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West Nipissing farmer already sowing seeds — and you can too

The snow drifts are still rising but Kaila Gareau in West Nipissing has already sown spring vegetable and flower seeds. She operates a cut-flower farm and is using an outdoor winter sowing technique.

'As soon as the temperature inside warms up, your seeds are going to sprout and they're going to be protected'

West Nipissing seed farmer Kaila Gareau says she had unexpected success using a winter sewing technique to grow sunflowers last year — so she's doing it again this year. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

The snow drifts are still rising but Kaila Gareau in West Nipissing has already sown spring vegetable and flower seeds.

Gareau operates a cut-flower farm and is using an outdoor winter sowing technique.

She says it's one that a lot of people are learning about, especially during the pandemic.

"A lot of people wanted to start growing their own food or found gardening again and a lot of the equipment used to grow your own seeds became very expensive or hard to find," she said.

She told Morning North CBC host Markus Schwabe that she currently has about 40 water jugs sitting outside, full of seeds and soil.

Gareau says people can use any transparent container, like a water bottle, pop or juice bottle.

"Anything that you can hold your hand behind and see your hand. You need the light to be able to get through. So basically you're creating these little mini-greenhouses to give your seed a head start in the spring. It's very similar. It can replace indoor sowing in a way."

To get the materials in the container, it first needs to be cut in half and filled with about four inches of soil. After the seeds have been planted in the soil, the container is then taped back together. The bottle cap is then removed.

"Then you put your jug aside and you want those seeds to freeze. [The seeds] are going to go into hibernation. And as soon as the temperatures start to warm, this little mini-greenhouse is going to warm faster than our soil outside," Gareau said.

West Nipissing seed farmer Kaila Gareau says she had unexpected success using a winter sowing technique to grow sunflowers last year — so she's doing it again this year. (Kaila Gareau)

"We have ridiculous springs here. It goes cold, warm, cold, warm. But this little greenhouse gives that seed everything it's going to need. So as soon as the temperature inside warms up, your seeds are going to sprout and they're going to be protected, so they can handle our freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw."

The best seeds to use are for any plants that are cold-hardy, like beet, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, cauliflower, cabbages, herbs and some perennial flowers.

"Last year I grew the most incredible sunflowers from sowing the seeds in the middle of the winter, and they outperformed any sunflower that I had planted out in my garden," she said.

"Now, sunflowers, are not a frost-hardy plant, but it worked for a sunflower."

But for best success, she recommends people stick to using seeds that can handler cooler temperatures. 

She says this homemade mini-greenhouse has other benefits too.

"You're giving that little seedling everything it needs and you're going to end up with stronger, healthier plants because they've spent their whole life outside in the elements. They already know how to live through the sun. There's no hardening off [and] there's no predators."

Gareau says she's seen an uptick in winter sowing.

"Last year, when it was hard to get your hands on things [like grow lights], a lot of people came across winter sowing and it seemed like such a great way for anybody to start their garden."

Over in Whitefish, farmer Jenny Fortier sells seeds to groups and individuals through her business, Northern Wildflowers.

She says demand last year for seeds was high, and as a result, has expanded her farm in anticipation of this year's sales.

"We've established 20 new plots of new wildflower varieties that we're growing for seed, so we're hoping that this year we'll be able to keep up with demand."

Fortier says last year, the web sites of large multi-national seed companies were down because of demand. She suggests gardeners look online for seed-swaps locally and smaller suppliers in markets such as Etsy.

With files from Kate Rutherford and Markus Schwabe

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