23 Nov A Thanksgiving for Permaculture
When Squanto met with the Pilgrims he did more than simply bring food.
Before the Thanksgiving feast, Squanto taught the Pilgrims an ingenious method of farming that had been practiced for many centuries (x), if not thousands of years. It was a method that designed self-sustaining natural systems to minimize labor and optimize production.
Today, this approach is called permaculture, a word for permanent or sustainable agriculture. The FDA has even begun propagating (hah!) permaculture techniques to organically reduce waste and increase crop yields.
The Three Sisters and Modern Permaculture
The first method the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims was to seed a trio of plants that wrapped food production, soil enrichment, and weed control all into one useful bundle. (x)
This combination was called the Three Sisters. To this day, it remains an ingenious combination of plants with multiple uses. Corn is the main food crop. Beans, a nitrogen-fixing plant that enriches the soil, grow up the stalk of the corn. Squash, melons, or pumpkins are added in to produce food and keep down weeds with their broad leaves.
There are few companion planting strategies that rival the simplicity and effectiveness of this trio.
The second technique was using fish as fertilizer for fields. Even today, fish fertilizer remains one of the most popular forms of soil enrichment for home gardeners. It has a good balance of the essential nutrients Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (the all important NPK) to feed plants. At the time of the Pilgrims, fish were also incredibly abundant. Cape Cod was named for good reason.
Northeastern tribes used controlled fires to support particular food producing trees, like the Oak and American Chestnut. The fires reduced pests, fertilized soils, and eliminated competition for favored trees. The Chestnut was a particularly valuable food source that could produce as many as six thousand nutrition-packed nuts a year. It is estimated that there were 4 billion American chestnut trees at the time the Pilgrims arrived in America.
Imagine the productivity of a forest filled with chestnut trees! Many members of the eastern forests, including animals, would be far more abundant with such a rich food source. (x)
Almost all of these billions of American Chestnut trees were destroyed by an Asian fungus that came with European ships. This ecological loss is measured on the scale of the destruction of the passenger pigeon flocks “that blacked out the sun for days,” the cod fisheries of Georges Banks, and the bison herds of the plains. (x)
These techniques, along with hunting and fishing methods, helped the Pilgrims to thrive in North America.
A Permaculture Legacy at ifarm
At ifarm we have plots that feature the ingenuity of permaculturists like the Wampanoag.
We have a Three Sisters garden of corn, pumpkins, and beans. The plot truly is simple to manage: The Sisters fertilize the soil, manage weeds, and take the burden off the farmer. It is an impressive demonstration of the power of simplicity. The plot is mainly used as an education garden for our school groups.
We were very excited to receive a gift of five chestnut trees this summer from the American Chestnut Foundation. They have bred fungus-resistance into the American Chestnut by crossing it with the Asian Chestnut. We are thrilled to be a part of their initiative to re-populate the Eastern US with chestnut trees. This change will not happen immediately, but the American Chestnut was a very successful species: In time, it could re-establish a foothold across the eastern seaboard and much of the United States.
Imagine being able to step out into a food forest, filled with Chestnut trees and a bumper crop of food each year. It would support far more animal life than todays forests!
Not a bad dream!
We hope you have a wonderful thanksgiving.
For those who are interested in learning more about the nuanced and conflictual relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, click this link.
Main blog painting is named The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris.