Corona Tools Quicksaw made quick work of this project. For thinner branches, you could use loppers or pruners.

BEFORE and AFTER Lilac Pruning

To get the most blooms on your lilacs, prune them right after blooming each year. If you wait too long, you’ll cut off branches that would bloom the following year. Keep your lilac in the shape of a multi-stemmed shrub, not a tree with a thick trunk. Besides trimming off the spent booms, I cut off two or three of the thickest branches every year. Pruning helps to open up the lower branches to more to let more sunlight.

Pruning Lilacs Video

Since my lilac is in a corner between our shed and the fence, it’s important to keep it well pruned. Next to the bare branches at the bottom of this lilac is where I set up my Midsummer Night’s Dream fairy garden every year.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Fresh Strawberry Pie

Last year I declared that fresh strawberry pie made with organic strawberries from my garden is my FAVORITE pie in the whole world. Last year, in fact, was the first time that I ever made my own fresh strawberry pie. I think it tasted better than Bakers Square’s or any store bought pie. That was partly because the strawberries were fresh from my garden, of course. But it was also because I use less sugar than most recipes call for, so the fresh flavor of the strawberries really shines through. I put in just enough sugar to help out any strawberries that might have been picked a bit early.

I harvested enough strawberries last year to make two of these pies during the season. That was my best harvest to date because I had covered up the strawberry plants during a late frost. This year we had three late frosts, and I covered up my strawberry bed each time. Now the berries are coming in, and I made a pie tonight. I think this pie is the best way to enjoy and share these luscious fruits.

Garden Fresh Strawberry Pie

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 9-inch pie crust, baked
  • 1 quart fresh strawberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup water 
  • Whipped cream for serving

DIRECTIONS

  1. Arrange about ⅔ or ¾ of the strawberries in a baked pastry shell. Mash the remaining berries and combine with sugar in a small saucepan. Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring mixture to a boil, stirring frequently.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and water—or shake them up in a jar or Tupperware shaker. Gradually stir cornstarch mixture into boiling strawberry mixture. Reduce heat and simmer mixture until thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour this mixture over the berries in the pastry shell. Chill for several hours before serving.
  3. Serve each slice of pie with a dollop of whipped cream.

I usually use store-bought pie dough, but you can make the pie shell yourself if you prefer. Whichever dough you use, I recommend that you put a pie crust shield on it as you bake it so that the edges do not get overdone. I also recommend that you use real whipped cream, not something from a plastic tub unless you are lactose-intolerant, like my son is. For his sake, I bought a dairy-free whipped topping, and I made sure that the pie dough ingredients had no dairy as well. But for the rest of us, real cream is what should accompany this fresh homemade pie. I make and store my whipped cream in an all-metal whipped cream dispenser that uses nitrous oxide cartridges. This wonderful gadget keeps the whipped cream from going flat before you’ve used it all up.

As always, if you don’t grow your own strawberries, you can get them from a store or a farmers market. However, I do recommend that you use only organic strawberries, because conventionally grown ones are always high on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of produce that has the highest level of pesticide residues after washing.

After my strawberry harvest was finished last year, I was tempted to buy organic strawberries to make more pies. However, my husband said that waiting until our next harvest would make these pies more special. He’s right! Plus, it would be too dangerous for our waistlines if I started making this pie all year round. What do you think of it? Leave a reply in the comment section below and let me know.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Hardening Off Plants

Tomato Seedlings Started Indoors

Spring is an exciting time because I can start planting cool-season crops. It’s also a frustrating time as the weather changes from one extreme to another. Within one week we’ve had lows of 28°F and highs of 81°F. That’s why you need to know the best time for planting different kinds of seeds and transplants in your garden. Soon it will be time to start transplanting warm-season annuals here in zone 5, so now we should start getting our seedlings ready to go outside. We do this with a process called hardening off: the process of helping plants adapt to being outside by gradually exposing them more and more to outdoor conditions for about two weeks.

