The term solstice translates roughly to "sun standing still." It is used to describe the two days during the earth's yearly journey when its poles reach the furthest point as they tilt--one away, one toward--the sun. We tend to think that it is the sun, not the earth, that is moving so much in the sky. If the solstice gets any press at all, it is as the day in each year with the least amount of daylight.
There are many ancient traditions associated with the solstice, from building roaring fires to making blood sacrifices to holding large feasts. Most are aimed toward engendering peace and prosperity in the coming seasons. In a similar vein, the winter solstice is the day when some people who practice winter sowing get started, aiming for an abundant garden come summer.
What is winter sowing? In a nutshell, you make little mini greenhouses from recycled cartons and containers, covered with plastic. Inside them, you sow seeds... then you throw the whole shebang outside, checking them occasionally to make sure they haven't dried out and see if anything is sprouting but otherwise ignoring them.
The freeze/thaw cycles of late winter and early spring work the seedcoat off of the seeds and eventually you get sprouts. The air holes in the top layer of plastic are added to or enlarged until eventually you have more spaces than material; at that point, the seedlings have hardened off and you can remove the plastic entirely and plant out your sprouts if the weather allows.
Last year, I started cautiously with winter sowing. The old saying that "if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," kept running through my head... it just sounded too easy. I decided to try it in limited quantities--a test run, if you will.
I planted a few perennials, like 'Black Watchman' hollyhocks, blue fescue and asclepias tuberosa, in early March. A week or so later, I planted some annuals that I had failed to germinate inside previously: 'Hopi Red Dye' amaranth, atriplex hortensis, and sweet peas. Later, I tossed in some sunflowers and verbena bonariensis for good measure.
All but one type of seed sprouted for me--I can't remember which one right now, just that it was an odd annual from a seed packet marked 2004. I plan to expand my winter sowing efforts this fall to include more perennials like echinops ritro, sempervivum, crocosmia, and agastache. I am going to wintersow some red coleus, more atriplex hortensis and verbena bonariensis, and a whole flat of dark purple alyssum.
I am not, however, going to start sowing on the solstice. Much as I like the idea and the symbolism, in reality we have received January thaws a little too frequently in the past few years for me to be comfortable getting an early start. I don't want to have to baby sprouts that come up too early, or even worry about them--after all, the ease of it all is one of the main reasons why I love winter sowing!