Tips for winter sowing

Photo credit: Recordonline

Winter sowing in mini-greenhouses

Get a jump-start on veggie garden with winter sowing

By Susan M. Dollard
For the Times Herald-Record


Winter sowing is an outdoor method of seed germination that requires just two things: Miniature greenhouses (made from recycled milk jugs and various other containers) and Mother Nature. After planting in January-March, these mini greenhouses are placed outside to wait for winter to end.

Here are some suggestions for what to plant and when, based on zone 5b:

Read the full article: Recordonline

How to water containers ? (Gardening Tips ‘n Ideas)

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Container Plants: Water From Base vs. Top

Container plants let you garden even when you don’t have a patch of earth to call your own. Container gardening brings plants up close, adding color and interest to patios, decks, and porches, and providing indoor rooms with a touch of nature. Growing plants in containers allows you to maintain control over the quality of soil, and makes it easier to manage weeds and pests. Yet many find it challenging to keep container plants thriving. When container plants go bad, often the culprit is the method of watering.

Most people water plants in containers from the top. Some prefer watering from the bottom. While there are certain circumstances where one method is preferred over the other, it is important to remember that to plants, all that matters is that roots get the moisture they need to thrive, neither too little, nor too much. Before deciding whether to water from the bottom or from the top, other factors need to be considered. To reach the right balance of moisture, plants need more than water. They need the right soil and the right amount of drainage.

Soil for Container Plants

Ordinary garden soil is generally too heavy for use in container plants.



Bottle tower gardening: how to start ? (Willem Van Cotthem)

Together with my friend Gilbert VAN DAMME (Zaffelare, Belgium) I have set up some successful experiments with vertical gardening in “container towers”.

We are using all kinds of recycled containers, e.g. plastic bottles, pots, buckets.  The containers are stacked into “towers”.

Today, I will describe the way how to start a “bottle tower”, illustrating the different steps with some photos:

2011-09-07 - Step 1 :We leave the lid on bottle No. 1 (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 2 : We cut the bottom part of bottle No. 1 (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 3 : Bottom part of the bottle No. 1 cut off (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 4 : With a sharp object (here scissors) the wall of bottle No. 1 is perforated at 2-4" (5-10 cm) from the top of the lid (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 5 : A second perforation (drainage hole) is made diagonally across the bottle No. 1. Below the 2 holes a small reserve of water is kept in the bottle. Through these drainage holes a possible surplus of water can be evacuated(Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 6 : Bottle No. 1 is filled with potting soil (or a mixture of dirt and manure) up to 1-2" (2,5-5 cm) of the edge of the bottle (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 7 : Bottle No. 1 is the bottom bottle of the future tower (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 8 : For the next 3 bottles (No. 2, 3 and 4, without the 2 drainage holes) we take the lid off and cut the bottom part (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 9 : After filling the 3 bottles (No. 2, 3 and 4) with potting soil, they will be put upon the bottom bottle of the tower (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 10 : A tower of the 4 bottles (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 11 : The bottle tower is kept upright with a couple of simple wires (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 12 : We use the top part of a bottle (No. 5, without the lid) as a funnel and push the bottleneck into the soil of the upper bottle No. 4 (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 – Step 13 : A bottle No. 6 will be used as a watertank on top of the funnel (Bottle No. 5). Therefore, a small (1 mm) perforation of the lid is made (here with a drill) (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 – Step 14 : Bottle no. 6 is the top bottle, used as a watertank, water running slowly through this small hole (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 – Step 15 : Watertank bottle No. 6 is pushed into bottle No. 5, the funnel (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 16 : The whole tower is now gradually moistened by pouring water in the top bottle No. 6 with its perforated lid. Water drips into the funnel (Bottle No. 5) and through this it infiltrates into the potting soil of bottles No. 4, 3, 2 and 1, where a possible surplus of water will be evacuated through the 2 drainage holes in the wall (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 17 : Water runs slowly from the watertank (Bottle No. 6) into the funnel (Bottle No. 5) and from there into the soil of Bottle No. 4 (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 17 : Water running slowly from the watertank (Bottle No. 6) into the funnel (Bottle No. 5) (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 18 : With a sharp knife we cut a horizontal slit and two vertical slits in Bottles No. 4, 3, 2 and 1(Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 19 : Thus a small "window" is created in Bottles No. 4, 3, 2 and 1 (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 20 : With a finger one can push a small cavity in the potting soil (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 21 : The rootball of seedlings or young plants can be planted in the "window" of each bottle (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 22 : Pretty soon new roots will be formed in the humid potting soil and the young plants will start their growth without to be watered regularly, because the complete tower is almost not loosing water (almost no evaporation) (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 23 : It takes only a couple of weeks to see all the species of vegetables and herbs, planted in the "bottle windows", developing into fantastic fresh food, full of vitamins and mineral elements (Photo WVC)
2011-09-07 - Step 23 : A remarkable kitchen garden is born with minimal means and efforts. It can be set up at any location in rural and urban areas, a very effective tool in the combat of hunger, malnutrition and poverty (Photo WVC)



