Master Gardeners: Start seeds outdoor in milk jugs

<p>Milk jugs can become a mini-green house for starting seeds in winter.  |  Julie Moore/submitted</p>

Milk jugs can become a mini-green house for starting seeds in winter.  |  Julie Moore/submitted

Many University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener volunteers in DuPage County have already started planting seeds – outdoors! They follow a time-tested, inexpensive method of winter sowing and get a cold season gardening fix while they are at it. Master Gardener Ellen Meyer of Bartlett has been starting plants from seed successfully this way for eight years.

Meyer explained, “I learned about this seed sowing method from another Master Gardener who found it to be the easiest. What we do mimics the English cloche process, only we use milk jugs!” A cloche is a transparent glass or plastic cover put over young plants to encourage early growth and to prevent frost damage. Though the milk jugs are not completely sealed, “they act as a mini-green house for the seeds and when they sprout, they provide some protection for the seedlings.”

How is it possible to start seeds outside in the snow and freezing temperatures? Meyer explains, “This method also mimics nature – we’re just controlling it a bit. Think in terms of plants that reseed themselves in the fall and show up in your garden the next spring. Those seeds survived the winter outdoors! Seeds that tend to work the best are often those described as hardy, native, needing pre-chilling or that have names like ‘Canadensis’, or ‘alpine’ which imply that they are from zones that will survive in our zone 5A.”

Meyer strongly urges experimentation with many kinds of seeds, though tender plants need to be started into warmer weather. Ellen especially enjoys experimenting with seeds she harvests from her garden and trades with friends. “Seeds are available online and at stores but I buy very few. Collecting the seeds and testing which will grow has become a fun, somewhat addicting way of getting new plants for me.”  Seed exchanges exist online and she once received twelve Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit seeds from a man in Connecticut. “The plants are beautiful and this type of exchange gives my garden plants a special meaning.”

Ellen Meyer is a member of the Master Gardener Speakers Bureau and is available to give presentations on Winter Sowing to area organizations. Visit the website below for details.

Next week: a “How to Guide” on this method of seed starting.

Email your home garden and lawn questions to or phone the Master Gardener Helpline at 630/955-1123. Visit our website at

Julie Moore is a Master Gardener volunteer with the University of Illinois Extension in DuPage County.


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