Winter sowing is great

Photo credit: Buffalo-Niagara Gardening

Start seeds outside now using milk jug, other containers in ‘winter sowing’

by Connie Oswald Stofko


Will opaque milk jugs work for winter sowing?

I had first tried winter sowing a few years ago with the translucent milk jugs that we used to get in stores around here. Find the directions for the milk jug greenhouse here.

I had good results, but wasn’t sure if it would work with the newer opaque milk jugs, so I tried it last winter.

This does work with opaque milk jugs!

I tried it last winter and by spring I had tomato seedlings. I worried that they were coming up later than they should, but our spring was cold, so they were probably on time.

I’m not sure why it worked with the opaque milk jug, but it did. When the top and bottom halves of the opaque jug were closed, they didn’t fit together as neatly as they did on the translucent milk jug. Maybe that let in enough light for the sprouts.

Other containers for winter sowing

If you don’t trust the idea of using containers that are opaque, there are lots of other options.


Read the full article: Buffalo-Niagara Gardening

All seeds aboard

Photo credit: WVC

Plastic tray, plastic bag and a marker to build a mini-greenhouse

Starting your own transplants

By MINNIE MILLER, T&D Garden Columnist

How much money do you spend every spring buying vegetable and flower transplants to fill your garden or make up containers? Make this the year you save a little cash by growing your own starter plants. You will be able to pick and choose the exact varieties you want by selecting your seed. The sense of accomplishment you will gain by growing your own, start to finish, will be priceless.

Now is the time to start gathering the supplies you will need including containers, seed starting mix, liquid fertilizer, labels and seeds. Seeds ordered online take time to be shipped as do related supplies. If you are going to need to set up grow lights you will want to come up with a plan and implement it as a first step to successful transplants.

Be sure you can supply the right conditions for starting seed or you will not be successful. Seeds do not necessarily need light to germinate, but most do need warmth. Once they have sprouted, you will need to supply them with 16 to 18 hours of light daily to grow strong seedlings. Grow lights or regular florescent lighting can be used.

You don’t have to purchase special containers to start seed, but there are some handy ones out there that include trays and “domes” that help keep moisture regulated. Ordinary flats that have drainage holes, used pots and even recycled plastic produce containers (such as greens or berries are packaged in) can be used. The container simply needs to hold soil and provide drainage. You will want saucers or solid trays underneath to catch excess water.

Have on hand a supply of liquid or soluble fertilizer for watering the seedlings as they grow. Regular light doses of liquid fertilizer, along with adequate light, will keep plants strong and stout so they will be more successful transplants.

Read the full article: The T and D

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)



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.

Plants in Plastic (Green Roof Growers)

Gardening is natural. Wholesome, organic, healthy, pure, part of a timeless cycle.

Growing plants in plastic containers seems to stand all that on its head.

I still think it’s a great idea.

DSCN4060These planters let non-gardeners, like myself, get great results. I’d guess that most of my peers haven’t thought about growing anything since they were in elementary school and started something from a seed as a science project. Sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) are perfect for them.

Around the world, large numbers of people are moving to cities, and at least here in Chicago, the Community Gardens that exist have long waiting lists. Why not offer those people the chance to grow something on their balcony or deck (or roof)?

The simple act of growing a little bit of your own food can lead a previously apolitical person to question any number of things: the subsidy program that is the lifeblood of agribusiness, how modern agriculture contributes to global warming and produces tainted food, the prevalence of chemicals (and yes, plastic, more on that in minute) in our lives, Energy Policy, air and water quality, how access to fresh fruits and vegetables is largely determined by race and class. And more. The increasing numbers of city residents imply a growing level of political power. It makes sense to reach out to as many of them as you can.

Don’t get me wrong. I love permaculture, vermicomposting, and the ideas of Wendell Berry, but I’m not there yet. Living in the center of a large city, most of it seems out of reach. And as I said earlier, I’m not alone.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Plastics.

In building these SIPs, I learned about different kinds of plastic. Some are better (less bad?) than others. Before I started this whole project, my attitude towards it was something like “well, if PVC is good enough for potable water lines, how bad can it be?”. I don’t think there’s any way to talk about this without sounding like a lunatic, especially with (to?) strangers. All I can say is go read the links and make up your own mind.

I suppose I should issue a disclaimer: This is a blog. I’m not an expert. These are my opinions, even if they’re supported by Experts.


Keyhole gardening and bag gardening (Google / My Global Garden)

Read at : Google Alert – gardening

Eco gardening secrets from Africa

The most impressive stand I visited at Hampton Court was the Back to the Future Garden in the Climate Zone, designed and built soley by a unique charity called Send a Cow. It was one of the busiest with visitors intrigued by a method of growing vegetables in a keyhole garden:

(very nice picture)

As you can see, this is basically heaps of soil based around a compost that continually feeds the garden with the rotting matter as it grows. This a great way to use up kitchen waste and means you can grow lots of vegetables in a small area, all year round. Perfect for city balconies or terraces where space is at a premium and there is often nowhere to have a compost heap. The height is good for elderly people who may find bending down to tend their vegetables more difficult.