Urban Agriculture: A Guide to Container Gardens (City Farmer News / Technology for the Poor)

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Job S. Ebenezer and Technology for the Poor

Linked by Michael Levenston

Wading Pool Gardens

The president (Dr. Job Ebenezer) of the organization, Technology for the Poor, explains his vision for the spread of urban agriculture.

In 1993, Dr. Job Ebenezer, former Director of Environmental Stewardship and Hunger Education at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) established a container garden on the roof of the parking garage of the ELCA offices in Chicago. The hope was that the roof top garden would serve as a role model for creative use of urban space throughout the country. Dr. Ebenezer proved the feasibility of growing vegetables in plastic wading pools, used tires and feed sacks.


Urban Agriculture: A Guide to Container Gardens

Job S. Ebenezer, Ph.D.
President, Technology for the Poor,

With inexpensive containers and suitable soil mix, you can create an urban garden virtually anywhere – on roof tops, vacant city lots, borwn fields, and unused portion of parking lots.

Start your seedlings in Cardboard milk containers (Marty WARE)

I have a very valuable edition to our Newsletter today!

It’s all about raising seedlings.

Any type of seedlings really.

Before I direct you to the page I would like to provide a tip!

Start your seedlings in Cardboard milk containers.


Because these are recyclable.

They are inexpensive, you probably buy milk anyway!

They produce a nice long deep roots, which is vital for plant health.

You can poke a few holes in the sides, cut out the bottom and plant them straight into the ground or container with no shock to the roots what so ever!

I hope you enjoyed this tip.

Please now move onto the next part of the lesson!

Bottoms-up watering may revive heat stressed plants (Seattletimes)

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Bottoms-up watering may revive heat stressed plants

Yard Smart: Horticulturist Maureen Gilmer offers tips on how to get water to the roots of container plants.


Scripps Howard News Service

In August, the once beautifully potted plants sit listlessly on porches, patios, balconies and roof gardens. Greens, herbs, flowers and perennials all seem to give up on life this time of year no matter what we do.

Nine times out of 10, the cause is simply dry roots. Note: I have not said “lack of water” because even in the summertime, plants get watered plenty. The problem is that the water doesn’t go to where it’s needed in the plants.

Look closely at your potted plants to see how the soil shrinks when it begins to dry out. This leaves a gap between the edges of the soil and the pot wall. The water that you apply seeps through that gap and out through the bottom. How much of the water do you actually think gets absorbed into the potting soil or roots?

Slide the plant out of the pot and you will find that the roots are concentrated in a thin but dense layer around the outside of the soil mass known as the root ball. The roots have created this mass around the soil because that’s the only place water can be found, however briefly that may be. This may have been fine in the cool days of late spring, but come late summer with the heat, it’s simply not enough moisture to maintain healthy, beautiful plants.

The best way to revive these plants is to encourage them with a payoff of moisture deep within the dry root ball. Once accomplished, the roots will moisten and grow, where it is dark, cool and wet. So how do you get the root ball thoroughly moistened?


Will Masai pastoralists adopt gardening in plastic bags, pots or bottles? (A. TONIUTTI / Willem VAN COTTHEM)

That’s the basic question coming to my mind when I was reading Alessandra TONIUTTI’s message :

‘Dear Doctor Van Cotthem,

I read with a lot of interest your various articles on container gardening and cultivation of plants under drought conditions.

I am from Italy. A couple of years ago I made friends with some Tanzanian Masai who live on the Northern coast close to the city of Handeni. I spent a fortnight at their village. The Masai are pastoralists and not at all accustomed to cultivation. They use the little money they have to buy rice, flour, beans, tomato, carrots and other vegetables. They have no idea where to start from in terms of cultivation practices and it is a fact that they live in a very dry area. Getting water from holes miles away is a very toilsome task and every single drop is a value in itself.

I came across your web page and your articles. I am going to visit back there in a month and I would like to help. I think your container gardening might be a very good idea.

