Tag Archives: potatoes

The Lessons of Nature at the Winter Solstice

In the fall, I always feel like I’m fighting against the coming dark at the time of the winter solstice, and each year, I have to learn the lesson anew.  This year proved particularly challenging for a few reasons. After the time changes at Daylight Savings time, and the sun starts setting at 3:30pm.  It is down by 4:30 and completely dark by 5:15pm. As a homesteader, in preparation for spring planting and the winter to come, there always seems to be so much to do.  Bringing in the harveset, preparing the greenhouse, preparing and clearing garden beds, stacking wood, cleaning gutters, shoring up the hen house, and doing all of the necessary multitude of other preparations for the coming winter.  As the fall deepens, each day, the light continues to wane, and there is less light each day to work with. On many days when I go to work, I rise before the sun rises, I am on campus all day in a windowless office, and I leave campus after the sun has set–literally never seeing the sun, sometimes for days on end. These “lack of sun” issues were certainly heightened this year, by our region having the rainiest season on record.  Many of us in Western PA felt like summer never happened; an extremely rainy and cold July and August meant that the warmth never had a chance to seep into our bones. These climate changes are the new norm, but they certainly make it difficult to adapt! Finally, and perhaps most salient, I think the cultural darkness has also left its mark on many of us in 2018; it was a hard, dark year.  No wonder as the light wanes, I found myself really mentally fighting the coming darkness of the winter solstice.


Snowfall at our homestead

Snowfall at our homestead

But whether or not we want to face the darkness, it is now upon us, as it will be each year of our lives.  Earlier, I wrote about embracing the darkness at the winter solstice on this blog.  I’ve also written about enacting a winter solstice vigil during the darkest night of the year and about sustainable and magical activities for the winter solstice.  In re-reading these, I remind myself that the lessons of this year are powerful, and perhaps, each year, we must learn to embrace the darkness anew. So today, I offer three additional insights for the lessons of the winter solstice and thinking about embracing the darkness during this time.


Lessons of Darkness, Again and Again

The irony is that in my earlier posts about the winter solstice, they seemed so certain, so firm, as if I had found the answer that helped me embrace the dark.  The truth is, for this druid at least, there is no “one” answer to addressing the coming of the darkness.  I am in a different place as the wheel turns again, and the darkness of each year finds me in a different mindset, different life circumstances, different present time.  Such that, particularly for this holiday, learning how to work with the Winter Solstice must be learned and deepened each year anew.  Each holiday on the Druid’s Wheel of the Year offers us this same lesson–a chance to deepen our experiences with the magic of that sacred time.  For Alban Arthan, the darkness requires a different kind of interaction and engagement with the world–a time of quietude, slowness, of otherness.  And we must simply let ourselves be present in it and embrace it.  And for some of us, we have to teach ourselves this lesson again each year.


Perhaps, saying that we have to learn a lesson is not the right way of thinking about it.  It is almost like we have to come to a place of acceptance of this time, this dark, this cold.  There is something so joyful about the light of summer, and that light is so far away. As the light wanes to nothingness, those of us who are stuck indoors at jobs may notice that all of our “light hours” are gone during the working week.  Further, the cold and dreary days set in, and some days, it hardly feels like the sun is there behind the clouds at all.  Darkness requires us to step away from “business as usual” and re-orient ourselves to this time.  Culturally, this re-orientation is extremely difficult because the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is in full effect. If anything, our lives are the most busy this time of year, yet nature is telling us hey, you’ve got to slow down.  I think this is part of why there is so much depression around the holidays: we are fighting our natural instincts. And perhaps that’s why each year,  it seems of all of the wheel of the year holidays, I find this one to be the most difficult to adapt to, to embrace, and to accept.


Indeed, my first lesson is that the darkness may always be difficult for many of us.  In the same way that nobody wants to have bad things happen in their life, experience pain or loss.  But like the dark, these things are inevitable, just as the darkness of the winter solstice is inevitable.


The Lesson of the Seed

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

In the last week, two seed catalogs arrived, reminding me that while it may be dark, planning for the coming season offers hope.  As I browse the seeds, thinking about their magic and life, I realize that we can learn a lot about embracing the darkness from starting seeds.  I think about all of the seeds of the self-seeding annuals, perennials, and nuts that the squirrels buried this past fall season: those seeds are there, covered in dark soil, awaiting the spring. Awaiting warmth, moisture, and a chance to grow. The darkness holds these seeds, preserves them, allows them to be in  a time of stasis before they spring forth.


