Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Wildflower Wednesday: Winter Sowing For More Wildflowers

I am dreaming of spring and thumbing through seed catalogs helps me dream! An actual catalog has corners to fold over and pages to write upon. I love reading the descriptions of the plants, seeing photos of them in natural settings and then imagining them in my garden.

 A great seed catalog is about more than selling pretty flowers. My favorite seed/plant catalogs do a wonderful job of organizing and presenting plants and their cultural information. Every wildflower, grass, or sedge they offer is shown with detailed information including genus, species, common name, germination guide, sun, soil, bloom, color, height and even a few  comments. Catalogs that include this kind of detailed information are great teaching tools for gardeners wanting to learn about wildflowers and their cultural requirements. When you find this information included, you know immediately that the nursery owners want you to find the right plants for your prairie restoration, native habitat or new wildflower garden.


Dogbane seeds
I've been a toss the seeds on the soil in the fall and see if they germinate kind of gardener. But, honestly, I've not had the best success from direct sowing in my sloped garden. Winter rains either rot the seeds or wash them away. Then there are the rough and tumble wildflowers like Verbesina virginica, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae and Solidago, that reproduce on their own just fine and have a habit of crowding the garden space making it tough for some plants to get a toe hold in the soil. So, I am going to experiment with winter sowing a few wildflowers and planting them in the spring. I may even transplant them to larger containers for fall planting.  

Most perennial wildflower seeds need some kind of stratification to germinate. Stratification happens naturally over the winter when seeds ripen on the plants and then fall to the ground where they are covered with leaves or decaying plant matter all winter long. Seeds remain dormant until conditions are favorable for germination. Winter exposure to cold temperatures (cold/moist stratification occurs around 35-40F.) and moist conditions breaks dormancy and the seeds germinate (the embryo's cells start to enlarge) when temperatures increase in the spring.

milkweed fluff caught on Goldenrod

Winter sowing is the process of planting seeds outdoors in a container during the winter months. The containers get rained on, snowed on and the seeds get both the cold treatment and moisture they need to make them ready to germinate when it gets warm. I use a variety of containers to winter sow, including tall skinny nursery pots (for some trees) and clear plastic gallon jugs, which I am using for this post. In early spring I will sow annuals and perennials that don't need a cold treatment to germinate in seed trays.


Clematis viorna seeds need 90 days cold stratification


Here’s what folks all over the internet have suggested and what I did.

1. Collect a bunch of clear plastic containers. We are a household of two and don't get milk in big gallon containers, but many of my friends and neighbors do and they gladly shared them with me. I am so appreciative of their saving them and in some cases dropping them off at my house!

1b. You can winter sow in almost anything. Opaque milk and water jugs, food containers with clear plastic tops,  two-liter soda bottles take-out containers with clear plastic lids and even foil pans with clear lids. The key is to have a container that's at least 4 inches deep.

2. Clean them. Those generous neighbors and friends gave me clean containers!

3. Poke holes in the containers on the bottom for drainage and the top for rain/melting snow to enter.

4. Cut around the jug but leave the handle in place. It functions as a hinge at the handle. I used scissors for cutting most containers.

5. Add about 4 inches of moist potting soil to the container. I let it sit to settle ...

6. Plant seed. Some seeds need to sit directly on the soil and others need to be lightly covered. Thos great catalogs should give you this info.

7. Tape the containers closed and toss the lids.

8. Write on the container the plant name and any other identifying info you want with a permanent marker. I also numbered each of mine and kept a list in case the name washed off.

9. Place them in shade. I placed mine in a kiddie swimming pool that has many holes punched so it drains.

It snowed before I could finish sowing

10. Wait patiently for spring, but, check periodically to see if they need water. I grow in the mid south and this might be necessary.

11. Plants emerge when they’re ready! Expect a few to sprout when it gets warm, some may take weeks or months longer.



Porteranthus stipulatus seed collection

I am winter sowing the seeds I've collected in my garden and ones I've ordered from trusted sources.

Partridge pea was sown several falls ago and now self seeds

Here's an incomplete list of plants that you might want to try winter sowing.






Perennial sunflowers


Downy Woodmints


Mountain Mints



Boltonia (don't cover seeds)


Seeds that drop earlier in summer  may need a warm period followed by a cold period. I usually let them reseed.

 Why winter sow

  • Seeds are protected. They don't wash away in a heavy rain.They aren't eaten by critters. They don't dry out in the wind. They don't rot in too wet soil.
  • Seeds do not need to be hardened off before planting in the garden.  
  • Winter sowing is ideal for those with limited indoor space for seed starting. 
  • No special lighting or equipment is required for germination. 
  • Many container choices for propagating.
  • It's fun.
  • It's a fun/interesting project with your kids or grandkids. 
  • You can grow plants that are hard to find at local nurseries.
  • It's a great way to increase both the number of plants and the diversity of species in your garden.
  • You will feel so good when they germinate.
  • Seriously cheaper than buying dozens of plants.


I hope this is inspirational for you. Many of you still have time to winter sow. Plus, there are a lot of perennials and annuals that don't need 60 to 90 days of cold stratification.

 I sure hope there's room for all the plants I've sown!



Thanks to Laura for this quote


PS Watch for the First Wednesday Taking Care Of Wildlife In Our Gardens Challenge. The First Wednesday of every month.

Welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. I am so glad you stopped by. WW is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants. It's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave your url when you comment. I love your comments, so thank you for leaving them.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I’ve spent the better part of a decade experimenting with which native plant seeds germinate and grow best with direct sowing. I’ve documented my efforts, which list specific species, on this web site: https://sites.google.com/view/native-plant-story

  2. Yes, it IS fun to dream this time of year. And I need to do a little more winter sowing. Thanks for the inspiration. :)

    1. Cold days are great for dreaming. Good luck with WS.

  3. Like you, I am quite casual with seeds. In the fall, I sprinkle them like a Glitter Fairy, and hope for the best! As for the spring and summer seeds, I’ve already perused the beloved seed catalogs, and gathered everything I need. Can’t wait!


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson