Return of the Sun

Some Winter Solstice Inspiration

Many cultures have long-held traditions that they celebrate each winter solstice. Monoliths like Stonehenge and Tulum attest to importance of solstices for the ancients. In fact the world’s oldest known calendar, dating as far back as 8000 BC, relied on the winter solstice to maintain accuracy.

For hunter gatherers of yore, having an accurate calendar meant that they were able to better predict the migration patterns of herd animals. For agricultural societies, the return of the light was just as important since it promised a return of the long, warm days essential for growing crops.  

Because Earth spins on a tilted axis, our Northern and Southern Hemispheres receive more or less sunlight depending on our planet’s position in its elliptical orbit around the sun. Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere means the tilt of the axis has placed us at our maximal distance from the sun. This year, the winter solstice lands on December 21; from here, our hemisphere will see a gradual increase in light, while the reverse is true for our neighbors in the south (NASA's helpful graphic).

Just as our hemisphere returns to a sunward tilt, plants have their own ways of tilting toward the light. We see this when houseplants press their leaves all in one direction toward a windowpane, or when seedlings grow leggy as they strain to reach a light source. In the garden, as the sun courses through the sky above, plant petioles will rotate leaves to capture as much sunlight as possible. And, most famously, sunflowers are known to track the sun as it moves from east to west, tilting their flower buds back and forth each day, until they finally unfurl a sun-like inflorescence; once in full bloom, they fix their faces eastward to greet the sunrise each morning.

Speaking of sunflowers and sunshine, bright and colorful seed catalogs usually make a welcome appearance in our mailboxes this time of the year. Seed catalogs give us something to look forward to. It’s one way we gardeners tilt toward the light. The winter solstice is a perfect day to make a cup of tea and get out the seed catalogs and start circling all of the plants you fantasize about growing in the garden next year. For some timely seed catalog shopping advice, read this article by Margaret Roach. Our new 2021 Catalog is coming soon. Stay tuned and sign up for the catalog here.

And don’t forget to circle some sunflowers: the National Garden Bureau has named 2021 "the official year of the sunflower.”

Some of our favorite varieties:

Five more ways to celebrate the winter solstice:

* If you don’t have over a foot of snow covering your soil (as we currently do), the winter solstice is a perfect day for winter sowing. Read all about sowing cold-stratified flowers here.

* Plan to sow a butterfly garden this winter. Endangered monarch butterflies especially would benefit from a patch of Milkweed and Butterfly Weed. Learn all about sowing Milkweed here.

Feed the birds! Clean the bird feeders and put out fresh seed. Also, make sure they have some water to drink.

* Read a winter poem!

* Eat some winter squash! In Japan, kabocha served with adzuki beans is a traditional winter solstice dish.

Whichever way you choose to mark the day, Happy Winter Solstice!