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Green Thumbery: A Gardening Series and Winter Sowing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The initial yield from last year's garden, which then triggered a gardening furor.

Last summer was the first time I had space to have a garden of my own. I had never really tried to grow anything but marigolds prior to that—and that’s only because they insisted on surviving despite being neglected. Because of this history, it wasn’t really all that surprising that S cast a skeptical eye at the geraniums I snuck into the cart at the garden center last year.

It’s a tradition that for Mother’s Day we provide seedlings for his mom’s garden—she has a crazy green thumb! I couldn’t resist the promise of all of those plants. So we tossed in some herbs, tomatoes, caribbean peppers and bell peppers to give it a go. The geraniums died (they were over watered, I think) and the bell peppers never seemed to really recover from a late frost that hit, but the tomatoes, caribbean peppers and herbs took off. Slowly, but surely, I started adding flowers: cosmos one weekend, lavender the next, even dahlias when I came across the bulbs on sale.

I was hooked. And I did what I normally do when I’m interested in something: I became committed to learning. I read voraciously—memorizing the way to prune tomatoes and basil, and learning keep Japanese beetles at bay—and I started planning for this year. (I also figured out the appeal of Pinterest since I compiled most of my research there for easy access going forward.)

So here we are. I’ve started my seeds and the shoots are beginning to emerge. It’s exciting. So I thought I’d dedicate my Friday columns to a series on gardening and the plants that I’m growing. I’m hoping to use this space to learn from you as well as share my enthusiasm at being able to eat things I’ve produced in my backyard with some water and sunlight. So I hope you’ll join the conversation in the coming weeks.

The best place to start this series is with my winter sowing story. Last fall, while I was reading about bulbs and trying to figure out the best choices for container planting, I came across winter sowing. Think about it: certain seeds can survive colder temperatures outside, and come back year after year. Winter sowing requires you plant seeds in portable containers (like plastic milk cartons or cups) to create miniature greenhouses. The containers are exposed to the elements and the seeds are left to their own devices. They sit through the winter snows and spring thaws, and when the temperature is just right, they germinate. It seemed a great way to start seeds early and get my hands in the dirt earlier. So I occupied myself with creating a garden plan until January rolled around and I felt I could safely attempt to winter sow.

I potted my seeds in plastic cups and put the cups in foil pans and covered them with clear plastic lids. Then the containers went outside. S thought I was slightly crazy, and raised another skeptical eye when I told him, “Nope, they’re not coming back in” as the weather forecast called for snow. And they sat out there through several terrible snow storms. The lids had holes in them so moisture and air could get in, but otherwise I was set to wait until spring. To me, this was a grand experiment.

All was going well until the March winds came. Our backyard faces a wide open park, so we get the worst of winds when they pick up. And they certainly had picked up one morning at the beginning of March, but the containers had been out in the snow and rain so far, so I didn’t think wind would bother them. Well it did. I lost 3 of 5 trays that day, each holding roughly 20 potential plants. I was devastated.

S managed to save two of the trays, which had frozen to the table and could not blow away, but I was almost inconsolable. All that research! All that planning! So many potential plants all gone! I did replant and this time I kept the little buggers indoors. I’m so happy to report that the seedlings are making a valiant effort to push up through the soil. However, I think they’re outgrowing their cups, so it may be time to move them soon although I want to minimize touching them.

My first winter sowing experience was a disaster, but I will probably plan on trying again next year. For now I’m happy that the seedlings are emerging and that they appear mostly healthy.

Next week I’ll walk you through what I’m planting and my planting method. Stay tuned! Here’s a look at my set-up so far:

Have you ever tried to winter sow? How did it go? Are you excited about your garden this year? Tell us about it.

You might also be interested in:

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Green Thumbery: A Gardening Series and Winter Sowing – Scientific American (blog) | Home Gadget Deals 3:08 pm 03/28/2014

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  2. 2. Green Thumbery: A Gardening Series and Winter S... 7:50 pm 03/29/2014

    [...] Scientific American (blog) Green Thumbery: A Gardening Series and Winter Sowing Scientific American (blog) The initial yield from last year's garden, which then triggered a gardening furor.  [...]

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