That’s right: it takes about two weeks. If you wait to buy the plants until you’re ready to plant them, you’ll be tempted to skip this process. Don’t do it! You’ve got to baby those baby plants before you put them out in your garden. After being sheltered inside a nice cozy greenhouse or under your grow lights, those seedlings run the risk of being damaged by the brighter sunlight, stronger breezes, and fluctuating temperatures of outdoor life. Even if they do not exhibit any visible damage, they will take longer to adjust out there and resume normal growth. Thus you won’t save any time, and you’ll end up with stressed plants.

I don’t trust big box stores to harden off their plants before they put them outside, so I recommend getting seedlings from a garden center greenhouse and doing it yourself. I buy from the big box stores only when the price is good enough to compensate for getting stressed out plants. Plus, I don’t buy anything that is especially susceptible to cold temperatures, such as impatiens, from them.

You’ve got to baby those baby plants.

the gardener wife

Here are two methods for hardening off seedlings. The first one requires more work, and the second method requires a cold frame or–what I prefer to use–a mini greenhouse or two. Both of these methods require ten to fourteen days, so you should begin the process about two weeks before your planting date.

Method 1: Moving Plants In and Out

  1. On a mild afternoon, move the seedlings outside to a shady area that is sheltered from the breezes. After two to three hours bring them back inside.
  2. Repeat the process each day unless the weather is too harsh. Gradually increase the amount of time outdoors and the amount of sunlight the seedlings receive. 
  3. Keep watering the seedlings as needed so they do not wilt, but water them less often while they are hardening off.
  4. After they have been outside for several ten- to twelve-hour periods and the nighttime temperatures have risen high enough for the hardiness of the seedlings (in the forties for hardy seedlings and in the sixties for tender seedlings), leave them outside overnight for a couple of days. Then they will be ready to transplant into the garden or outdoor containers at the appropriate planting time.

This method gets wearisome if you have lots of seedlings to harden off like I do. It also requires that you have a space to put the plants inside each afternoon or evening. The space requirement, by the way, is one of the reasons you should not buy tender annuals too early in the spring. They must be kept where they will be warm enough and get enough light until it is time to start hardening them off.

Tomato Seedlings in Shade Greenhouse Stand

Method 2: Putting Plants in a Cold Frame or Mini Greenhouse

I do have the space for keeping seedlings indoors because I have seed starting shelves with grow lights in my basement. But once I start hardening off seedlings, I do not want to carry all of them up and down the stairs twice a day for two weeks. That is why I prefer to use mini greenhouses. First I harden off the hardiest seedlings in them and then the half-hardy seedlings. By the time those are ready to transplant outside, I can start hardening off the tender seedlings.

Mini greenhouses like mine are now available at most big box hardware stores. But if you cannot find one near you, you could order them here.

  1. Set the mini greenhouse up in a mostly shady area. Be sure to brace it by attaching it to something or weighing it down so that it would not topple over in a big gust of wind. I lay heavy bricks or pavers on the bottom shelf of mine.
  2. Move the seedlings inside the greenhouse. Now instead of bringing them inside everyday, you can just zip the door shut. Start on a mild afternoon and leave the door of the mini greenhouse open for just a few hours. 
  3. Protect the plants on windy days by unzipping only one side or part of the door. To open the door fully, you can roll it up and tie it with the ties provided. However, I prefer to flip the door up and over the back, and I use a clamp to hold it in place. Water the plants only as needed, and keep increasing the length of time that the door is left fully open. When nighttime lows are mild enough for the hardiness of the seedlings, leave the door open overnight.
  4. After one week, move the mini greenhouse and then the seedlings to a sunny location. If you have two mini greenhouses, like I do, then you can set up the second greenhouse in the sunny spot. Then all you have to do is move the seedlings from the shady greenhouse to the sunny greenhouse.
  5. Continue to keep the door open during the days, and close it when the nighttime lows may get too cool for the seedlings’ hardiness level. You may rotate the seedlings around the shelves to adjust the amount of light they get. By the end of the second week, the seedlings are ready to transplant at the appropriate planting time.
Tomato Seedlings in Sun Greenhouse Stand

Whichever way you do the hardening off, your plants will be stronger and grow better. If you have any questions or comments, write them in the reply section below. And if you found this post helpful, please share it so I can help others to grow something, something beautiful—even better, something to eat!

