Planting Tomatoes in Winter???

What’s Cook’n at Cheesecake Farms

Planting for Your Kitchen

It’s the dead of winter and I’m planting my tomatoes today.  Have I lost my mind?

You might think so but what I’m about to share with you will change your life forever.

I’m planting Milk Jug Tomatoes!!

Milk jug planting is gardening’s best kept secret.  It also goes by the name “Winter Sowing” along with many variations of both terms.  I only heard about it myself a couple of years ago and it was quite by accident.

I was in the garden section of Walmart, shamelessly eves dropping on a rather spicy conversation when it turned from spicy to starting tomato seeds in milk jugs, outside - in the middle of winter.  I couldn’t believe my ears!  Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about this before? 

I’ve never been one to start my tomato plants from seed.  I’ve tried a couple of times but they were often slow to start or got leggy or came down with that wilt disease where they bend over and die.  Then there’s that dreaded hardening off thing.  Buying plants suited my gardening style better.

But buying plants has their own set of problems.  Big box garden centers usually have just the basic, time worn varieties and you have to get them when you see them because they sell out fast.  So you wind up buying them too early for planting outside and have to tend them inside which winds up with most of them dying.  (Why do I garden????)

Anyway, milk jug planting changed my life.  It’s easy.  It’s fast.  You can have tomato varieties never found at garden centers and (the best part!) you plant in the winter when you’re itching to garden but it’s cold outside and the ground is frozen!

OK – so what's this fabulous technique already?
Here it is…. Ready?

During the winter, you plant your tomato seeds in a milk jug, put the jug outside then forget about it till it’s time to replant the now big, hearty and healthy plants in the garden!  
Yes, Really!!

Here's how:

1.  Get a plastic milk or water jug and wash it out.

  (Throw away the cap.)

2. Mark some drainage holes in the bottom. 

3.  Poke out the drainage holes.

4.  Mark a cutting line just under the bottom of the handle
(about 4 inches up from the bottom.)

Form a hinge for the jug (so the sections stay attached) by b
eginning your cut an inch or so past the handle. 
Cut on the line for the remainder of the circumference & stop about 1 inch before you reach the handle from the other side.  
(A small steak knife works well for cutting.)

5.  Fill the lower half of the cut jug with potting soil, well decomposed compost or a combination.  I’ve also used good, loamy garden soil.  Don't use any thing that will pack down and harden like clay soil.

Water the soil well.  
Plant your seeds to the depth recommended on the package.

6.  Close the jug and tape it shut all the way around. 
Use tape that won’t easily come off in damp, cold, outdoor
Don’t cover the pouring hole – that’s your air vent.

Label your container so you know what you’re growing. 
(I used a permanent black marker.)

7.  Place the filled jug outside in the sun where its not likely to get disturbed by animals or blown over in the wind.  
(I put mine in a garden wagon that’s grated at the bottom so rain/melting snow drains out of the wagon and doesn’t collect.)

8.  That’s it till spring!

No need to water or tend.  
By spring you’ll have healthy, hearty, good sized plants ready for the garden! 


Q.  I’m worried that this will not work for me and I don’t want to waste my growing season.
A.  Just plant one jug this year to try it out.  See how it goes.  If you like this method, plant more next year.

Q.  When do I plant?   Do I have to count back from my frost date?
A.   I am in Virginia, USA, Zone 6.  Planting in January/February works well for me. 
If you are in the southern hemisphere, plant during the first couple of months of your winter.  You do not have to count back from your frost date.  
The beauty of this method is that it self-regulating and very forgiving.              

Q.  What if it gets very cold?
A.  Don’t worry about the temperature outside. 
The milk jug is a self-contained little green house.

Q.  Do I have to water the jug(s)?
A.  No.  Rain and snow will fall in thru the pouring hole adding enough moisture.

Q.  How many seeds do I plant in a jug?
A.  For a gallon jug, I usually plant 6 to 8 tomato seeds.
(As with all seeds, some may not germinate so I plant a few more than I actually need.)

Q.  Can I use this method for seeds other than tomato?
A.  Yes… works well for anything that can be transplanted.
For seeds that yield plants smaller than tomatoes, you can use more seeds than my recommended 6 or 8 tomato seeds per jug.  Just use your own good judgement.

Root vegetables (like carrots) do not transplant well.

If you are planting seeds for shade plants, put the jugs in the shade not the sun.

Q.  Do I have to harden off the plants?
A.  No.

Q.  Can I/Should I open the jug to water the plants or see how they are growing?
A.  No.

Q.  How can I tell if the plants are growing?
A.  You’ll be able see them through the translucent jug.

Q.  When are they ready to transplant into the garden?
A.   After your frost date.

Q.  Won’t the plants get too hot if we have a hot spring?
A.  If it’s gotten very hot before it’s time to transplant into the garden, open the jugs during the day but close them for the night until your frost date has passed.

