Thursday, November 27, 2014

Winter sowing, friendship growing

By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writer | 1/15/2014

Ann Maxwell often asks winter visitors to her Ottawa home if they want to see her jugs.

It’s a joke she and her friend, Kim Tappan, rural Ottawa, laughed about Wednesday morning at Maxwell’s home on West Fifth Street. The gardeners’ friendship, along with a plethora of healthy plants, flowers and vegetables, has grown through the years with a winter gardening technique Maxwell discovered while searching the Internet — winter sowing.

Ann Maxwell often asks winter visitors to her Ottawa home if they want to see her jugs.

It’s a joke she and her friend, Kim Tappan, rural Ottawa, laughed about Wednesday morning at Maxwell’s home on West Fifth Street. The gardeners’ friendship, along with a plethora of healthy plants, flowers and vegetables, has grown through the years with a winter gardening technique Maxwell discovered while searching the Internet — winter sowing.

The tactic involves planting flower and vegetable seeds inside plastic jugs or containers with soil, then setting the jugs outside during the winter months. Maxwell first found the idea six years ago.

“I love searching the Internet, especially gardening sites and this one called GardenWeb.com has all kinds of forums and this one was called winter sowing,” Maxwell said. “I thought, ‘Well, do you sprinkle the seeds on the snow? What does that mean exactly?’ I went to the WinterSown.org website ... I read it and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This sounds fascinating.’ I’m an experimenter, so I tried it and it worked. I have done it ever since.”

A couple of years later, in 2010, Maxwell and Tappan met at a local gardening club, and Tappan became interested in the idea of gardening during what traditionally is the off season.

“She was intrigued by [winter sowing],” Maxwell said. “She’s just as big of a nut as I am about gardening. With our love of gardening, I think we have a special relationship.”

That relationship sprouted into doing winter sowing projects throughout year. Maxwell is a good teacher and mentor, Tappan said, but Maxwell acknowledged that Tappan has skills of her own.

“She’s been able to grow some things that I haven’t,” Maxwell said. “[Last year], her plants actually did better than mine. I think it was because she put her jugs more in the sun.”

The jugs used in winter sowing create a cheap and fun way to garden during the harsh winter weather, Maxwell and Tappan said. Both get their recycled jugs from the Franklin County Recycling Center, 2039 S. Elm St., Ottawa.

Winter sowing involves first cutting horizontally with a knife or scissors around the plastic jug, and stopping about 1 to 1 1/2 inches from the starting point in order to make a hinge, according to an article Maxwell recently wrote for the publication “Greenability.” Holes also are poked through the bottom of the jug for draining purposes. The cap of the jugs are left off. Three to four inches of moist soil is then placed in the jug, followed by the seeds.

“I use a vermiculite peat moss mixture,” Maxwell said. “You can get it at any garden store. You can use anything but garden dirt. I’m sure that my dirt is very moist when I put [the seeds] in there. I actually sprinkle it with water again from the top and that actually helps the seeds get better contact with the soil.”

After the seeds are planted, the jug is closed and taped shut where it was originally cut open, creating a mini-greenhouse. Once the jugs are labeled by type of plant and the date planted, they are put outside, usually in near-full sun, and the growing process begins. In the springtime, the plants should be ready to be taken out of the jugs. The time each plant needs to remain in the jug varies from plant to plant, Maxwell said.

Being outside in the harsh winter weather actually helps the plants “toughen up,” Maxwell said.

“They are tough little boogers, and they might be tall and have huge root systems,” she said. “They put down really good root systems. The milk jugs protect the seeds from harsh winter weather.”

Tappan agreed.

“You want your seed to freeze and then thaw,” she said. “It is like an ongoing process depending on your germination time. You can leave them in the jugs for quite a while actually.”

While the two typically prepare their jugs individually each winter, they get together to share seeds, as well as show each other how their gardens turned out in the spring. They both share similar passion for their projects, Tappan said.

“Ann just gets excited like I do,” Tappan said, laughing. “I’ll show my friends and family when they come over, and they just kind of roll their eyes.”

Both women also shared similar gardening lifestyles growing up, which led them to be successful gardeners today, they said.

“I grew up on a farm, and we had a huge garden,” Maxwell said. “My dad had grown crops and just to see things grow.”

Tappan also spent much of her childhood around gardening.

“[I’ve been gardening] all my life really,” she said. “As a little girl, my parents really instilled that in all of us. We always had a vegetable garden and flower gardens. It is just exciting to see stuff grow and nurturing it. I like taking care of stuff like that. When one dies, it is just like losing a part of your family.”

Both are happy to fill the gardening void during the cold winter months.

“It gives you something to do, and I like to have my hands in the dirt,” Maxwell said. “Even if it is inside at the kitchen sink, at least I am doing something and making a plan. That just kind of helps tide me over until spring.”

This year, Maxwell said, she plans on slowing down on her jug production after her busy year last year. She plans on making 20 to 25 jugs for the coming winter months, while Tappan said she will equal her total from last year, which was more than 50 jugs.

“It [takes] a production mind and [depends on] your mood,” Tappan said. “Sometimes I’ll just cut all my jugs and then go back to work. We are collecting jugs now. I probably won’t start until the first part of February.”

Both said they enjoy spreading the word about winter sowing, but for those who have tried it, the results are not always positive.

“You’ve got to want to do it,” Tappan said. “I’ve had so many friends who have tried to do it and their plants dried out and died because they didn’t water them. They said, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ Well, you have to take care of them.”

Still, when everything goes right, Maxwell’s favorite part about gardening is seeing her seeds finally sprout, she said.

“When they start popping up, I probably look at them two or three times a day,” Maxwell said. “You’ve got this frozen dirt in a jug and one day you go out and you see this little green sprout, and it is just exciting.

“It is a commitment if you follow through,” Maxwell said. “A lot of people don’t. They’ll stick out a few flowers and let them bloom, let the weeds grow up in them. With me, it is such an important part of my life. It really is. It is hard work and you aren’t sure what the outcome is going to be, but even if it is not the best, there is always next year to look forward to.”

Maxwell already has her seeds and soil and is ready to get started making jugs again for this winter, she said. Her advice to gardeners looking into trying winter sowing is to give it a shot.

“Try it. You’ll like it,” she said. “It is just cheap, fun and a great thing to do with kids.”

comments powered by Disqus