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

SPECIAL OFFER for National Gardening Day

Today, April 14, 2021, is National Gardening Day, and I’m celebrating it with a special offer. Subscribe to my newsletter now and get access to a video of my presentation on how to start a garden. Details are HERE.

Do you know anyone who wants to start growing their own food?
Share the link with them!
Act now because the free access to this video will end on April 30, 2021.

In the video presentation I show you how to start a kitchen garden and help you to avoid common mistakes. Plus, I share some tips and tricks for maintaining an already established garden. I’m making this video accessible to new subscribers for just a short time, so don’t put off watching it.

Don’t worry if you’re already a subscriber—you’ll get an offer in your inbox.

Pumpkin Eggplant Riddle

Goyo Kumba Eggplant & Turkey with Marinara Sauce

Q: What looks like a tiny pumpkin but is really an eggplant?

A: ‘Goyo Kumba’ Solanum aethiopicum

The orange fruit in my hand is not a tiny pumpkin: it’s a tiny eggplant! I came across the seeds for this unusual vegetable, Goyo Kumba eggplant, several years ago, and I had to try it. If nothing else, I knew it would be great for ornamental purposes. It’s also a fun plant for miniature vegetable fans. I really didn’t know at the time I planted the seeds how I’d use this unusual vegetable in cooking.

It took a long time for my tiny eggplants to ripen to a dark orange color. Thankfully, I was able to use them in decorations for a late September event at my church. Afterwards, I roasted them and vacuum sealed them for later use. I used the frozen Goyo Kumbas only once that winter, when I put them on a pizza along with cherry tomatoes, peppadews, and fresh basil. The rest of them stayed in the freezer and got lost among everything else.

Making Pizza with Goyo Kumba, cherry tomatoes, peppadews, basil & fresh mozzarella

I didn’t use them again until a week ago. I found them while I was rummaging through the freezer for a quick meal. Even though they’d been frozen for three years, they were still in good shape. Now this is an example of why I love to use a FoodSaver vacuum sealer (currently on sale!) for preserving my garden harvests. Because there was no air inside the FoodSaver bag with the roasted eggplants, there was no freezer burn on them.

I also found some turkey that I had grilled around Thanksgiving and then cut up into bite size pieces before vacuum sealing and freezing it. I thawed both the turkey and the Goyo Kumba eggplants. Then I peeled the eggplants because the skins were a little tough and—as I recall from the pizza—somewhat bitter. I was in a hurry, rushing to get to a 6 P.M. Zoom meeting, so I used marinara sauce from a jar. No recipe—I just mixed the turkey, eggplant, and marinara sauce and cooked it in the microwave. Meanwhile, I had cooked some whole wheat rotini while I was peeling and heating everything else.

I served the Goyo Kumba turkey over rotini with some freshly grated Parmesan. To grate the Parmesan quickly and easily, I used another handy kitchen gadget: the Magic Bullet blender. That was all that I had time to make and eat that night. A few nights later, however, I made more Goyo Kuma turkey sauce, and that was when I took some more photos. This time I also heated some of my homegrown green beans which, of course, had been blanched and vacuum sealed before freezing. I coated the beans with my garlic scape pesto, another tasty treat from my garden.

Q: When is an eggplant not really an eggplant?

A: When it’s an Ethiopian eggplant.

I have since learned some interesting things about this vegetable. First of all, its Latin name is Solanum aethiopicum, also known as Ethiopian or African eggplant. Thus it’s related to Solanum melongena, our usual eggplants, but it’s not exactly the same. They’re both in the nightshade family, solanaceae, so I’m surprised that Wikipedia and at least one seed company state that “the leaves of this plant are eaten as a leafy green” and are supposed to be more nutritious than the fruit. As you can see from my photo, the flea beetles certainly like to eat its leaves. Nevertheless, I don’t trust Wikipedia enough to eat the leaves of anything in the solanaceae family, which are known to have toxins.

Goyo Kumba Eggplant in My Garden

I wouldn’t eat the leaves of anything in the nightshade family.

The Gardener Wife

I also learned that Goyo Kumba eggplants taste better if you harvest them while still young and green. They’re not as pretty though, so you should leave at least a few to get red if you plan to use them for ornamental purposes. Once the skins were off, I didn’t think they tasted too bitter. Besides, the marinara sauce masked their flavor.

