Persephone months

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December 21, 2017 at 7:05 am

Eliot Coleman calls the period of time when days are less than 10 hours long from sunrise to sunset the Persephone months. In his Maine winter garden, this is when vegetables under cover will be available for harvest, although they do not grow. The trick is getting them to the harvest stage before the Persephone months set in. I haven’t accomplished that as yet in my northern New Jersey garden, but I like Coleman’s idea of the Persephone months.

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December 21, 2017 at 8:18 am

This winter, my Persephone months started on November 12, when the sun rose at 6:42 am and set at 4:41 pm for a day length of 9 hrs. and 59 min. They will end on January 28, when the sun will rise at 7:10 am and set at 5:11 pm for a day length of 10 hrs. and 1 min. So, my Persephone months are a mere 2 months and 16 days long, but they seem longer. The shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice, saw the sun rising on my garden at 7:10 am and setting at 4:33 pm for a day length of 9 hrs. and 15 min. The interspersed images show the sun’s path on the day of the winter solstice, never rising above the tree line.

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December 21, 2017 at 9:20 am

In Greek mythology, Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to reign as queen of the underworld. Her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest and agriculture, refused to allow plants to grow until her daughter was returned. Zeus agreed to let Persephone return to earth but because she had eaten pomegranate seeds, she had to spend some period of time with Hades in the underworld. Demeter made the earth barren in Persephone’s absence, and thus winter is explained.

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December 21, 2017 at 10:20 am
It’s a good story, with much more detail than is outlined here. Coleman’s term, Persephone months, gives the darkest days of winter a beginning and an end, making them seem more manageable and less hopeless. In January, the east coast experienced a bombogenesis, or bomb cyclone, of nasty weather–a rapidly intensifying area of low pressure–with snow, wind, and much colder temperatures than we are used to having. On January 5, for example, the high was predicted to be 13°F. with wind chill as low as -10°F. The night low was predicted to be -2°F. with wind chill as low as -13°F. Those predictions were pretty accurate. Of course, other areas of the country had it even worse.
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December 21, 2017 at 11:43 am
The above image shows the sun near its zenith on the day of the winter solstice. The term solstice means sun standing still as it reaches its southern most latitude, the Tropic of Capricorn, and pauses before starting back north. So the winter solstice is one of the few times when the Ptolemaic system inadvertently got its terminology right. Sun standing still. Of course we know the sun stands still while the earth circles it, but it’s easier to speak of the sun rising and setting and moving in an arc across the sky because that’s the way it looks from any given point on earth, such as my garden.
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December 21, 2017 at 11:44 am
From the  vantage point of my garden on the day of the winter solstice, the sun soon disappeared behind the house, and shadows encroached for the remainder of the afternoon, as can be seen in the photo above.
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Dark-eyed junco on bird feeder January 4, 2018
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Dark-eyed juncos under feeders on January 4, 2018

The Persephone months have positive aspects. The dark-eyed juncos are back, for instance. I first saw them on December 10 this winter. The above photos were taken on January 4 during the wintry blast, yet the juncos are cavorting on and under the bird feeders. They seem happy. I love juncos. Please see the posts Dark-eyed juncos are back at last and Bird news for more information about juncos.

In addition to their cute white bellies and overall jovial appearance, juncos have several endearing traits. As ground feeders for the most part, they double-scratch in snow to uncover seeds, making them seem even more animated. They even tunnel under snow in search of seeds to eat. They perch on dead grasses and wildflowers, riding them to the ground where they can more readily get the remaining seeds from the dried-up blossoms. Recently, I observed a junco eating verbena seeds, so verbena not only supplies summertime adult butterflies with nectar, it also feeds the juncos in winter, and has enough seeds left over to come up volunteer the following spring. Please see the post Ladies’ day out in my garden for fall images of butterflies nectaring on verbena blossoms.

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Verbena seed pods on January 8, 2018. There are junco tracks in snow around seed pods.

The photo above shows evidence of juncos riding verbena seed pods to the ground and feasting on the seeds. I saw the juncos in action, but didn’t get a photo of their activity.

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Coneflower seed pods capped with snow on December 10, 2017

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology partnered with The Nature Conservancy and Habitat Network to sponsor the messy garden pledge. Gardeners pledge to let leaves lie over the winter, let seed heads of flowers and grasses remain over the winter, leave snags on their property, and build brush piles for winter protection of wildlife. In a messy garden, spring cleanup should not begin until after several days of 50°F., allowing overwintering wildlife time to move on. I don’t have any snags or brush piles. I’m still trying to get rid of groundhogs and field mice, so there are limits to my cooperation with the messy garden pledge. However, this winter I left magnolia leaves in the wildflower beds; I left wildflower and native grass seed pods in place for the winter; and I left more green manure cover in the vegetable garden than in previous years.