In fact, many of the seeds of some of the most rare and medicinal plants require “cold stratification.”  The seed packets tell you to put the seeds in your refridgerator for a period of time, usually some weeks or months, for without this period of cold, the seeds will not grow. Black cohosh, a critically endagnered forest medicinal plant, is one such plant that requires cold stratification.  For years, I attempted to do just as the seed packets asked–putting them in the fridge in a damp paper towel for three months, as requeted, then planting them indoors with my other seeds and hoping they would grow.  For years, no sprouts happened. The seeds simply would not grow.  Last year, I stuck the seeds right in the ground in the fall, after clearing away and marking little areas.  Sure enough, in the spring this year, the seeds came forth and now I have several beautiful black cohosh plants growing on the property in addition to some live plants I had purhcased and planted.


I wonder: how many of our most sacred and magical ideas are just like that Black Cohosh, requiring that darkness and incubation period? There are seeds we plant that must have their own time of darkness and cold before they can spring forth into the light of day. We need the darkness, just as the seeds need the darkness.  We need the quiet, the slowness, the time for reflection and introspection, before the seeds of our ideas can sprout in the spring.


The Lesson of the Roots

Another aspect of nature reminds me of another important lesson about darkness. Roots on trees and plants are extremely sensitive and require darkness to live. If roots are exposed to air and light, they will almost immediately be damaged.  Enough exposure will kill the roots, thereby killing the plant. I remember the first time I was planting trees as a new druid.  I had no idea how sensitive roots were, and I had left a number of trees’ roots exposed to light and air while I dug holes.  These little planted seedlings struggled mightily, I hadn’t realized that I had damaged their roots by exposing them as such.  They eventually did live, but only after a tremendous amount of care: water, singing, sunlight, and sitting with them. This was certainly a powerful lesson for a new druid!


Roots go deep

Roots go deep

Even many root crops, like potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes, prefer to stay in the darkness and space within the soil.  When exposed to too much light, these crops go “green”; this greening produces Solanine.  Solanine is actually slightly toxic to humans, creating symptoms of nausea and upset stomach when consumed. How ironic that that which we want to embrace–the light–is so detrimental to the root crops.


But there is a deep lesson here about darkness and why we need this winter solstice time. Our own roots–that of our spirits, that of our creative practices, that of the core of our beings–are in need of the same kind of darkness.  Our roots are our grounding, the place of spirit and of the soul.   If the dark offers us a time for quiet contemplation, for rest, for rejuvenation: all of this is necessary if we are to bring any fruit into the world.  Fruit will not happen without strong roots, and strong roots do not happen without darkness.  Otherwise, we are just producing Solanine.


Concluding Thoughts

The seed needs dark soil to spring forth.  The roots cannot be exposed to light without damaging or killing the whole plant.  Potatoes go green in the light.  Maybe we are the same. The roots of our being are found only in the times of darkness: within ourselves, in our dreams, in the promise of a new beginning, in the quietude that can only be found in rest and open time.  We need the darkness as we need the air to breathe.  Blessings to you on the upcoming long night–may your spirit soar.


PS:  I’ll be taking a few weeks off of blogging for some travel and deep spiritual work over this period of darkness.  I will resume blogging again in mid January!  Blessings of the snowy white pine and sheltering Eastern hemlock upon you!


PPS: Larisa White, who is a fellow AODA druid and fellow OBOD Mount Haemus scholar, is working on a World Druidries Survey for her 2020 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture. If you haven’t already taken it, please consider spending time taking her survey!  Here is a link.

Outdoor Root Cellar Barrel – Guide/Instructions for Creating a Small Root Cellar

Root Cellars: A Simple Storage Solution

As a druid gardener, I want to grow my own produce and store it in an efficient manner, sans fossil fuels.  Back  in the day, before people had electricity and refrigerators, root cellars were a main staple of food preservation.  A good root cellar could preserve a family’s produce–including onions, apples, squash, potatoes, and carrots–throughout the winter long.  A root cellar was traditionally located inside a home or nearby.  A traditional root cellar uses primarily natural materials (stone, dirt, straw, etc) as well as the naturally cool and humid earth to store foods for months on end.  In other words, they are highly sustainable, economical, and very practical.

Root Barrel with Potatoes

Root cellars (as the name implies) are best for root vegetables and certain other kinds of fruits and veggies.  Apples store surprisingly well (but need to be stored away from other veggies); potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, and squash also all do well in a root cellar. However, root cellars don’t work for all produce.  A lot of veggies require other methods of storage: tomatoes or green peppers, for example, should be canned or dried.