Starting Goyo Kumba Seeds

I got my Goyo Kumba seeds from Baker Creek in 2018, but they do not appear to carry this variety anymore. They do have another Ethiopian eggplant, Melanzane Rosso De Rotonda, which is supposed to be quite tasty and which I’d like to try someday.

Have you eaten Ethiopian eggplant? Reply in the comment section below.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Winter Is Waning

Snow Melting Off the Roof

The snow is melting, and I’m counting down the days to spring. I try to enjoy every season, but winter is the most difficult for me. Thankfully we had very picturesque weather for the last few weeks here in the Chicago region. We kept getting more and more snow! That was okay with me since I really didn’t have to go outside for much. I know that snow is fun to play in, and it’s lovely to see as you’re out and about. However, I personally prefer to enjoy the beauty from inside my home. That’s why it’s good to have gardens with trees, hardscaping, and seasonal containers and decor. I enjoyed taking photos of the views from my windows all winter long.

An Evening by the Fireplace

It’s also delightful to have a fireplace. My husband Stan and I spent several evenings studying for grad school with a fire going and music playing. If you don’t have a fireplace, you could also achieve a cozy ambiance with candles—lots of candles. Naturally, as an organic gardener, I prefer soy wax or beeswax candles to paraffin ones. When I don’t want to deal with a real flame, I like to use an essential oil diffuser with organic oils in garden scents. I use lavender oil at bedtime and more invigorating scents, such as peppermint or orange oil, during the day when I’m working here at my computer.

During the shorter days and longer nights of winter, I tend to go to bed earlier, too. Last summer Stan and I got in the habit of turning off the TV and other screens around 9 P.M. That has led to extra time for reading in bed—at least it has for him. I often find myself going to sleep earlier during the winter.

There are a number of gardening tasks that I work on indoors during the winter, as you know from my posts here and on social media. For some gardeners, however, it’s a time to rest from gardening and focus on other hobbies, such as needlecraft or painting. (I’d probably be doing that if it weren’t for grad school. My current hobby is studying!) One activity that I missed this year, due to COVED, is hosting gatherings with our friends and family.

Whether I’m entertaining company or cooking for just the two of us, I try to use something from my garden in each meal that I make. Of course, that’s more of a challenge in winter! I rely on the herb plants that I brought indoors and on all the things from my garden that I froze, canned, or dried. Sometimes I also grow food during the winter in my little Smart Garden. That’s a fun thing for non-gardeners to try! Even if all you’ve got is just a bit of homegrown herbs, it adds a special touch to any dish.

And that’s how I get through the winter! It’s not my favorite season because I really hate to be cold. Yet it’s still a magnificently beautiful season. God sends the snow for a purpose, the prophet Isaiah says: to make the earth yield “seed for the sower and bread for the eater,”  just like God has spoken his word for a purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11). I’m thankful for the snow, and I’m even more thankful for God’s word. I hope you’ve been blessed by both as well.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

Winter Sowing in a Snowy Winter Wonderland

Winter Sowing Containers Outside in the Snow

WINTER SOWING TUTORIAL

WHO could winter sow? Anyone!

Yes, even if you’re a beginner gardener, you can start planting some seeds now. Even if it’s freezing cold where you live, you can plant seeds for your garden now. Even if you don’t have grow lights—which, trust me, are a must for most indoor seed starting—you could start seeds now. Winter sowing is easy and possible for anyone. Winter sowing refers to starting seeds outdoors during the winter in DIY mini greenhouses made from plastic containers. The seeds sprout when the weather warms up just like seeds that have fallen to the ground naturally.

WHY winter sow? To get more plants, of course!

Growing plants from seeds is cheaper than buying plants, and starting seeds with the winter sowing method is cheaper than starting them indoors. Plus, it’s a great way to reuse plastic containers instead of sending them straight to the recycling bin. Here are more advantages to this method of seed starting as described by Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_sowing – 1/20/19

The last one is my favorite! I’m glad I got a screenshot of that page before it was corrected. Like Abraham Lincoln said, don’t believe everything you read on the internet. In any case, it’s thanks to the internet that winter sowing has taken the gardening world by storm. Trudi Greissle Davidoff first coined the term and documented her experiments on www.wintersown.org. Today you can find instructions, photos, and discussions of winter sowing not only on that website but all over the internet.

