Tag Archives: three sisters crop

Farming and Food

Zuni Waffle Garden, circa 1911, courtesy Zuni Pueblo

Zuni Waffle Garden, circa 1911, courtesy Zuni Pueblo

As harvest time grows near, all peoples who cultivate the land hope for good crops. Today’s technology can help farmers produce great quantities of food, but that doesn’t mean that older techniques were not as good–or better–on smaller scales. Native Americans were the New World’s farmers, and they were better at it than history generally credits them. They knew about companion planting for pest deterrence, for instance, and the well-known “three sisters” method of planting corn, squash, and beans used the attributes of these plants to add nitrogen (from beans) to the soil while using corn to trellis them and squash leaves to provide shade for the first two.

Wide Spacing Between Plants is Part of the No-Till Method

Wide Spacing Between Plants is Part of the No-Till Method

April 1938: A dust bowl farmstead in Dallam County, Texas, showing the desolation produced by the dust and wind on the countryside adding to the problems of the depression in the USA. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

Over-tilling Was a Major Contributor to the Dust Bowl, April 1938, Dallam County, Texas, courtesy Three Lions/Getty Images

Native Americans also used a “no-till” method, which the USDA is now encouraging all farmers to use. Instead of plowing up acres of land and destroying the soil ecosystem in the process (along with encouraging soil erosion and poor water absorption), no-till farming disturbs the smallest area possible needed for planting. Home methods might include using raised beds or straw bales to garden, or digging individual holes for plants or seeds. Plenty of mulch suppresses weeds and keeps the ground moist. Larger farmers switch from plows to no-till planters; these create narrow furrows in which to plant seeds, and leave the rest of the soil intact.

 

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Native American Harvests

Buffalo Skulls

Buffalo Skulls

Many people believe buffalo was the primary foodstuff for Native Americans, but that is only a stereotype. Most Native Americans had a bountiful, healthy diet during good years, and preserved food for winter use and bad times. Some tribes grew their own food crops, while others gathered from wild sources.

The “three sisters” is a famous combination planting of squash, beans, and corn in which each crop benefits the other, but Native Americans also ate a wide variety of greens, wild onions, herbs, cactui, nuts and other nutritious foods that were readily available. It is a bit ironic that one of the growing food trends today is foraging for wild edibles.

Indian Woman Working in Cornfield, 1906, Edward S. Curtis

Indian Woman Working in Cornfield, 1906, Edward S. Curtis

“Weeds” such as purslane, ramps chickweed, watercress, and dandelions supply nutritious greens to modern diets, while mushrooms have always been treasured gifts of nature. Experienced foragers are welcome lecturers at organic food conferences and similar venues, and books abound on the topic. Foraging appeals to those who want to lessen their carbon footprints, eat organically, add adventure to their food experience, or prepare for a doomsday scenario.

Native Americans Developed Five Varieties of Corn from a the Plant, Teosinte

Native Americans Developed Five Varieties of Corn from a the Plant, Teosinte

Unfortunately, even this ancient gathering system can create problems in the environment if its practitioners are not careful. Native Americans foraged a wide variety of foods and were careful to leave enough behind to regenerate. Over-enthusiastic gathering today could well play out the way buffalo hunting did, and simply eradicate certain particularly valued wild food. Foraging experts urge newcomers to follow Native American practices of conservation and stewardship so that these wild sources of food remain viable.

 

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