Q.  Won’t the roots all grow together?
A.  Yes, they will so just be a little careful when it’s time to transplant.  Tomato plants are easily untangled if you haven’t grown too many seeds in the jug.  Other plants can be separated as a small clump with the dirt attached.  This is a very forgiving method so don’t stress over it.

Q.  Can I use other containers?
A.  Sometimes.

Translucent, one gallon milk (or water) containers work very well. 
So do half gallon containers but you’ll put in less seeds because the container is smaller.

Gallon vinegar jugs work well too but only if you’ve washed them well.  After washing, leave them open to get rid of every trace of vinegar.

Some people use all kinds of deli and bakery containers but I haven’t had much luck with them.  They are not as tall as the milk containers so plants are not as mature.
Don’t use opaque containers.   Your plants won’t get enough light.

Totally Tomatoes

The other day, I was grocery shopping at my usual store and was shocked to see jars of pasta sauce selling for $6.99 to $8.99.  Shocked!!   What used to be a favorite, economical dinner choice was becoming un-affordable.

Imagine selling a couple of tomatoes, a pinch or two of spices, and a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a jar for outrageous prices.  They call it convenience.  I call it a waste of money.

I’m still shaking my head in disbelief.  Have we lost our minds?   Do we have so much surplus cash that we just don’t care what things cost?  Do we think pasta sauce is complicated and difficult to make?  Or is it that we just don’t know how?

While you’re waiting for your tomatoes to grow, here’s a quick and easy pasta sauce I call Minute Marinara.  Use canned tomatoes till you have garden fresh ones then switch to your own homegrown.

In less time than it takes you to open a jar of sauce and heat it, you can have fresh, hot, yummy homemade sauce for a fraction of the price!

Minute Marinara
This sauce takes its name from the way Italian fishermen made their sauce after they returned to shore with their catch.  They were hungry and wanted something quick.  "Marinara" means sauce in the the style of  the fishermen (mariners).   

While some pasta sauces cook for hours, the “Marinara” is a short cooked sauce – maybe 10 minutes or so.  It has a fresh tomato taste which I actually prefer to sauces that cook for hours.

Good the day it's made, better the next.
Serve over pasta, chicken, seafood or in any recipe calling for pasta sauce.

Makes about 4 cups sauce
Skill level: Very easy
Cooking time: about 10 minutes
Pan size:  Uses a 12 inch skillet (not cast iron)

1/3 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic (or to taste - chopped or pressed)
Pinch black pepper
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes (undrained)
1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes (not tomato puree)
A little water to rinse out the cans (about 1/4 cup water total - not much more)
Oregano to taste (I like 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano)
Salt (to taste)

Put the olive oil, garlic and pepper into the skillet and cook on medium (stirring) till fragrant but not brown - 1 to 2 minutes. 

Add the tomatoes and their juices.  Put a couple of tablespoons of water into each can and swish it around to rinse out the cans.  Add the tomato water to the pot.  Don’t use more than about 1/4 cup water total.  Stir everything together.

Cook on medium to medium/low heat (uncovered and stirring occasionally to prevent sticking), to reduce the sauce to the thickness you like - about 10 minutes.  Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles all the time without burning the sauce.  You want to evaporate some of the moisture to make it thick but don’t overcook.

The best skillet for making any tomato sauce is stainless steel inside and cast aluminum outside.
The cast aluminum provides good, even heat cooking.  The stainless inside keeps the aluminum from leaching into the sauce.

Cast iron skillets are not recommended because they give a metallic taste to the sauce.

If desired, tear some fresh basil into the cooking sauce.
For a zippy sauce, add hot sauce or red pepper flakes.

How to Make this Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes
When you finally have tomatoes in the garden, you can make this sauce with your fresh tomatoes. Tomatoes are best for sauce when they are soft and very ripe.

Grocery store tomatoes are not recommended because they never fully ripen (even of they’ve gone soft) and have no taste.

The number of fresh tomatoes you’ll need will vary according to their size.
For this recipe, you’ll need about 6 cups rough cut tomatoes.  A little more or less doesn’t matter.

Here’s how:
Dip tomatoes briefly into boiling water and removed the peel. 
On a plate (so you catch all the juice), core and rough cut tomatoes into bite size pieces.  

Prepare the recipe as given, substituting the fresh, cut tomatoes for the canned tomatoes. 
Omit the water for rinsing the cans.

As the sauce cooks, smash the tomatoes a bit with a potato masher to make the texture nicer.

When using fresh tomatoes, adjust the cooking time as needed. 
Juicy tomatoes may take a little more time. 
Meaty tomatoes, a little less.
Just don’t overcook!
The gorgeous taste of this sauce comes from its short (10 minutes or so) cooking time.

Variation - Browned Garlic Minute Marinara
Put the olive oil, garlic and pepper into the skillet and cook till fragrant and lightly browned.  
Be careful not to burn the garlic or the sauce will taste bitter.


Popular Posts