I would venture to say that the resulting landscape, with snow

 

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and without snow,

 

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has more visual interest than a tidy yard and lawn have. It’s an acquired taste I suppose. There is also the potential of saving more butterfly eggs and pupa, even though I can’t spot them, and of watching birds like juncos and chickadees feasting on seed pods, which is reward enough for being a messy gardener.

Here are some things I hope are happening in my messy garden.

I hope more native milkweed  (Asclepias spp.) becomes established, through both air-borne seeds and beneath-ground rhizomes, that will attract more monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) to my garden next summer. Monarchs overwinter as adult butterflies, but not in New Jersey, where they are common and widespread as migrants.

 

Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) currently present in my garden includes common milkweed (A. syriaca), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), and swamp milkweed (A. incarnata). These are all native to New Jersey. Beware of hybrids, which may or may not attract monarchs. In the past, I have worried about milkweed overrunning my garden, but this has not happened. So, until milkweed becomes as big a problem as, say, mugwort, which also spreads by rhizomes, I’m ceasing to worry about having too much of it.

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Monarch on verbena October 19, 2017 with milkweed in the background

Could the milkweed plant in the background of the above photo have been the very place where this monarch metamorphosed through egg, larva, and pupa to adult flying butterfly. It’s certainly possible. This adult butterfly, which looked young and healthy on October 19, may well have migrated to Mexico, living for 8 or 9 months in the process. I hope so.

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Eastern tiger swallowtail on swamp milkweed August 14, 2017
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Magnolia leaf on January 8, 2018

One female eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) was photographed in my garden on August 14, 2017, nectaring on a swamp milkweed. According to the NABA North Jersey website, larval food plants for eastern tiger swallowtails are black cherry (Prunus serotina) and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), but the website also shows eggs and larva on an ornamental magnolia leaf. Not having black cherry trees or tuliptrees on my property, I am hoping my magnolia tree might serve as a larval food plant for these beautiful butterflies. As a messy gardener, I managed to save some of the large magnolia leaves from the mulching mower by raking them into the wildflower beds and collecting them in small fenced-in areas. Eastern tiger swallowtails overwinter in New Jersey as pupa, the final cocoon stage in metamorphosis before the adult butterflies emerge. I have not found signs of swallowtail life on any magnolia leaf, so I’m going on hope and faith that they might be there.

 

Very few black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) were seen in my garden in 2017, and none were photographed. This is disappointing since I took great pains to plant fennel, dill, and parsley in my vegetable garden and to leave them through the fall and winter. Above are some photos of these black swallowtail larval host plants in my messy vegetable garden. Black swallowtails overwinter in New Jersey as pupa. I’m hoping for a black swallowtail resurgence in my garden next summer. Hey, I’m trying.

 

Finally, for butterflies, a great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) graced my garden on September 22, 2017. Great spangled fritillaries are New Jersey residents. They overwinter as first-instar caterpillars. Their larval host plant is the violet (Viola), but eggs are laid in wood chips and leaf litter surrounding the violets. Violets are weed-like in my garden. Most of them are surrounded by leaf litter and wood chips. Great spangled fritillaries should find an hospitable winter environment here. I just hope I don’t step on them. So I look forward in great anticipation to great spangled fritillaries in my garden next summer because I kept the messy garden pledge.

 

A true beauty of winter is surely the winterberries. Robins love winterberries. I’m waiting for the day when the robins, who have been mostly absent so far this winter, will return to feast on the winterberries in my garden. Please see the post Robins ate the winterberries for the story of what happened last winter with the robins and the winterberries.

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Cardinal at feeder January 4, 2018
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Juncos under feeder January 4, 2018
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House finch at feeder January 4, 2018

I leave this longish post with pictures of the birds on January 4, 2018. The January bombogenesis was so cold and so windy. I hope the birds all made it through. On those cold days, whenever I went out to fill the feeders, a chickadee would greet me with a dee-dee-dee-dee. I didn’t always see the little bird, and did not get a photo. But I always thought he/she was telling me thank you-you-you for all those black-oil sunflower seeds.

Today is January 11, 2018. Since the winter solstice, we have gained 15 minutes of day length with 17 days to go before reaching 10 hours. On that day, January 28, the Persephone months as Eliot Coleman defines them will come to an end. Of course, there will still be much of winter left, but as the days grow longer and the sun gets stronger, the thought of spring will become more real with each passing day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments on “Persephone months

    • I think you are right. I rarely see the slimmed-down summertime juncos except in pictures. Wild Birds Unlimited reports that juncos have over 30 percent more feathers by weight in winter than they do in summer. That may account for their plumpness and their apparent love of snow.

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