No Basement? No Root Cellar? No problem!

Unfortunately for 21st century America, homes aren’t built with root cellars anymore.  The idea is that if you want something, you simply go to the store and buy it (often after it has been grown with heavy machinery, petrochemical fertilizers, and then shipped with petrochemicals thousands of miles to your local store).  This is a serious problem and is simply not sustainable. Unsurprisingly, since our house was built in 1940, it does not have a root cellar.

When I first began searching out information on root cellars, I found lots of plans for converting a basement or portion of a basement into a root cellar.  Since our house does not have a basement, (the lowest level is our den/kitchen), I had to find alternatives. Enter: The Root Cellar Barrel!

Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Barrel Root Cellar


1 5-gallon barrel (a larger vessel will do, such as a small trash can)

1 drill and large drill bit


Hay bale

Place to dig

Step 1:  Find a Place to Dig

The dirt hill.

A root cellar barrel should be in a shady area on a north-side of a house or north facing.   This is because you want to keep your veggies as cool as possible, and the North traditionally gets the least amount of light.   (You’ll notice in the photos that I put my first root cellar barrel facing the south accidentally–bad idea!).   I have some piles of dirt behind my garden that are about 6′ high and have been there for a number of years.  I chose one of these to put my root cellar barrels in.

If you don’t have a mound of dirt or hill, this is fine–you can still build a root cellar right into the ground.  But you want to be careful that you are not going to have water table issues.  Part of the reason I chose this nice mound of earth is that in the springtime, the entire area around my garden can get very saturated (which happens with prolonged rain).  In other words, my root cellar would be flooded!  This would not be good for my potatoes.

Step 2: Assemble Supplies

There’s a hole in the bucket….

Once you’ve found your location, assemble any supplies you need.  I chose to purchase a new plastic bucket at a local home improvement store.  I had salvaged some buckets from along the road, but I decided against using them since I had no idea what had been in them previously and I was planning on eating out of my root cellars for many years.  Whatever you use, make sure you have a lid that seals.

Step 3: Drill Some Holes

One of the reasons that root cellars work is that they use the earth to regulate the humidity level.  To do this, your veggies need at least some contact with the earth (don’t we all?)  I used a large bit and drilled a number of holes into the bottom of my bucket, as shown.

I’ve also seen instructions where they suggest cutting off the entire bottom of the bucket–either approach is fine.

I chose to drill them into the bottom rather than the sides because I thought there would be less chance of bugs getting into the bucket.  So far, so good.

Step 4: Dig Your Hole

Now its time to dig your hole!  There’s not really much to it.  Just dig a hole big enough to hold the bucket.  Its pretty straightforward.  Its so easy to do this, you might dig a few while you are at it….

There’s a hole in the earth

Step 5: Add your bucket to the hole

As you dig, check the size of your hole against the size of your bucket.  Once your hole is large enough, place your bucket in the hole and use the excess dirt to fill around the edges.  You also don’t want dirt to keep falling into your hole, so you want your bucket to stick out an inch or two from the ground (as shown in my next photo).

Step 6: Add your veggies

Barrel of Potatoes

At this point, you can go ahead and add your veggies.  For a bucket this small, make sure your veggies get along (e.g. apples and potatoes do not enjoy each other’s company in root cellars).  In my case, I had a ton of potatoes so this whole root cellar bucket was full to the brim of my lovely heirloom blue potatoes.

Please note: for most veggies, you should not wash them before you put them in the bucket.  Washing them can pull the moisture out of the veggie.  So just store them as they are as you dig them out of the ground!

Step 7: Top with lid and add straw for insulation

At this stage, all that you have left to do is close the lid, make sure its sealed, and  add a hay bale or straw bale on top of the bucket.  When the cold winter months come, this will help keep the contents of the bucket from freezing.

Step 8: Enjoy!

Now that your root barrel bucket is done, you can enjoy fresh veggies anytime you want.  Even in the middle of winter, you can dig down into the snow and open up your root barrel to get at your garden-fresh produce.

Root Cellar Bucket – with Insulating Straw Bale

A Year Later:

I’ve been using the root cellar barrel for one year now, mostly for potatoes.  It lasted throughout the winter with sub-zero temperatures; the potatoes did not freeze.  Anytime I wanted some potatoes, I just dug out the hay bale and pulled out as many potatoes as I wanted.  In the spring, in about April, I pulled out the last few potatoes and they soon went into the ground for this season.

So yes, this design works, at least in my South-East Michigan (Zone 6) climate!