Explore the ethnic diversity of America through gardening. What we eat and how we grow it provides insight into who we are. Historical gardening traditions can help us understand how we came to be.
Early European settlers used the term corn as a generic reference for any type of grain. In the United States and Canada, corn refers to the crop whose proper name is maize. When the first English settlers arrived in America, they’d never seen maize before. Since they didn’t have a word for it, they called it Indian corn. Over the years it simply became known as corn. Corn as we know it today didn’t always exist. The wild grass known as teosinte (pronounced tay-oh-sin-tay) is the direct ancestor of corn. It has been modified for human consumption over the course of thousands of years. This remarkable agricultural achievement was accomplished without the benefit of any scientific insights into genetics or heredity. Indigenous farmers selected the choicest grains for eating and planting. Over the course of thousands of years, this wild grass was transformed into maize, the most important food crop on earth.
Beans are also one of the world’s most important crops, originally domesticated in southern Mexico and Peru. Squashes and pumpkins were domesticated in the Americas around 10,000 years ago as well. Many food historians credit Native Americans for the domestication of 60 percent of the food crops eaten around the world. World cuisine without corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chili peppers or chocolate would be a lot less satisfying.
The three sisters garden is a traditional Native American growing technique that predates the arrival of Columbus. It takes its name from the story of three Indian sisters who lived together harmoniously and made specific contributions to their relationships with each other. The three sisters are maize (corn), beans and squash. The inseparable sisters are always to be grown and eaten together. The corn stalks serve as a natural trellis for the beans to climb. The beans take nitrogen from the air and bind it to the soil, providing fertility for the corn. The sprawling squash vines act as a living mulch, providing a weed barrier and slowing the loss of moisture from the soil through evaporation.
Maize, a carbohydrate, combined with a legume such as pinto beans or chick peas, creates a complete protein. A complete protein contains all nine essential amino acids needed for a healthy diet. Squash provides additional vitamins and minerals not found in the corn and beans. The three sisters complement each other perfectly.
These crops won’t tolerate any frost. Try to use heirloom seeds, but don’t plant them before Mother’s Day.
First, create a circular mound of dirt, six inches tall and about four feet in diameter. In the center of the mound, plant six kernels of corn in a 12-inch circle. After the corn has grown six inches tall (three weeks or so), plant eight pole type beans in a circle, about a foot away from the corn. In two weeks or so, plant eight pumpkin seeds or other type winter squash about a foot away from the beans, also in a circle. As the beans grow, gently place the tendrils next to the corn stalks and they’ll climb on their own. After a while this will become a tangled mass of stalks and vines. Traditionally, these crops would be left to dry on the vine, harvested in the fall and eaten over winter. The corn would be ground into flour to make cornbread or tortillas. The squash would be roasted over a fire or in an oven. For even greater authenticity, fertilize with fish emulsion several times during the growing season. Companion planting and sustainability are ancient concepts. For years, the contributions of indigenous people have been marginalized or ignored. What else can we learn from Native American history and culture?
Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org