From the Gardens of Native America

September 12, 2008

earth knows my name cover“In refusing to assimilate fully to mainstream American values, ethnic gardeners keep alive, and offer back to us, viable alternatives to the habits of mind that have brought us to our current ecological crisis,” writes Patricia Klindienst, author of The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans. She spoke with CUESA recently about the tradition of planting squash, beans and corn, as “companion” crops in a single bed.

Q: What is the relevance of the Three Sisters Garden today?

A: The garden was originally part of the eastern woodland tribe tradition of the Algonquin Indians. It represents the oldest gardening tradition in America and the most sacred. It’s also a very sophisticated and elegant form of companion planting. Corn, which is planted first, is a heavy feeder and takes a lot of nitrogen out of the soil. The beans that grow up the corn stalks are legumes that actually fix nitrogen in the soil. The squash plants have huge leaves and vines that grow around the base and hold moisture in the soil; they also shade the soil so it doesn’t get too hot in the summer.

By planting the three together you have this wonderful interaction between the needs of the plants. It’s also incredibly resource-efficient because what’s left of these plants can go back into the soil, i.e. the corn stalk and the remnant of the bean and squash plants, as a kind of green mulch.

It’s also worth noting that traditionally it was women who gardened, and women who were in charge of growing, processing and harvesting the corn.

Q: Are there other aspects of the history our audience might want to know?

A: When John Winthrop, Jr. (one of the early leaders of the colony of Connecticut) traveled back to England in 1660 he gave a paper to the Royal Society and provided an amazing description of the Three Sisters Gardens he had seen in North America. In it he noted that, “Indians can load the land with as much as it can bear and it will still produce.”

Ironically it had been his father, John Winthrop, Sr., who just 30 years earlier had been involved in stealing the Indians’ land. He had argued that the reason the colonists had the right to take the land was because they didn’t enclose it or garden it properly.

Q: There’s an unfortunate impression that without chemical fertilizers, etc. it’s difficult to create the yields necessary to feed everyone. It sounds like the products of these native practices proved otherwise.

A: People who want to defend industrial agriculture have a stake in claiming that we cannot feed everyone without chemicals, but that’s simply not true…One thing that everyone I interviewed for the book said was, “None of us ever had fancy words like sustainable or organic for what we did; we always just did it. It was passed down orally, it was a part of people’s culture and their tradition.”

Q: Can you say something about the Johnnycakes you make?

A: The Johnnycakes I’m planning to make are traditionally made from white flint corn. It’s a beautiful corn that came east about a thousand years ago with the people who migrated up from what is now Mexico. They were originally called “journey cakes” by the British colonists who observed how the native men, the warriors, would carry these pouches of dried white corn flour and they would mix it with water and beans or fruit and cook it in the fire. They were so nutritious, they could travel a hundred miles eating [only] them.

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