Gardening in America has, throughout our 245 year history as a nation, been a means for survival, cultural preservation, and community building. We celebrate at Thanksgiving each year the pilgrims efforts to survive in Plymouth, paired with the First Peoples efforts to help them learn to cultivate the land. As we look back on our Nation’s history on 4th of July, there is no denying we became a nation, in part, because people learned to garden here and cultivate the soil to grow life.
The Southwest: Puebloans among America’s First Farmers
Agriculture has always played an important role in the health, wealth and prosperity of Native People’s tribes. The Southwest region, expanding through present-day Arizona and New Mexico into Colorado, Texas, Utah and Mexico was home to a variety of indigenous groups and cultural practices, and were collectively called “Pueblo” people by the Spanish. Historians credit these four corners native peoples, in particular the Anasazis, Mongollons and Hohokams as the first farmers in America. In the Arid Southwest, Ancestral Pueblos developed complex irrigation systems to maintain crops in the hot sun. Native peoples started by planting corn, then expanded to beans and squash. Corn cultivation continues to permeate stories and artwork of Puebloan people, as they regarded the harvest of corn not only a nutritional necessity but a spiritual gift (Kahn Academy: “Native American Culture of the Southwest”). Eventually, most Puebloans fled the area, probably due to drought, a challenge we still face periodically today in the West.
A Gardening Mentorship: The Wampanoag’s and the Pilgrims
As it turned out, New England soil wasn’t quite as fertile as England’s soil where pilgrims would have grown rye, barley and wheat and a variety of English garden vegetables. In Modern Farmer’s Article “The Pilgrims had no Idea how to Farm Here. Luckily, They Had the Native Americans” (Nov 23, 2016), The Wampanoag grew corn, squash and beans known as the “Three Sisters” because they did really well in the poor sandy soil that didn’t retain nutrients well. The article states, “Beans are nitrogen fixers, pulling nitrogen from the air, and with the help of soil microbes, turn the nitrogen into plant food. The corn provides the beans a support on which to grow and the squash helps with water retention and weed control.” The Wampanoag also taught the pilgrims to use wood ash and fish as plant fertilizers. Tom Sauer, with the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service said, “Wood ash would have been a relatively concentrated nutrient source that contains calcium, which acts as a liming agent to raise the pH level. It also contains potassium and smaller amounts of phosphorous and other nutrients” which would have helped the pilgrims survive.
Once they learned to grow, the colonists at Plymouth called their town a “plantation” a word that derives from the word “plant”. They cleared rocky and forested Eastern land to create pastoral fertile landscapes, the discarded rocks turned in to border walls grown over but still visible today.
Celebrating Cultivating Land in Song
One of my favorite patriotic songs focuses on farming as part of our national heritage:
“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plains.”
Interestingly, it was Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, who wrote the poem in 1893 that became the song and called the poem “Pikes Peak”. She was inspired by a trip to Colorado to teach at Colorado College. Riding the train across America, the wheat fields of the Kansas heartland and the majestic view of the Great Plains from high atop Pikes Peak made it into her poem, which became the much loved American anthem we know today. Note: The initial poem stated “O great for halcyon skies”. In case you aren’t quite sure what that means, like myself, I looked it up.
Halcyon: Denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful.