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How a Greek goddess can help with winter gardening

“So in this pleasant vale we stand again,

The field of Enna, now once more ablaze

With flowers that brighten as thy footstep falls ”

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Demeter and Persephone,” 1889

Lord Tennyson, poet laureate of Great Britain during the Victorian era, published his last compilation of poetry in a volume titled “Demeter and Other Poems” just three years before he died. The lengthy “Demeter and Persephone” retells one of the most well known Greek myths that explains the cycle of the seasons.

The age-old story in Tennyson’s poem is told from the perspective of Demeter, wife of Zeus and the goddess of grain, agriculture and fertility. Demeter recounts how her beloved only daughter, Persephone, was out picking daffodils one day when she was stolen away by Hades, god of the Underworld. Grief stricken, Demeter wandered the Earth looking for Persephone and vowed to make all of the fields barren until she found her.

Finally, Helios, god of the sun, told Demeter what had happened. The goddess and Zeus elicited help from the god Hermes, who rushed to the Underworld to bring Persephone back home to Mount Olympus. But before Hermes was able to accomplish his task, the devilish Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Little did she know that anyone who tasted the food of Hades must stay in the Underworld forever.

Yet Hades was reluctant to incite the full force of wrath from Zeus and Demeter, so he agreed to a compromise. For six months of the year, Persephone would be permitted to return with her mother to Olympus; for the other six months, however, she would have to stay with Hades as Queen of the Underworld.

When Persephone is in the Underworld, Demeter demonstrates her anguish by bringing on fall and winter to kill the crops and cause the fields to lay dormant. Spring begins when Persephone emerges from the land of the dead and is reunited with her joyous mother. That’s when Demeter allows plants to begin growing again, and flowers continue to cover the fields throughout the summer.

One hundred years after Lord Tennyson wrote “Demeter and Persephone,” a farmer in Maine named Eliot Coleman wrote his first book, “The New Organic Grower” (1989), which eventually became the basis for the National Organic Program in the U.S. Coleman went on to write “Four-Season Harvest” (1992) and “The Winter-Harvest Handbook” (2009). He was first to use the term “Persephone period” to describe the time of year when there are fewer than 10 hours of daylight, causing plants in the ground to slow down or stop growing.

The duration of daylight in a particular location has to do with its latitude. According to the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Duration of Daylight Table for 2018/2019, the Persephone period in Medford began Nov. 10 and continues until Feb. 1. Don’t expect winter garden crops to grow much between these dates. I’ve found this to be the case even for greenhouse gardening.

For fall and winter gardens, the goal is to sow seeds so crops will reach at least 75 percent maturity by the first day of our Persephone period. For example, winter spinach takes 45 days to mature, so the number of days between sowing and 75 percent maturity is 34 days. Since our Persephone period begins Nov. 10, I want to finish planting spinach seeds for fall harvests by Oct. 7.

Taking into consideration that our Persephone period ends Feb. 1, I’ll start sowing cool-weather crops like leafy greens in my greenhouse and outdoor low tunnels right around this time. That’s when I can also expect to see a growth spurt for over-wintering crops. As Demeter rhapsodizes to Persephone as she emerges from the Underworld in Tennyson’s poem, that’s when the sun will “burst from a swimming fleece of winter gray and robe thee in his day from head to feet.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.