For many families in Africa these amazing keyhole gardens are the difference between life and death. Climate change has seriously reduced the levels of soil fertility in many parts of Africa and the situation has been made worse by the loss of almost a whole generation to Aids which means that horticultural know-how is very limited.

About 70% of Africans depend for survival on what they grow on their land and keyhole gardening is just one of the areas that Send A Cow is involved with. Set up in 1988 , this group of farmers in the West Country helps African farmers develop answers to this need to grow their own food. They deliver direct, practical help to poor farmers in Africa, by providing, cows and other livestock, training in livestock rearing and organic farming, plus low-cost veterinary and advice services .


Another novel idea that was demonstrated by Send a Cow was the bag garden – see pictures above right. These tall hessian sacks of soil are sent to families trying to survive famine in Africa . They are deep enough to grow potatoes in, plus you can also cut holes in the sack and plant things up the sides too. They can be watered easily when irrigating fields isn’t possible. The bag garden saves lives in Africa but it will also do well on a tiny British patio or balcony.


Check out their excellent web-site at for more information on their various projects plus some more sustainable gardening suggestions from Africa – making your own natural pesticide and liquid manure.

Garden sustainably from Send a Cow


3. Make a keyhole garden

Draw a 3m circle and edge with rocks. Mark a tiny central circle with posts and make a compost “basket” inside with sticks and string. Fill bed with soil sloping down from centre, leaving a tiny path for access. Fill the basket with vegetable waste and enjoy your fertile plot.

Improving plant growth with a soil conditioner in the drylands of Tamil Nadu (India)

A Belgian group around the Past-President of one of the Rotary International clubs in Antwerp (Belgium), Dr. Stany PAUWELS, and SCAD (Social Change and Development), an Indian NGO directed by Dr. Cletus BABU in Tamil Nadu (South India) were recently introducing trials on the use of the soil conditioner TerraCottem (TC) for improving plant production in the drylands of Tamil Nadu. The Belgian group offered an important quantity of TerraCottem to SCAD and trials were set up at SCAD headquarters in Cheranmahadevi, at SCAD KVK Agricultural Center and in different villages in the drylands of Tamil Nadu.

SCAD has initiated intensive training programmes to promote the use of Terracottem and to motivate the rural people to set up kitchen gardens. The period of June – July is the prime Agriculture Season of Tamil Nadu. Farmers who received some soil conditioner have started application in their test plots.

As far as the test plots raised at KVK are concerned, the Terracottem-treated fields are showing a lot of favorable results. The Bhendi (okra)-fruits harvested from the treated plots are healthier and more vigourous than those of the control plots.

Since the farmers have started their work with TC recently, they are yet to see the results.

This year, SCAD has fixed 2000 Kitchen Gardens as a target in the Tuticorin District alone. In the first phase local native seeds have been distributed to 1250 gardens, along with the seeds offered by the Belgian groups. The production in these gardens will be closely monitored.

SCAD is also interested in “bottle gardening“, an idea launched in a former posting on this blog (see “My vegetable garden in plastic bottles“, 2008-02-13). SCAD has already given a training on bottle gardening to the Self Help Groups (SHG)-members. They showed a lot of interest on that method, motivating local people to eliminate plastic bottle from their environment.

Nowadays, SCAD KVK-scientists are closely monitoring the effect of TerraCottem (TC) on vegetables and other plant species and on the planned Kitchen Garden programmes. Promotion of TC among the farming community is going on in selected SCAD-sponsored villages. Feedback from the communities will be send later.

Family gardens or kitchen gardens are relatively new to this dryland region. The rural population has no tradition in gardening during the dry season. Together with bottle gardening, this method can improve food patterns and public health in a significant way. It can also alleviate poverty, offering farmers a chance to take their vegetables produced locally to the nearby market, thus competing with vegetables important from distant production centers in other Indian states.

Here are some pictures illustrating the actual situation in June-July 2008 :

2008-06 : Village Vedanatham – Mrs. Mariyammal – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans, etc. (DSCN 1768)

2008-06 : Village Vedanatham – Mrs. Mariyammal – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans, etc. (DSCN 1769)

2008-06 : Village Vedanatham – Mrs. Mariyammal – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans, etc. (DSCN 1770)

2008-06 : Village Vedanatham – Mrs. Mariyammal – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans, etc. (DSCN 1787)

2008-06 – Village M.Velayudhapuram – Mr. Muniyasamy – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans etc. (DSCN 1835)

2008-06 – Village M.Velayudhapuram – Mr. Muniyasamy – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans etc. (DSCN 1838)

2008-06 – Village M.Velayudhapuram – Mr. Muniyasamy – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans etc. (DSCN 1839)

2008-06 – Village M.Velayudhapuram – Mr. Muniyasamy – Crops raised : Gourds, Sesbania, Cluster beans etc. (DSCN 1840)

2008-06 – Village Thulukkan kulam – Mrs. Pushparani – Crops raised : Zinnia, Bhendi, Amaranthus & other greens (DSCN 4430) – Mixing the TC with top soil.

