Understanding the Persephone period to master the winter garden

By Viva Mertlich
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

Unheated permanent greenhouse.
This unheated, permanent greenhouse is used to grow greens in winter. – Provided photo/Ann Diamond
Viva Mertlich
Viva Mertlich – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

Winter gardening in northern climates can be a challenge for even the most experienced and successful summer gardener. But a successful winter garden can feel like a more rewarding accomplishment. Imagine harvesting produce from your own garden for the Thanksgiving feast or having an early vegetable harvest before it feels like spring has sprung.

The ancient Greeks understood the importance of seasonal timing when it comes to growing food, and they used mythology to explain it.

Persephone was the ancient Greek goddess of spring. She was so beautiful that Hades, the god of the underworld, abducted her to become his wife. When she arrived in the underworld, she ate a gift of four pomegranate seeds. Persephone’s mother Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, begged her brother and king of the gods Zeus to return Persephone. Zeus agreed to return her, but because she had eaten the pomegranate seeds, he decreed that she would have to return to the underworld each year, one month per seed she consumed there.

The ancient Greeks believed that every year Demeter would not allow the crops to grow during the months Persephone was in the underworld. Today, we still call this time of year, when crops fail to thrive, the Persephone period. This refers to a portion of the winter when there are fewer than 10 hours of daylight per day.

The secret to winter gardening is to work around the Persephone period by starting your crops before or after these short days. Your garden plants need at least 10 hours of daylight for active growth. Leafy greens will grow nicely in a winter garden and can be harvested during the Persephone period, but they will not regrow until the days are once again longer than 10 hours.

In colder areas like ours, you can employ strategies to keep your winter garden protected from ice and snow and make harvesting easier, such as building a small greenhouse. You can build or purchase a kit to make a permanent or temporary greenhouse. Having the garden protected in this way will also keep the wildlife from stealing your produce.

You can find more information on winter gardening techniques, such as low tunnels or cold frames, as well as suggested crops for a winter garden, in the Master Gardener column that published in The Wenatchee World back in July. The column can be found at wwrld.us/wintergarden.

The Persephone period varies depending on where you garden. You can determine the timing in your area by going to the U.S. Navy observatory website wwrld.us/usno, where they have an interactive “Duration of Daylight/Darkness Table” that allows you to enter your location and the year; it will even calculate your location for you and the instructions are simple to follow.

According to the table, the Persephone period in Wenatchee this winter will run Nov. 1, 2022 through Feb. 9. Because most seedlings need 60-90 days from planting to harvest, planting at the start of August can yield an early winter garden, where the cold weather can keep some mature crops cool for later harvest. Planting your winter garden after the Persephone period ends in February can lead to an early harvest in May.

Understanding the light needs of your plants and knowing the Persephone period in your growing area each year, are the first steps to mastering the winter garden.