8 Gardening Tips From Indigenous Food Growers
By Stephanie Woodard
Many Americans are now experiencing an erratic food supply for the first time. Among COVID-19's disruptions are bare supermarket shelves and items available yesterday but nowhere to be found today. As you seek ways to replace them, you can look to Native gardens for ideas and inspiration.
"Working in a garden develops your relationship to the land," says Aubrey Skye, a Hunkpapa Lakota gardener. "Our ancestors understood that. Look at the old pictures. It's etched on their faces. When you understand it as well, a sense of scarcity and insecurity transforms into a feeling of abundance and control—something we all need these days." For several years, Skye ran a CDC-sponsored gardening program on Standing Rock, a reservation that straddles North and South Dakota. He created hundreds of productive plots, large and small, for fellow tribal members.
Tribes' food-scarcity problems developed after signing treaties with the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Under these agreements, tribes typically transferred land to the federal government in return for education, health care, and other services. The diminished tribal homelands that resulted, along with continual federal efforts to decrease Native land holdings, severely restricted the hunting, fishing, and other activities with which tribes had fed their people since time immemorial. To force tribes onto reservations, Skye adds, the United States purposely destroyed critical food sources, such as the huge buffalo herds that once roamed the Plains.
Aubrey Skye, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, tills gardens for himself and other tribal members. He does some by hand, and others with this tractor. Photo by Stephanie Woodard.
Abundant lifeways were decimated. Starvation and death ensued. Massacres, such as Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, killed additional American Indians, as did forced removals from homelands, with the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Navajo Long Walk among the best-known. The injustices continue today. Oil and gas pipelines, mines, industrial animal farms, and other projects may be sited to imperil tribal lands rather than those of other peoples. Poverty, limited health care, and, in some areas, lack of running water for frequent anti-virus hand-washing, means the COVID-19 pandemic has hit certain tribes, notably the Navajo Nation, hard.
Incessant disasters have created economic and social burdens, including hunger, that fall heavily on children. "These tragedies are so hard on kids," says the Cheyenne River Youth Project's director Julie Garreau. The project is on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota, just south of Standing Rock. "Don't ever let people tell you children don't know what's going on," she says. "The pandemic is creating enormous additional stress, beyond what they were already struggling with."
Her program works to make up the difference. With its 2.5-acre garden, café, gym, and library, the organization has long provided children with good food and a safe place to learn and have fun. Now that tribal children are sheltering at home, the youth project's garden and the sack meals her organization delivers ensure that, at the very least, they have healthy food each day, says Garreau, who is a tribal member.
"I'm so grateful," she says. "We're a nonprofit, and our funders contacted us—we didn't go to them—and gave us support for meals with a hot entrée, juice, and a healthy snack like fruit or nuts. We started driving around in our pickup with food for 35 kids, then 50, then 75." The youth project is working to get the word out. "We hope to reach 250 kids," Garreau says.
Dream of Wild Health also focuses on youth as it restores the multitribal urban-Indian community of Minneapolis and St. Paul to physical well-being and a spiritual relationship to the Earth. "We grow leaders and seeds," says Community Outreach and Culture Teacher Hope Flanagan, who is Seneca. "An urban upbringing can mean our youth lose track of our old way of walking on this Earth." Dream of Wild Health helps the children relearn this knowledge, she says.
In the process, the group's activities help the community reclaim food sovereignty—ready access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food—according to Executive Director Neely Snyder, a St. Croix Chippewa tribal member. Dream of Wild Health meets this need by distributing crops that it grows on its nearby 30-acre farm: It participates in a farmers market, delivers household shares of farm produce to locations in Native neighborhoods of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and partners with other community organizations, such as the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Since the COVID-19 challenges began, innovation has been key. To continue to offer chef-led cooking lessons for youth, yet maintain social distance, Dream of Wild Health delivers ingredients to the children's homes and runs the program via a video link. Virtual activities have proven popular. When a seed-saving and sacred medicines workshop moved online, the typical 40- to 50-person audience for a live event burgeoned to some 220, Snyder says.
To grow real crops in a real garden requires getting out on the land—with a difference nowadays. This summer, Skye anticipates, reservation gardeners will either work alone or in groups practicing social distancing. Dream of Wild Health farmers are figuring out how student interns, whom they call Garden Warriors, can work on the group's farm and maintain distance.
While gardening, Skye says, tribal gardeners will put into action traditional practices that arise from close observations of nature and the belief that humans, plants, animals, and other aspects of the natural world form a mutually reliant community. We are all related, Skye says. "Gardening and eating food you've raised give you a direct connection to Mother Earth."
Gardeners are necessarily optimists. At a time when our world is so dangerous, the garden is a place of refuge. "We will come out of this crisis," Garreau said in an email. "To do so, we must not stop planning and planting." Taking cues from Native gardening practices can help even novice gardeners get growing in these difficult circumstances.
Follow Indigenous gardeners' advice to grow your own plot, however small or experimental. At a time when stay-at-home orders continue to try and keep populations healthy, Garreau sums up the importance of sinking your hands into the soil: "Gardens represent so much more," Garreau continued. "Food, yes, but a belief in our future. Gardens represent resiliency, strength, wellness, culture."
1. Plot Your Success
Experienced gardeners may be comfortable planting big fields of their favorite crops. Skye has a nearly 1-acre plot just downhill of his Standing Rock home. But if this is your gardening debut—as it was for some tribal members he provided with gardens through the CDC project—ensure success by starting small. Try a few pots or raised beds, or perhaps a small in-ground plot, with easy-to-grow plants, he says. Good options might be tomatoes, peppers, green beans, radishes, summer and winter squash, onions, or leafy greens. "Don't bite off more than you can chew!" Skye quips.
2. Cultivate Plant Friendships
Many American gardeners know about the Three Sisters—in the celebrated trio, cornstalks serve as trellises for beans, which in turn fix nitrogen (fertilizer), while big, flat squash leaves conserve soil moisture and keep down weeds. Such plant groupings, also called companion plants, are expressions of cooperation and sharing, says the Mohawk director of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, Clayton Brascoupé. "Your garden should be like a healthy forest, which has trees of various sizes," he says. "Look at nature, and figure out combinations that mimic it."
In his gardens at Tesuque Pueblo, north of Santa Fe, you can see peas twining up corn plants and basil rising above the broad, flat leaves of watermelon. "Experiment!" he says. "Plants can surprise you. One year, we discovered that garbanzos and corn really enjoy each other."
3. Make Room for Hard-Working Beauties
Embellish your garden with colorful flowers, particularly those native to your area. "They attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators," says Skye, adding that pollinators are an integral part of a plant's life cycle. "Without them, the harvest wouldn't happen, and we would be looking at extreme food shortages, not just occasional gaps. By giving pollinators flowers they like, we support them, just as they support us."
4. Keep Crops Cozy
Got a plant that's struggling? Give it a rock! Brascoupé explains that in Southwest Native gardens, rocks are commonly set next to seedlings or plants that need help. They act as heat sinks, smoothing out day-night temperature variations as they soak up the sun's heat and release it in evening's chill. The practice may have been more widespread, he says, appearing as far north as Iroquois gardens in the U.S. Northeast. It makes sense, he says; in a cold region, rocks protect seedlings from unexpected early-season frost.
5. Source Materials Locally and for Free
For no-cost drip irrigation, Brascoupé uses a fine needle to poke a hole in the neck of clean soda-pop bottles or milk jugs. He then fills the containers with water, replaces their caps, and pushes their pierced necks into the soil.
Conserve soil moisture and keep weeds down by surrounding the plants with mulching materials that would otherwise have been discarded. People spend time and money getting rid of cardboard, shredded office paper, lawn clippings, and leaves, Brascoupé says. "Tell neighbors, 'I can take that off your hands.' Build human relationships."
6. Embrace Dandelions
Don't banish dandelions. Welcome these supposed weeds! Their leaves are delicious and nutritious, and their taproots break up hardened soil, I learned from Native gardeners. My New York City backyard used to be so compacted, little grew there. I tried scattering dandelion seeds around the yard. They grew and blossomed, and soon earthworms moved in. The soil became soft, friable, and plant-friendly. Earthworms are at it 24-7, working on your behalf, according to Skye. "What more could you ask for?" he says.
7. Include Healing Herbs
Skye has a small medicine-wheel garden by his home, where he delights in growing echinacea, chamomile, comfrey, and other medicinals from seed he saves from one year to the next. Such circular plots are traditionally places to grow herbs and thereby experience their delectable flavors and the natural healing they promote.
8. Save Your Seeds
At the end of the season, save the seeds of plants that thrived—and that you enjoyed—in your garden. You can help ensure your future food supply and, if you include unusual or heritage varieties, do your part to sustain biodiversity.
Seed-saving preserves history as well, Skye says. He called seeds time capsules. "We Native people have always saved them. As we plant, and save, and replant, the seeds go through all we are going through, the good times and the bad." The Dream of Wild Health seed collection, for example, includes a Cherokee family's gift of corn that survived the tribe's deadly Trail of Tears, a forced march that displaced their ancestors from their original homelands.
Today, danger confronts all of us on this Earth. "We were already facing climate change, and now there is the pandemic," Skye says. The seeds will always be there, to provide both food and a spiritual connection to the Earth, he says. "They are how we will survive."
Garreau echoes this sentiment: "When we come out of this terrible pandemic, we will have learned to be stronger. We will be invincible."
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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