Winter is the season when Southeastern Native Americans worked their magic on the soil. The results were bountiful harvests from relatively small gardens, without use of fertilizers or insecticides. The methods used by America’s indigenous peoples could revolutionize agriculture.
Forget the long held image of Native Americans as savages, who ran naked through the woods, digging up roots and chasing game. Wild game and fish were the primary sources of animal protein for most indigenous peoples, but even the most avid hunting tribes also cultivated gardens. In the Lower Southeast, Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio River Basins and Southwest Plateau, agriculture provided the majority of food consumed. However, it is true that when the sun got hot, both men and women only wore the essentials of clothing to maintain modesty.
Europeans were astounded with the productivity of Southeastern indigenous farmers and the variety of crops that they grew. Despite what one often reads in archeology books, their agriculture was NOT totally composed of the three sister crops of corn, beans and squash. Southeastern villages were NOT forced to move every few years because the soil had been exhausted.
Many of the domesticated plants grown before Europeans arrived are no longer cultivated. As often as not, they are viewed as weeds that sprout on newly disturbed soil. These feral plants include the Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunchoke,) Pigweed, Lambs Quarters, Ramps, and Pokeweed. The late archaeologist Arthur Kelly suspected that the indigenous sweet potato was the staple crop of Southeastern Indians, before Mexican maize became popular. It is a bushy variety of the morning glory family that still grows feral in abandoned fields.
The gardens of our elders
Inspired by my grandparents, in 2010 I decided to do some experimental gardening at my new location in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The way my Creek grandparents laid out their garden and orchard seems to match exactly what Hernando de Soto’s men observed in and around the great town of Kvse (known to Europeans as either Coça or Coosa) in 1540.
My grandparents’ garden was almost perfectly square. All sides were bounded by fruit trees or fruit-bearing shrubs & vines. My grandfather grew corn and beans in rows together. My grandmother grew most of the other vegetables and fruits. They were NOT in rows, but in rectangular beds. She mixed up types of vegetables, so that insects would not be able to travel from plant to plant of the same species.
My grandmother also threw organic wastes from the kitchen into the garden year-round – including bones. My grandfather did not pour coal ashes from the pot belly stoves into the garden, because they poisoned the soil. However, when my grandfather cooked brunswick stew outside in a big iron kettle, he always threw the wood ashes into the garden area. He said that before people heated with coal, all the scrap bones and eggshells from the kitchen would be thrown into the fireplace. The residue from burned bones and eggshells was known as potash. Along with regular wood ashes, it would be spread on the garden in the winter.
There was another Creek agricultural practice, which probably most contemporary North Americans would find repugnant. When I was young, my relatives in the country did not have indoor plumbing. A pot was kept under the beds for relieving Mother Nature’s call during the night. In the morning, the urine would be diluted with water from the well and spread on the garden . . . year round. Human urine is normally sterile and happens to contain all of the minerals that are ideal for growing most vegetables. In discussions with Creek Indians from other parts of the Southeast, I have confirmed that diluted urine was used by almost all Creek farmers to fertilize their gardens until the late 20th century.
Archaeologists have long known that Southeastern Indian garden areas contained many charcoal particles and some broken pottery. This was not given much thought. In 1870, a geology professor at Vassar College, James Orton, described the artificial cultivation soils of Brazil’s Upper Amazon Region in the book, The Andes and the Amazon. For over a century, his observations were largely ignored.
In response to the high cost of applying North American chemical-based farming techniques to under-developed countries, biologists in India have been studying ancient practices in their nation, which seemed to convert marginal soils into highly productive farmlands. A common ingredient was charcoal.
Only in recent years, have American anthropologists began to question their assumption that Amazonia was always a primitive under-populated region. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University and William Woods of the University of Wisconsin have studied the soils of man-made islands in the region of the Upper Amazon Basin that floods each year.
To their surprise of these North American researchers, they found extensive evidence that the region was densely populated until plagues caused by European pathogens almost annihilated the population in the early 1500s. The people had an abundance of food because of the special soil in their islands. It contained a previously unknown bacteria that, in the presence of charcoal and pottery shards, converted sterile soil into some of the most fertile cultivation soil known. The artificial soil was labeled biochar.
The Experimental Garden
In 2010 I decided to carry out an experiment to test the actual effectiveness of Creek gardening techniques. I chose an area near the empty egg hatchery where I then lived that had been previously used as an unpaved patio. It was primarily hard-packed red clay. When the heavy snows of December softened the clay, I turned it over with a spade. My only source of heat is a wood stove. I threw all bones from the kitchen in the wood stove. Periodically, the ashes and natural potash were sprinkled on the future garden area. I also split and sawed firewood there, so there was plenty of sawdust.
The TVA lowers the level of mountain lakes in the winter. During warm spells in March, I gathered (dead) fresh water mussel shells from the bed of Lake Nottely. I crushed the mussel shells and spread them on the planned garden area.
In the spring, with a shovel I mixed the ash-saturated clay and crushed shells. I then hauled top soil and decayed leaves from adjacent woods and applied about four inches (10cm) to the two raised beds that were in total area about the size of a standard kitchen. All cultivating the soil was done with simple hand tools. No commercial chemicals are applied to the garden.
During the second week in May, after the mountains had stopped experiencing freezing temperatures overnight, I planted squash, pumpkin, winter squash, Jerusalem artichoke and cantaloupe seeds, in plastic sprouting trays. The sprouts were large enough to plant on May 21. At the same time I planted some Russet potato eyes, plus tomato, broccoli, collards and Brussels sprouts seedlings, bought at a local farm garden store.
Now we come to the magic part of the garden. I began storing my urine in a stainless steel pot. Once or twice a day, I mixed the urine with water. The ratio of water to urine was 4:1. I applied about half a pint (.25 liter) of the solution to each plant. It would take about three to four days to fertilize all the plants. To reduce water evaporation from the soil, all cut grass from mowing the lawn was applied to the garden as mulching.
There were very few weeds because the densely planted vegetable quickly shaded surrounding soil surfaces. Because I didn’t use chemicals, toads, turtles, praying mantises and birds gobbled up insects that dared to arrive in the garden.
The diluted urine seems to be a “miracle” fertilizer for vegetables. Between May 21 and June 21, the tomato plants grew to six feet tall. The collards and broccoli plants grew to four feet tall. By June my squash and pumpkin vines were growing at a rate over 12-14 inches (31-36 cm) a day! Four cantaloupe plants produced 23 cantaloupes. The squash, pumpkin and cantaloupe vines spread to cover an area twice the size of the original garden. Throughout much of the late spring and summer, I ate at least two meals a day which contained vegetables from the garden. There was absolutely no cost to the garden beyond the original purchase of seeds and seedlings. Very little weeding was required either.
The experiment is continuing on a much larger scale in 2012. In a joint venture with the Creek Indian owners of an abandoned farm, vegetable beds are being developed at a commercial scale. The only problem with this larger scale is that we will not have the proportionate volume of urine fertilizer that was available in the experimental garden. We are substituting composted animal manure.
The Examiner will keep you posted on the commercial operation’s progress once the growing season begins. Questions and suggestions from the readers may be sent to NativeQuestion@aol.com.