They survived without the modern tools we have today, on only the land, instinct and the knowledge that their ancestors passed down to them. They respected the land and it yielded for them; they were stewards. Their goal was not to overcome nature, but rather to learn how to work with it, while preserving the earth for future generations.
While you may know that Native-Americans domesticated potatoes, corn and tomatoes, you may also think that their gardening stopped there — that they were mostly hunters and gatherers. But this simply is not the case.
Native-Americans can teach us much about green living and sustainable agriculture — things that even the smallest home gardener can apply.
Let’s examine a few of their methods.
One of the most commonly used Native-American gardening techniques was Three Sisters. This method involved planting corn, squash and bean seeds together in a mound of dirt. Each of these three seeds gave something to the growing process. The beans provide nitrogen for the soil, the corn was a natural trellis and the squash was a cover for the other two plants as they were growing and also helped to deter pests. For added fertilizer, fish or eel were often place in the growing hole.
Some tribes in the southwest even planted a “fourth sister” with corn, beans and squash. The Rocky Mountain bee plant was an “attractant” plant bringing bees to pollinate the gardens.
Companion planting basics
The concept of companion planting was well-known to Native-Americans as they partnered plants together that would exist in a symbiotic relationship, bringing good to each. Both the three sisters and four sisters planting methods are examples of this.
Today, we can apply this same principles in our home. The key is to learn which plants do well together and which prefer to be kept at a distance. The benefits of successful companion planting include such things as pest protection, wind protection, natural trellising and sun protection.
Modern day sustainability experts say that it may be the no-till aspect of Native-American farming that can have the biggest impact on present-day crop production. The long-term implications of tilling the earth are becoming more and more apparent.
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In conventional farming/gardening, the soil is turned to about 8 to 12 inches with a plow or a tiller. Excessive tilling can cause soil erosion, as each time the soil is turned up, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. Eventually, the top layer of soil can be blown away by high winds or heavy rains, and the nutrient-deficient bottom layer of soil is exposed. This creates poor growing conditions and a need for fertilizer in order to obtain a decent crop. Beneficial bacteria, fungi, beetles and earthworms are destroyed in the tilling process, and turning up the earth creates very compacted soil that does not drain well — another negative for growing healthy plants.
Native-Americans did not till; they worked with the soil to use all the goodness within so as not to disrupt the natural balance of things. Far too often, we are in a rush to grow and forget the necessity of fostering the earth. If we slow down and consider the implications of our actions, we will quickly see that a “walk softly” mentality may yield the most good and be a win/win for the earth and the grower. (Read our earlier story, “Why Almost Everyone Is Wrong About Tilling.”)
Applying no-till techniques in the home garden
If you wish to apply no-till gardening techniques, you must first change your mindset. If we could learn just one thing from traditional Native-American gardening, it should be that our job is not to conquer and defeat the hostile earth but rather to embrace the bounty within and cultivate it — work with it — in partnership with all-natural elements. For many, thinking like this is counter to our modern farming and gardening techniques; however, once we come to see all the good within the earth and work to sustain that good, we will be rewarded.
Try these three common no-till garden methods:
Raised vegetable garden. Building a raised vegetable bed is a very easy way to control soil quality and foster an organic environment that your plants will love. A simple raised bed can be made in a weekend and is a fun and inexpensive way to grow food for the whole family. Raised beds are also easy to manage and can be made table-height to increase accessibility. You can construct a raised bed from any number of materials including wood, stone and logs, as long as you have a contained area where you can place your soil.
Straw bale garden. When you straw bale garden, the straw bale becomes a container — a place where you plant your veggies. This method of no-till gardening is great for people who have poor soil or limited growing space. Once the straw bale garden begins to decompose, it creates a perfect, organic environment in which to grow. Almost any plant can be grown in a straw bale.
Lasagna garden. Creating a great lasagna in the oven is all about the layering. Creating a great lasagna garden is very similar. Lasagna gardening is extremely easy and simply involves building up great soil. The first layer of the garden consists of cardboard or layers of newspaper laid on top of your garden area. This is great if you have grass or weeds. Wet the first layer to keep it in place and to begin decomposition. The newspaper or cardboard will smooth out the grass and weeds as they break down. The second layer in your garden should be nitrogen-rich — horse or cow manure works great. Apply three inches for best results. The next layer should include carbon-rich material such as leaves, twigs, wood shavings, etc. Make this layer about six inches thick if possible. Add another nitrogen-rich layer on top of this and continue the process until it reaches 24 inches. Water your bed and cover with plastic to jump-start the decomposition process. Before you know it, your bed will be full of earth and ready to plant.
Once you are in the mindset of preserving the earth, creating bountiful soil, cultivating plant relationships and protecting the life within, you will find that your whole gardening experience changes — I know mine did!
What traditional Native-American gardening techniques do you use? Share your tips in the section below: