By Jesse Eastman
According to Greek mythology, Persephone, bride of Hades, returns to the underworld every year for a three month reign as Queen of the Underworld. When she goes, her mother, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, despairs at her daughter’s absence, plunging us into a cold barren winter when no food can grow. Perhaps it is pompous of me to aim for something greater than god-like behavior, but I say that rather than despair, we should use these short dark days to plan for an ever more bountiful spring.
There is a wealth of knowledge that can be gleaned from a thoughtful and thorough reflection on the previous season’s garden. Better yet, take a careful read through your garden journal (if you keep one – if not, maybe this is the year to start). Take a walk down memory lane and think about what you want to change in the New Year.
Often overlooked is the right balance of which vegetables to grow. I never seem to plant enough carrots, and I can never resist planting more tomatoes and peppers than I know what to do with. Even a small patch of potatoes can have massive yields, especially in well-cultivated soil that allows for good root penetration. Corn, on the other hand, needs ample space and many plants to ensure proper pollination.
Perhaps this year will open your eyes to cut flowers. Gladiolas, cosmos, dahlias, and sunflowers all make great arrangements that can easily brighten any room, and they serve multiple benefits in the garden. Not only do they bring a veritable painter’s palate of color to the garden, but they attract a wide variety of important pollinators whose busy work in the garden is essential for a good harvest. You could even mix in a few well-placed perennials with your vegetables and herbs – coneflower, iris, and salvia all make potent additions to any garden. Maybe daylilies with their subtly sweet edible blossoms could find a place between the tarragon and basil.
Planning next year’s garden doesn’t just need to be a process of fine-tuning. My father loves to tell me “the best gardeners in the world have killed more plants than anyone else.” The only way to improve as a gardener is to take risks. Choose something you have never considered growing before and give it a shot. Okra was my flying leap last year. It is a gorgeous plant – deeply split maple-like leaves and showy cream-colored flowers – and it loves our long hot sunny days. Turns out you have to pick the pods when they are very small, or else they get exceptionally tough and borderline inedible. I’ll try again this year, and I’ll be a little quicker to harvest.
These types of reflections will make us better gardeners, and by reliving our horticultural exploits, we are reminded of the pleasures we derive from our labors. So while Persephone is hanging out with Hades and Demeter’s distress gives us a moment of respite from the toils of the soil, let us pour a cup of hot cocoa, pull out a pen and paper, and indulge in a daydream.
Originally published in January 2014
Originally published on January 30th, 2018. Updated on March 3rd, 2023.