How to Pre-seed the Garden in Fall for an Early Harvest

I’m the kind of gardener who gets overzealous and takes on too much, and then when there’s too much to do I get overwhelmed! Does this sound like you?

That’s why I’m always on the lookout for easier ways to do things.

So when I learned I could start seeds in the fall to get a good start on next season, I was excited!

Pre-seeding is a simple way to get a jump start on a bigger, better garden next season.

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With just a few minutes of extra work during the fall, you’ll be rewarded with better germination rates, earlier sprouts, and healthier, more vigorous plants next spring.

Read on to learn how to pre-seed your vegetable garden in the fall for an early harvest the following spring.

What is fall pre-seeding?

Pre-seeding refers to planting seeds in late fall or early winter, in preparation for the next spring’s garden.

In nature, when a plant’s seeds fall on the surrounding soil, they often do not germinate immediately.

Instead, they may lie dormant during the winter, waiting to germinate as soon as temperatures warm in the spring.

Some seeds require or may benefit from cold stratification in order to germinate, meaning they naturally begin to germinate after a period of cold followed by a spring thaw.

There are some plants we always plant in advance, like garlic or spring bulbs. But as it turns out, these aren’t the only plants that can be sown ahead of time.

Many food crops and even flowers can be pre-seeded, and in fact, most do quite well.

Pre-seeding works best in colder climates where the ground is consistently frozen during the winter. Climates with more regular freeze-thaw cycles may cause some seeds to germinate too quickly – and the seedlings will fail to thrive.

Similar to storing seeds in the freezer until you’re ready to plant them, frozen ground is storing seeds over winter until it’s time for them to germinate in spring.

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Why Pre-seed?

Starting seeds in the fall and allowing them to overwinter leads to earlier germination and healthier, more adaptable plants.

Because germination is allowed to occur naturally, as opposed to starting them in an artificial environment such as a greenhouse or indoors, plants will appear when conditions are right.

They will be exposed to the elements from the start, often germinate earlier, and as a result have better resilience to natural environmental conditions.

In contrast, plants started in a greenhouse do not experience drastic changes in temperature, water or light until they are set outside. Because of this, we need to harden off the seedlings before planting them outside where they will be exposed to cold weather, rain, wind and direct sunlight.

When a plant is not adequately prepared for exposure to the elements, seedlings become stressed more easily and growth may slow or even stop. Pre-seeding completely removes the possibility of this type of stress, allowing nature to do its work.

Why pre-seed in fall instead of direct seeding in spring? In most cases, autumn-sown seeds will germinate earlier than spring-planted seeds, giving your garden a good head start. And for seeds that require cold stratification, this will happen naturally, eliminating the need to keep the seeds in a freezer or refrigerator.

How to pre-seed

Pre-seeding your garden is a cinch. Start with a well-draining garden bed, ideally in a position that will receive full sun in spring.

You can keep track of the movement of the sun in different parts of your garden through the seasons in your gardening journal as a reminder.

This method will not work in areas where standing water collects, as this can rot the seeds.

Prepare the bed in the fall by cleaning up plant debris from this year’s garden and adding some fresh compost to the soil.

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Fall leaves can be placed on your compost pile or saved to use as winter mulch.

After the air temperature has dropped below freezing but before the ground is solid, direct sow at the soil depth that is recommended on your seed packets.

Water well, and cover with an inch or two of straw or chopped leaves. The mulch will keep the soil from thawing if temperatures ever get unseasonably warm.

Keep an eye out in early spring and you should see the little plants start to pop up!

Can plants be pre-seeds?

Any type of cold hardy vegetable can be pre-seeded. Look for seeds that require cold stratification, or packets that say things like “sow outside in early spring,” “self-sowing,” or “withstand frost.”

Which vegetables are safe bets? Try these:

It may be possible to pre-seed less cold hardy plants such as tomatoes, beans, corn and squash, although these may or may not be very successful. These vegetables are best started indoors, as the seeds require warm soil temperatures to germinate, and they require a long growing season to reach maturity.

You can learn more about which seeds to start indoors versus outdoors in our guide.

Are there certain plants that show up as volunteers in your garden every year? These might be good options to try!

In addition to vegetables, many perennial, annual flowering and woody herbs can also be pre-seeded in autumn. Try planting echinacea, black-eyed Susans, lupins, wild columbine, cosmos, calendula, or poppies.

Even those described as wildflowers usually do well when seeded in fall.

See our guide to planting flower seeds in winter for more information.

Alternative “mini greenhouse” method

Another way to get a jump start on spring is to sow seeds outside in covered containers, essentially creating a “mini greenhouse” that will house them over the winter.

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This method combines the benefits of sowing early, but gives the seeds a little extra protection during the colder months.

This is especially useful for seeds that require cold stratification in order to germinate.

This method, also known as winter sowing, combines the benefits of fall sowing with a little extra TLC to start the seedlings earlier.

To make a mini greenhouse, you can use garden flats (with a humidity dome), takeout containers, or plastic bottles, and punch holes in the bottom for drainage and ventilation in the cover Are.

Add three to five inches of potting soil, water soil thoroughly, and allow it to drain.

Next, sow your seeds at the correct soil depth as instructed on the packet and put the lid on top.

Put the containers outside in a spot that’s protected in the winter, like a covered porch, and off they go!

Once spring arrives, and temperatures begin to rise above freezing during the day, water to keep the soil evenly moist until germination.

As the seedlings grow, you can widen the holes in the lid to increase air circulation and place them in a sunny spot.

Once temperatures are consistently above freezing and the plants have a couple sets of true leaves, you can remove the cover.

Start out as you normally would, and there’s no need to worry about hardening them!

too easy to pass

Pre-seeding in the fall is so incredibly easy that there’s no reason not to give it a go! When spring arrives, you can sit back, relax, and watch the little plants begin to sprout.

Do you pre-seed your garden in the fall? Share your tips in the comments below.

And for more ideas on how to extend your vegetable gardening season, check out these guides ahead:

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