Indigenous plants: Native American technique
Before becoming a Master Gardener, I had not ever really given much thought to whether or not a plant was a “native” species. However through the association, I have met several gardeners who are strong advocates in preserving the cultivation of our native landscape and the plants that define it. The more I learned the more fascinated I became. Through learning about native plants, I have also become enamored and mystified by how Native Americans propagated and cared for these native species. In fact, many common practices still employed in the garden today are actually methods started by Native Americans.
One of my favorite elements of gardening is how it intertwines with history. With all the modern amenities we have at our fingertips, it seems hard to believe that food for entire civilizations was successfully grown and harvested without tractors, boxed fertilizer or hoses.
The good news is that in order to learn from, and even use these techniques, you do not have to work as hard as the Native Americans did. In fact, incorporated with modern conveniences, many Native American techniques make gardening today even easier. As a child, being a member of Indian Guides and my favorite Disney movie always being Pocahontas, I suppose it would come as no surprise to many that I am fascinated by the mastery and resourcefulness of Native American gardening and farming.
One of the most appealing aspects of integrating Native American technique to our gardens of Delaware County is knowing that they work with the challenges of our clay soil, excessive moisture in spring and excessive heat in the summer. Delaware actually has a rich Native American history. The Delaware, Wyandot, Mingo and Seneca tribes all were native to Delaware County. However, the Delaware Tribe was actually called Lenni Lenape. European settlers proclaimed them the Delaware Tribe because they lived on the Delaware River (the Olentangy), which was actually named for Lord De la Warre who initially explored the region. It is believed that the Lenni Lenape actually had two villages within the city limits of modern Delaware. The agricultural hub was a 400 acre corn field.
As most know, corn was an incredibly important crop to the Native Americans, as it still is to the United States of America today. Undoubtedly the most recognized and utilized Native American garden philosophy is the Three Sisters. Three Sisters gardening is as ingenious as it is effective. In Three Sisters gardening, the sisters — corn, beans and squash — work and grow together providing one another with vital nutrients. Three Sisters gardens are virtually self-sufficient.
First a mound is built, about 12 inches high, in which a rotten fish is buried by at least six inches. Corn seeds are planted densely on top of the mound in the center. Then bean seeds are planted in a circle around the corn seeds. Once the corn stalks grow to six inches, squash and bean seeds are planted, alternating, around them. The corn stalks provide support for the bean stalks to grow around them, eliminating the need for support poles, and the squash grows to cover the mound working as protective mulch. This not only helps the soil retain valuable moisture, but the prickly vines of the squash help deter pests from reaching the corn or the squash. Also, the beans provide nitrogen which the corn and squash both utilize. The buried fish acts as a slow-release fertilizer.
At the table, the Three Sisters continue to complement one another. Corn lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan which are essential to the body in making protein; beans contain both so the two crops together form a balanced diet.
Native Americans also thoroughly made use of edible plants that grew wild in the American landscape such as berries, nuts and fruit like the paw paw. Paw paws are fruit trees that are native to North America. Their flavor is described as a “banana custard, sometimes with the pop of a pineapple.” Not only does the paw paw offer delicious fruit, but it is a lovely addition to the garden. Large, shiny and waxy leaves like a magnolia make it an attractive tree even when not bearing fruit. Native Americans not only harvested the fruit, which dries to preserve very easily, but also squeezed the leaves for natural mosquito and insect repellent. Paw paws can be grown in full sun/partial shade, but the fruit has a much richer taste when grown in full sun.
Native American technique in gardening is remarkably efficient, harmonious and fundamentally logical. There is much more to be learned on the subject but hopefully these few insights will be useful in your modern garden. With the Green Movement perpetually gaining steam, it seems only natural to share these tried and true techniques. Not only are they wise choices for the environment, but they can make a vegetable gardener’s life much easier.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.