2008-06 – Village Thulukkan kulam – Mrs. Pushparani – Crops raised : Zinnia, Bhendi, Amaranthus & other greens (DSCN 4439) – Applying TC to Drumstick (Moringa) tree

2008-06 – Village Thulukkan kulam – Mrs. Pushparani – Crops raised : Zinnia, Bhendi, Amaranthus & other greens (DSCN 4449) – Mrs. Pushparani applying TC to Brinjal (Egg Plant) raised in a small pot (Container Gardening). Asparagus and Alternanthera in the small containers.

2008-06 – Village Thulukkan kulam – Mrs. Pushparani – Crops raised : Zinnia, Bhendi, Amaranthus & other greens (DSCN 4464) – Proud owner of the garden with Zinnia, Marigold plants. In the rear end, some papaya trees.

2008-06 – Village Thulukkan kulam – Mrs. Pushparani – Crops raised : Zinnia, Bhendi, Amaranthus & other greens (DSCN 4477) – Little girl sitting in her TC-treated kitchen garden with Amaranthus greens.

2008-06 – SCAD KVK – Women SHG members – Test Plots showing healthy Bhendi (Okra) fruits – (DSCN 7690) – SCAD Anbu Illam cook is harvesting the Bhendi fruits (Abelmoschus esculentus).

2008-06 – SCAD KVK – Women SHG members – Test Plots showing healthy Bhendi (Okra) fruits – (DSCN 7692) – Healthy bhendi plants with long fruits.

2008-06 – SCAD KVK – Women SHG members – Test Plots showing healthy Bhendi (Okra) fruits – (DSCN 7695) – SCAD Anbu Illam cook in the TC-treated Bhendi garden

2008-06 – SCAD KVK – Women SHG members – Test Plots showing healthy Bhendi (Okra) fruits – (DSCN 7696) – Fresh and healthy bhendi fruits harvested from TC-treated bhendi garden.

2008-06 – SCAD KVK – Training for Kitchen gardens by KVK Staff Members – (DSCN 7712)

2008-06 – SCAD KVK – Training for Kitchen gardens by KVK Staff Members – Self Help Group of Women after training. -(DSCN 7713)

Pop bottle science (Inside Urban Green)

Read at : Inside Urban Green

Pop Bottle Science

Lynn Brunelle, author of Pop Bottle Science was at the World Science Festival Street Fair along with a lot of recycled pop bottles. There were three tables of children obviously having a good time doing the experiments.

I already had a copy of her book and was surprised that the pop bottle sub-irrigation planter was not included. There are, however, instructions on how to make a “biome in a bottle”.

What do you do?

1. Remove the top part from your Pop Bottle.
2. Sprinkle one inch of pebbles in the bottom of the bottle.
3. Add 2 inches of potting soil or topsoil from your yard.
4. Run your thumbnail across the center of the soil to make a trench. Sprinkle seeds in the trench and cover them with soil.
5. Water the seeds until you see water collecting in the pebbles.
6. Replace the top of the Pop Bottle.
7. You’ve now created a biome.
8. You won’t need to water the seeds again because the closed Pop Bottle will keep  recycling the water through the process of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. The growing plants need carbon dioxide, however, so you’ll need to remove the to of the bottle as the plants begin to grow.
9. Put your biome near a sunny window. Your plants should start growing in three or four days.

This will work if your’re careful, but I recommend the pop bottle sub-irrigation planter method. The method outlined above is really an extension of drench and drain watering (ex. gravel catch basin). I would also exercise caution about too much sun that could easily burn the plants.


Posted by Greenscaper Bob on June 01, 2008

Gardening with Plastic Recycling (Google / Home Gardening Tips)

Read at : Google Alert – gardening

Gardening with Plastic Recycling: Help Protect Your Environment

Green concern and environmental issues are gaining important worldwide. More and more people now understand that clean and safe environment is must for healthy living and gardeners around the world have also expressed their concern equally. Every one of us has to contribute in its own way and if you are an active gardener you also can contribute. There are several small steps that you can take to save the environment while gardening. One really important of these is to recycle and reuse plastic. There are so many ways you can do that. Here are just a few tips that would help you think in this direction and you will surely create your own innovative methods to recycle plastic. Continue reading Gardening with Plastic Recycling (Google / Home Gardening Tips)