Q: When I try starting my spring garden plants indoors, I always run into problems that leave me with spindly plants, or they all die. How can I get a head start on my garden without building a greenhouse?

A: The method of starting your seedlings on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights is easy to do wrong. Beginning gardeners often fall into a couple of traps when using the windowsill method, both of which result in leggy (tall spindly) seedlings that transplant badly. They usually can’t get enough light to their plants, and they start the seedlings too early.

Damping off, a fungus encouraged by excess moisture with little air movement, is another potential problem that will kill your seedlings. Then, when you bring your remaining seedlings outside to plant in the garden, they suffer a severe shock — they’re used to the climate-controlled conditions inside your house, so unless you harden them off slowly, many will die.

To let you in on a little secret, many Master Gardeners won’t start their early garden transplants without a greenhouse. But one technique of giving your seeds a greenhouse-like start may surprise you. Let me introduce you to a method I found a few years ago that has made me a seed growing legend. Well, maybe not a legend, but I no longer use my grow lights and I don’t have a greenhouse, yet I get hundreds of healthy early transplants.

“Winter sowing method” — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library — is a propagation method used throughout the winter, where temperate climate seeds are sown into protective vented containers and placed outdoors to foster a naturally timed, high-percentage germination of climate-tolerant seedlings. Since we really don’t have much of a winter here on the Gulf Coast, I didn’t think it would be applicable for us zone 8b gardeners. But being a Master Gardener I just had to give it a try.

According to the official website, “winter sowing” is done outdoors during winter using mini greenhouses made from recyclables; there are no heating devices, no energy wasting light set-ups or expensive seed starting devices. Using clean, clear plastic containers such as milk jugs or 2-liter soda bottles, you build mini greenhouses that will germinate your plants weeks earlier outdoors.

Just cut around the middle of the container, leaving a small hinge that keeps the top and bottom attached. Make drainage slits in the bottom. Fill the bottom half with potting soil or seed starting mix (not garden soil), water, let it drain, sow your seeds and cover with more soil. Water and drain again before you tape the cut edges together and simply remove the cap for air transpiration. Don’t forget to label the container with the type of seed that was planted. Planting mystery plants at a later date is extremely frustrating.

Begin planting the seeds around the winter solstice in December, and plant through February depending on the cold-hardiness of the plant you are starting. This method works for seeds that need to be stratified, or seeds with hard shells that usually need changing temperatures along with moisture to aid in germination. If there is a freezing cold snap expected and your seedlings have begun their growth, simply cover them overnight.

For more details on winter sowing:
wintersown.org/wseo1/How_to_Winter_Sow.html.

Kevin in the Garden winter sowing:
agardenforthehouse.com/2010/12/winter-sowing-101.

You Are Invited to These Upcoming Gardening Events:
What: Mobile Master Gardeners
Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Jan. 12, 10-11:30 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Winter Sowing and Milkweed, presented by Alice Marty

What: Lunch and Learn
When: Monday, Jan. 23, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Ionix Detox & Herbs for Health, presented by Carol Wattier and A.D. Hale