University City

Gardening: Plants rest as winter solstice arrives

Sunday is the first full day of winter in the Charlotte region. For gardeners, our journey begins anew for another year.

We usually think of gardening in terms of beautification, self-reliant food growing and other such important things.

But gardening also keeps us in touch with the natural world; our gardens sustain our awareness of the fundamental cycles of sunlight and darkness, and their effects on our living planet.

The official winter solstice took place in Charlotte on Saturday just after noon. It was the shortest day of the year at 9 hours, 47 minutes and 39 seconds from sunrise to sunset. Sunday is a full 2 seconds longer, so make good use of the extra time!

Out at the Ella C. Lomax Incubator Farm in Cabarrus County, my spinach is thriving; so far the lettuce, collards, white kale and broccoli are all doing fine, too. They are growing under covers of frost-protection fabric held up on metal wire hoops, which makes the beds look a little like extended Conestoga wagons.

The beets are less happy, though. They prefer warmer weather. So in spite of the covers, the tops of the standard red beets (I grow an heirloom, Detroit Dark Red) are burned and limp, or have turned a deep scarlet red. And the roots, which are still very tasty if small, have stopped growing.

When the winter sun is low in the sky and the days are short, crops mostly stop developing. They seem content to simply be in a Zen state.

This season I am also trying another beet, Three Root Grex, created through old-fashioned plant breeding by Dr. Alan Kapuler of Seeds of Change.

Kapuler is a champion of heirloom, nonhybrid seed. He bred these beets contrary to the way big-ag-oriented companies do. Instead of trying for uniformity, he bred backward, selecting for diversity and great taste.

As a result, the Grex beets grow in a rainbow of yellow, red and almost purple roots, with spectacular tops that laugh at cold weather. Like Swiss chard – which botanically is the same plant as root beets – they make delicious winter greens.

“Heritage seeds are essential to our heart chakra,” Kapuler told Fedco Seeds in an interview.

Even the Grex beets, however, have now seemingly gone to sleep.

In contrast – or maybe in response – people have traditionally marked the winter solstice with ritual and celebration.

The tangle of overlapping solstice traditions is a Santa’s sleigh of goodies for scholars. For instance, the Christmas tree is traced both to Martin Luther and to earlier pagan customs.

In a footnote to history, the Christmas tree was brought to England by none other than our city’s namesake Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. According to History Today (, she caused a sensation when she set up the first recorded English Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1800. But Moravians had already been celebrating the custom for decades in North Carolina.

The Bag Lady in Dilworth ( is a store whose mission is, in part, to “aggressively promote hilarity, serendipity, random enchantment and unmitigated bodaciousness.” The store will host a Healing Drum Circle & Winter Solstice Celebration with Robbie Warren of Otter Dance on Dec. 23.

Karen Coffin, The Bag Lady’s owner, said the Winter Solstice rituals “are a celebration of the return of the light, when the sunlight begins to return.”

Coffin’s solstice awareness was honed during six years living in Alaska.

She said bringing evergreens indoors and decorating them is a way to bring the light inside, “giving us something to celebrate even at the darkest time of year.”

Burning a yule log is another way to brighten the year’s longest night. Some cultures save the ashes to use in medicine. For gardeners, the ashes are a good source of potassium – just the thing to scatter on vegetable beds or mix in compost.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Sunday is the longest day of the year and the first day of summer. That makes me a little envious of gardeners south of the equator, but the Northern Hemisphere wins the consolation prize: According to the website Time and Date (, the Earth does not move at a constant speed around the sun. As a result, spring and summer are slightly longer in the Northern Hemisphere.

That is one more thing to cheer us up as we gather those yule log ashes to scatter on the compost pile.