WHAT to winter sow?

I recommend that you start with the best candidates for winter sowing: seeds of cold hardy or semi-hardy annuals and of perennials that are suited to your growing zone. Trudi has several lists on her website. You can also look for seed packet and catalog descriptions that say things like this: hardy, self-sowing, colonizing, withstand frost, stratify, stratification, or direct sow in early spring/late fall or as soon as the ground can be worked. Using such descriptions and different plant lists, I made my own personalized list of plants that I’d like to winter sow here in zone 5b.

Perennial: a plant that can live outdoors for more than one growing season

Annual:  a plant that can live outdoors for one growing season in your zone

Hardy Annuals can tolerate cold soil and cool weather, down to the low 30s. These plants can survive some frost and snow.

Semi- or Half-Hardy Annuals can tolerate cool soil and cool weather, down to 40˚F. These plants might survive a light frost.

Tender Annuals require warm soil and warm weather. These plants do not do well in temperatures below 50˚F.

You could also grow tender annuals with this method. However, if you have a short growing season like I do, it may not be worth it. Winter sown tender annuals, such as tomatoes, will be smaller than indoor-started seedlings at transplanting time, so harvesting won’t begin until later in the season. That means fewer tomatoes! If I have extra seeds for tomatoes or other tender plants, I might winter sow some, but not all of them. One year I winter sowed celery seeds and also started some indoors under grow lights on the same date. The winter sown celery seedlings were smaller, yet I planted them anyway wherever I could find some room. They never grew to be as big as their brothers, but they were edible.

WHEN to winter sow?

Winter sowing, as the name suggests, is done in the winter—that’s whenever winter is in your part of the world. It doesn’t matter if your winter is freezing cold and snowy or just cool and rainy. And you can do it at any time during the winter. Here in zone 5, some folks start at the winter solstice; others prefer to wait until after the holidays and start in January. I tend to do my winter sowing in February. Once March rolls around, I get more involved in indoor seed starting. I also go outside and start direct sowing cold hardy annuals in my kitchen garden beds. I see no need to buy potting mix and cut up jugs to use this process for seeds that are easily direct sown, straight into the garden soil.

The beauty of winter sowing is that you don’t have to worry about exactly when to sow your seeds. Unlike indoor seed starting, there’s no counting back 6 to 10 weeks from your average last frost date. Let the seeds figure that out! You plant them anytime in the winter, and when the weather is right for them to come up, they will.

Start perennials and cold hardy annuals first; then start the semi-hardy plants; and lastly, start the tender annuals.

If you’re winter sowing tender annuals in a cold zone, however, you might want to put off starting them until March or even April for the tenderest ones. If you sow them sooner and an early warm spell causes them to pop up early, you’ll have to protect those seedlings through any freezes until it’s time to transplant them into the garden. The more tender the plant, the later it should be sown. In general, you should start perennials and cold hardy annuals first; then start the half- or semi-hardy plants; and lastly, start the tender annuals.

Here’s a list of vegetables and herbs, grouped by their hardiness levels. I put this handy chart together for a book that I’m writing, and the book will include a similar chart for flowers.

Hardiness Levels of Vegetables & Herbs

HOW to winter sow?

Prepare the Containers

If you look around the internet or join any winter sowing groups, you’ll see that when it comes to making winter sowing containers, it is to each his own. This is how I do it. You can use any container that is tall enough to accommodate your seedlings as they grow and transparent enough to see your hand through its side. The most popular kind is gallon-size plastic jugs. We drink a lot of distilled water, so I use those. They’re great because they’re already sterile so I don’t have to wash them.

