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Winter Jug Sowing

Richard Hentschel


With such a strong trend in growing vegetables, home gardeners have become very creative in starting their seeds, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“One of those ways has been what is being called winter jug sowing, using white one-gallon milk jugs,” said Richard Hentschel.  “Like using row covers or cold frames, the milk jugs allow the gardener to extend the gardening season in their yard. This activity can take place anytime from late fall through very early spring. This certainly is something that can be done while we are having cold weather outdoors.”

The jug garden can be placed on the patio, apartment balcony, off the ground on the patio table where it can stay the remainder of the winter (or all of winter 2015 if done in the fall). “Those seeds are perfectly safe, even if the milk jugs are covered with snow,” Hentschel said.

The gallon jug provides the container used to grow seedlings, but also the protective cover from the elements. While there are different ways to prepare the milk jug, a typical jug will have the upper one-half to two-thirds nearly cut off, leaving a small portion as the hinge at one of the jug corners or, for some, the side opposite the handle. Like most good containers, there needs to be a number of drainage holes or slits cut into the pot to allow for water drainage. Holes or slits placed on the sides of the pot or holes in the bottom work equally well. There should be at least four, one per side or bottom.

“If you already start your own seeds in a more traditional fashion, you know the importance of using a soilless media to start and grow your vegetables, herbs, or flowers to avoid soilborne pathogens,” Hentschel explained. “You can use the same mix for your jug sowing.”

The starter seeds should be considered winter hardy or those that can be sown and tolerate being outdoors until the seeds begin to sprout on their own. “Think about those vegetables that like cold weather rather than warmer temperatures, and you will begin to build a list of vegetables to try,” Hentschel said.

He suggested choosing early varieties such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, peas, broccoli, thymus serpyllum (creeping thyme), salvia (common sage), oregano, and cilantro. Later varieties include lettuce (numerous varieties), bok choy, beets, carrots, basil, and parsley.

Once the pot is sown, tape the jug back together with duct tape until there is a need for venting to prevent the jug from getting too hot inside. The seeds sown prefer cold to cool soils and similar air temperatures, Hentschel said. Label and date the jug. “This will help you fine-tune your growing the following season,” he said.

“For gardeners who do not have enough space, the right equipment, or a good location to start seeds indoors, the jug method is great because the jugs stay outside and Mother Nature does the rest,” Hentschel said.

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