I would very much welcome some additional suggestions on what kind of varieties are better suited to that kind of climate.

I would appreciate it if you would give me a few tips based on your experience. I am very grateful in advance.

God bless you


2007 - Bottle and pot gardening experiments with different plant species, even trees, opening the path towards fresh food production in dry regions (Photo WVC)
2007 - Plastic bottles and pots can be used in different ways, but all variants are aiming at saving water (less evaporation, no losses by infiltration in the soil, less water stress for roots in the permanently moistened substrate within the bottle, ...). (Photo WVC).


MY REPLY (Willem)

Dear Alessandra,

Thanks for appreciating my work and ideas.

You are right: container gardening is a very good solution for the drylands. Growing vegetables with a minimum of water in plastic containers (bottles, pots, bags) is possible and efficient.

I suppose it will be difficult for the Masai to get a sufficient number of plastic bottles or pots. Therefore, I suggest to use the classical plastic shopping bags as containers.

Put 2 or 3 of these plastic bags in one another and fill the central one  with soil (mixed with some cow manure to enhance fertility). Now make 2-4 little holes with a iron nail or a knife in the bottom (through the bags) to let the surplus of water run out (otherwise the soil becomes acid).

Hang such a container on two poles or nails on a wall or a fence (to avoid ants or termites to enter the bags) , preferably in the shadow to avoid heating in the sun. This way you get a hanging container with a certain quantity of soil in it.

Seeding can be done directly at the soil surface in the inner bag (carrot, lettuce, onion, garlic, …).

You can also let some seeds germinate in one hanging container and then transplant the seedlings into other ones, e.g. tomatoes (2 tomato seedlings per container), cabbages (1 cabbage seedling per container) or red beetroots (2-3 beetroot seedlings per bag).  One can even plant 1 potato in such a bag container.

I recommend to try all different species or varieties that the Masai prefer. Some will grow better than others, but it would be nice to offer them a also series of “new” vegetables and herbs, not just the classical ones they know (try basil, oregano, thymus, etc.).  Herbs will certainly prosper in containers.

My experience in the Sahara desert tells me that we should not hesitate to “try the impossible”. What turns out right for the Masai is extremely positive for their daily life and health, in particular for the children. What turns out negative is not even a loss.

Every vegetable we let grow in plastic containers in the drylands is a victory, because not only we introduce vitamin rich food for children and adults, but we also take care of the environment by “recycling” otherwise littered plastic.  There will be less plastic bags hanging in the spiny trees.

I wish you a lot of success.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem



‘Thank you SO MUCH for the PRECIOUS tips. Will try them out.

I just feel like saying that I do admire people like you: THEY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THIS WORLD and this is what living is all about, I guess. 🙂

All the best



I will be sleeping well tonight,


Container gardening in Malawi (Patrick DIMUSA)

Read this personal message of Patrick DIMUSA :

“Dear Professor Willem,

I hope your wife is better now after that terrible brain stroke in October 2008.

I lost my job last month and I am back in my village.

After I learned about the significance of container gardening for rural people in the drylands from you,  Professor Willem, my life has changed for the better, because in otherwise useless plastic bottles and plastic bags I can now grow vegetables for offering fresh food to my family, as well as for beautifying my home with flowers.  At the same time I am keeping the environment around my house totally clean (no more littered bottles or bags).

My fellow villagers in Piyasani village in the outskirts of Lilongwe city are flocking around my house to learn about this new initiative.  In November, I started collecting tree seeds from the surrounding remaining forest. Now that the rain has started I am planning to set up a community nursery of tree seedlings using the container gardening method.  I hope to be able with this plan to donate  tree seedlings to one school, so that they are able to plant a school woodlot.  At the same time, this will motivate other schools to start the same initiative as it is one of the cheapest kinds of agriculture and afforestation methods for the poorest countries in Africa, as no financial resources are needed since you can do this prioject around your home with empty plastic bottles and plastic bags.

I have a lot of photos of this project to be send to you, Professor Willem, so that other people can see the importance of container gardening for a poor country like Malawi.

Apart from container gardening,  I am also doing vegetable farming at a small scale for sale and for feeding my family with nutritious meals.

However, I am looking for well-wishers and donors who can come forward and assist me in buying a piece of land, which shall become an education centre for container gardening in Malawi. Any one who is interested can either e-mail me at or call me on +2659028290.

May God bless you, Professor Willem, for introducing this container gardening method to the people of Africa.