  1. Wash and sterilize the containers, if needed, and then let them dry.
  2. Make drainage holes in the bottom. I create slits with a small knife, and I give it a little twist to make the holes wider—4 holes in each jug. Vent holes are also needed at the top of winter sowing containers, so for these jugs with narrow openings, I just remove and discard the caps.
  3. Use scissors to cut almost all the way around the jug about 4 inches up from the bottom and leave a hinge on the handle side. 
  4. Use a hole puncher to punch a hole in the top and another in the bottom at the corner opposite the hinge. This way I can put a twist tie through those holes to fasten my container shut. Most people seal their jugs with duct tape after they’ve planted them. My method is easier than dealing with sticky tape, especially if you have to open and close the jugs later.

Label the Containers

I use a grease pencil. This year I’m experimenting with crayons, too.

I write the name of the seed variety to be sown on both the bottom and top part of the jug because the top parts will get cut off later. Plant only one type of seed per container to avoid confusion. Use smaller containers, such as 2-liter bottles, if you’re planting only a few seeds.

Remember that these containers will be outside for several months, exposed to direct sunlight and all the elements. You do not want your labels to fade, so a Sharpie will not be good enough. I use a grease pencil, but my friend Dolly Foster, who has done much more winter sowing than I have, strongly recommends the Garden Marker, which is waterproof and UV proof.

Fill the Containers

Filling Winter Sowing Containers with Potting Mix

I use a professional quality soil-less potting mix. It must hold moisture and drain well. Pro-Mix no longer makes my favorite kind, which had no fertilizers added. Since I now have to get a mix with fertilizer, I prefer an organic mix, especially when I’m planting anything edible. You may use a non-organic potting mix for winter sowing, if you want, but be sure to avoid any mix with water-storing crystals.

Mix water into the potting mix until it is damp but not soaked (clumpy but not muddy). I fill the containers at least 3 inches, which is deeper than necessary for indoor seed starting. You don’t need a ruler: the rule of thumb is to fill it to a depth that is about the same as the length of your thumb. Tamp it down a bit and add more potting mix until the depth reaches 3 to 3-1/2 inches.

Plant the Containers

The fresher your seeds, the better. When I first discovered winter sowing, I thought it would be a great way to use up my oldest seeds. Wrong! Hardly anything came up, and it was a waste of time and effort. One to three years old is OK for most seeds. I have experimented and found that I can extend the viability of seeds that don’t have a good germination rate after the first year, such as parsley, by vacuum sealing them. In any case, remember that the older the seeds, the more you should plant because fewer of them will sprout.

Small seeds can be sprinkled on top of the soil and patted down into the soil mix. You do not have to worry about spacing them if you plan to use Trudi’s Hunk-o-Seedlings technique for transplanting them later. Larger seeds should be placed farther apart and then covered with a layer of potting mix equal to their proper planting depth, which is usually equal to the diameter of the seed.

The next step is to water the containers, and I do that one of two ways. One method is to put the containers in my kitchen sink and use the sprayer to give them a gentle and thorough watering. The other method is the same one I use with indoor seed starting, bottom watering. I put the containers in trays that are at least as deep as the soil mix is. Then I add water to the trays and let the containers sit in it until their potting mix is soaked; then drain them.

The last thing to do is to cover and tie them. I slip a twist tie through the holes that I punched into the corner opposite the handle of the jug. Fit the top down snugly over the bottom of the jug on all sides, and twist the tie shut.

WHERE to Winter Sow

Winter Sowing Containers Placed Outside in the Winter

Now the winter sowing containers are ready to go outside in a sunny spot. They can go anywhere that they won’t be disturbed by pets or other animals—on the ground, on a deck, or on a table. In the past I’ve put mine on wire shelves in the corner between our house and the garage, facing southwest. There they won’t get blown around by a strong wind. It’s also easy for me to check on them because they’re right by the garage door. This year I put them in a sunnier spot, on the shelves further out on our driveway. They’re currently sheltered somewhat by the piles of snow out there.

Maintain the Containers

The beauty of the winter sowing system is that you can set and forget the seeds now to a certain extent. You just need to make sure that they do not dry out. If they’re on the ground and they’re covered by snow, they’re fine. Leave them alone. If they’re not covered by snow, peek inside to see if the potting mix looks dry—even if you see condensation is forming inside the containers. If the surface of the potting mix looks dry or the containers feel light when you pick them up, water them. Check more often as the weather warms up. They may need water on sunny days even when it’s in the 30s. Don’t let the seeds dry out.

Transplant Your Winter Sown Seedlings

Later the magic happens. The seeds sprout and tiny plants start to grow. Don’t worry if it’s too cold for them outside; it’s warmer inside their mini greenhouses. However, if you have tender annuals growing and you think a cold snap is going to lower the temperature too much for them, cover them at night. Water your winter sown plants like you would any other seedlings while you’re waiting to plant them.

Remember that these seedlings are already hardened off. They can be transplanted into the garden as soon as they’ve formed at least one set of true leaves—provided that the soil temperature and weather conditions are suitable for their hardiness level. My advice is that the sooner you can get your winter sown seedlings into the ground, the better. I have left some languishing in their jugs for too long. When I finally planted them, they did not take off. Get those little seedlings planted as soon as you can. Once your garden soil is maintaining a warm enough temperature for the plants’ hardiness level, transplant them outside. You’ll plant them out in the same order that you started them: hardy plants first, then the semi-hardy plants, and then the tender ones.

Transplanting Wintersown Hollyhocks

Water the seedlings before you transplant them, and let them sit for a while. When you’re ready to plant them, slide the whole group of seedlings out of the container. If they’re spaced slightly apart from each other, gently pull the individual plants apart, teasing the roots and keeping as much of them as you can with each plant. If the seeds were thickly sown and the plants are all matted together, cut them apart into pieces with a knife. Then use your fingers to pull each piece apart into little clumps of seedlings. Plant those clumps, spacing them as far apart as you would if they were individual plants. Water them in. Keep watering them as needed during the next few days until their roots take and the plants start to grow.

Now you can maintain and enjoy your garden with all these new plants, started from seed.

New Video Demo

You can watch me prepare and plant a winter sowing container from start to finish here on YouTube. If you like the video, please give it a thumbs up and leave your comment or question in the the comments section.

Still have questions? Leave a reply in the comments below to ask them.

Debbie Rea

What about starting seeds indoors?

I’m glad you asked! I’ve been seed starting with traditional indoor methods for longer than I’ve been winter sowing. I recently added information about supplies needed for indoor seed starting to the Shop with The Gardener Wife page.

If you want me to write a tutorial for indoor seed starting, please let me know by leaving a reply in the comment section below.

I may earn commissions for purchases made through any Amazon links in this post. See disclosure here.

It Beets Me! – Making Borscht

Beautiful bowl of homemade borscht made with homegrown beets
Ukrainian Borscht

It’s National Homemade Soup Day—plus Valentines Day is coming up—so I’m posting my Ukrainian family’s recipe for borscht, a beautiful red soup. I first shared this recipe with my newsletter readers a couple of years ago in mid-November. In the course of putting my kitchen garden to bed that fall, I had finally harvested the beets that were interplanted among my tomatoes. I got 6 pounds of beets and a big bunch of beet tops. The secret to using beet greens, by the way, is to treat them like Swiss chard. They look the same and taste the same! You could use beet greens to make Swiss Chard Tortilla Española with my mom’s recipe that I’ve already posted.

The secret to using beet greens is to treat them like Swiss chard. They look the same and taste the same!

The Gardener Wife

Anyway, what’s a Ukrainian girl going to do with all those beets? Make borscht, of course! And salads—I like roasted beets in salads with things like mandarin oranges and goat cheese. I roasted some of the beets for salads and boiled the rest. Then I peeled them all and froze them. Thus most of the prep work was already done.

Here is my recipe for borscht. My mom used to make both red borscht and green borscht for my Ukrainian dad. I always liked the red borscht better. When Mom was still alive, I combined two versions of her recipe—one given to my sister Ann and one given to me—with comments from Mom and Ann to come up with this recipe. My mom, like many great cooks, did not use recipes, so she said something different everytime I asked her about making borscht. This is really more of a guideline than a recipe. Isn’t that how all soups are?

Mary Slobodian’s Ukrainian Borscht

Serves 20

INGREDIENTS
5 pints chicken, pork, or beef *stock (see note)
1 small head cabbage, shredded
1 large jar pickled beets, undrained, OR 1-2 pounds *beets (see note)
1 potato, shredded
1-2 carrots, shredded
1 onion, finely chopped
½ stalk celery, finely chopped [optional]
meat (chicken or other meat reserved from making stock)

1 bunch parsley, chopped
5-6 cloves of garlic, minced
white vinegar, to taste (1/2 to 1 cup or more)

sour cream

NOTES

STOCK: Borscht is often made with beef stock, but both Mom and Ann prefer chicken stock. Ann says, “we like to boil the chicken or some pork (bone in) with some bay leaf.  When it falls off the bone…strain it to use the broth for the borscht and use the meat to add to the soup.  We do this almost every time we make it…rather than using just broth.” But Mom says she would not use any bay leaves. She says to chop all the vegetables for the borscht while boiling a whole, uncut chicken for an hour. Then pull the meat off the bones and reserve it. I usually use my homemade chicken stock from the freezer.

BEETS: This recipe used to call for fresh beets, but now Mom prefers using pickled beets, juice and all. Ann says cut back on vinegar then, but Mom says don’t. You could use fresh or pickled beets or a combination of both.

OTHER INGREDIENTS: Like any soup recipe, you can vary the ingredients somewhat according to your taste and what you have available. If you have any other vegetables from your garden or the farmers market which you’d like to use, go ahead and add them. The original recipe Mom gave us included tomatoes and several ingredients that I don’t remember ever being in the Slobodian kitchen—rutabaga, leek, turnip, and parsnip. When I first made borscht for Mom in Ann’s kitchen, she requested several things NOT in the recipe—red onion, red bell pepper, and mushrooms. Perhaps these were things she just had a taste for at that time. The next time I was in town and made it for her, she wanted me to add canned peas and mushrooms even though I was making the regular red borscht, not green borscht. I’ve put her Green Borscht recipe at the bottom of this post in case you’re interested.

DIRECTIONS

Peeling Beets
  1. While cooking stock, wash vegetables and peel them. The easiest way to peel beets is to cook them first and then rub the skin off with a paper towel. Always wear gloves when handling beets, or they will turn your hands red. Grate the beets, potato, and carrots. I recommend a food processor when making a big batch. When I made this in Ann’s kitchen with Mom watching, she said to skip the grating and just slice/chop everything. It just depends on what kind of texture you want for your soup.
  2. Put the stock in a large saucepan and add vegetables. Keep back some of the beets for coloring. This excellent tip came from Ann: adding grated beets at the end gives the borscht a brighter red color.
  3. Bring to boil; then cover and simmer until vegetables are soft, about 50 minutes or so.
  4. At the end, after vegetables are cooked, add the reserved meat. Chop the parsley and garlic into a cup or small bowl; add vinegar. Add this vinegar mixture to the soup and take it off the heat. This finishing touch is very important to Mom. She repeated it many times! However, because of her allergies, I skipped the garlic when I made it for her. I did not cut back on the vinegar. It tasted WONDERFUL!

    Add the reserved grated beets 10 minutes before serving to give the borscht a deep, red color.

TO SERVE: Add a dollop of sour cream to each bowl and eat with a hearty black bread.

Sour cream is essential to Ukrainians. My parents always used the Ukrainian word for it, сметана (pronounced smetana), so I had to read the container to learn its English name. “Sour cream” sounded so strange to me that I hesitated to use it until I heard someone else call it that. I used to mix it into my bowl of borscht, so the red soup would turn pink. Nowadays, I try to put a cool bit of sour cream on every spoonful as I eat it.
 

Green Borscht
(from original recipe Mom gave me)

Replace the beets with one can sweet peas and one can mushrooms. Replace parsley with chopped fresh dill. It is also delicious. —Mom

My dad would say it’s дуже смачно (duzhe smachno), very tasty. He did not grow beets—at least I don’t remember his growing them. But I love that I can make his favorite soup now with beets from my own garden. I hope you’ll try it with whatever kind of beets you can get. It’s wonderful to heat up a bowl of borscht after working outside in the garden or on any cold day!

Steps to Making Borscht—From Harvest to Soup


Snow on Show

Thinking about the gift of God’s love as I looked out on my deck this winter morning. . .

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow
,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my ❤️ heart.

-Poem by Christina Rossetti, used as lyrics for a hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol.