Sowing Seeds of Understanding

By Eve Pranis

Native Gardening, Online

Marykirk used her students' successful experiences to design a Native American Three Sisters "WebQuest" on the Digital Desert Library's Web site to inspire other growing classrooms. The WebQuest takes students beyond classroom walls and challenges them to use Internet resources to investigate and create presentations on different aspects of Native American gardening. The site also features other bilingual Web-based investigations, garden-based lesson plans, access to a database of desert region plants, connections to horticultural experts, and a student gallery.

"My third grade Spanish/English immersion class decided that our school garden could provide the ideal context for cross-cultural connections," reports Arlington, VA, teacher Marykirk Cunningham. Through an online project to exchange gardening experiences and cultural information, her students found willing peers in New Mexico.

As the classes shared slices of their respective communities, gardening techniques, food preferences, and so on, they discovered their mutual interest in native North American planting systems. "We decided to raise traditional 'Three Sisters' (corn, bean, and squash) gardens as a centerpiece for studying food crops of native cultures," explains Marykirk. Several student research groups, dubbed botanists, anthropologists, and folklorists, set out to explore different aspects of this traditional planting system: the plant science behind the companion crops, typical seed varieties, nutritional benefits, planting designs, and related cultural stories and celebrations.

"Armed with blue corn seeds, squash, and pinto beans from our sister schools in New Mexico, the kids measured, laid out, and planted the Three Sisters in a design that was traditional for our area," notes Marykirk. "Students tested different gardening techniques and solved problems that arose," she adds. For instance, when students learned about the tradition of placing a fish under each mound as a fertilizer, they experimented by creating hills with and without fish, then comparing plant growth in each type. (Reports are, the fish seemed to help!) "Because we wanted to avoid synthetic pesticides, students researched some garlic- and hot pepper-based alternatives, and used them successfully to deter pests from the squash," explains Marykirk.

Throughout the year, the third graders shared garden-related poetry, artwork, investigation results, science journals, and questions -- via computer and mail -- with their peers. "Through their research, exchanges, and explorations on the Digital Desert Library Web site (below), the kids came to appreciate how connected we all are through raising and consuming food," she notes. "For instance, they were intrigued to discover that many cultures use stories to explain things in nature, and were amazed at the importance of corn as a source of nourishment and folklore throughout history," she explains. This prompted students to go back to their families to uncover their own stories and historical connections to food and growing. "By 'becoming' scientists and anthropologists and taking such a broad look at this agricultural system, the students really seemed to grasp the relevance of what they were learning," notes Marykirk.

Gardening with the Three Sisters

Although native peoples from different parts of North America used a wide range of agricultural techniques, perhaps the best known is the interplanting of corn, beans, and squash: a trio known by many groups as "The Three Sisters."

This well-conceived planting system features three crops that benefit one another and together nourished the people who planted them. The corn supports the bean vines as they grow upward and the squash covers the soil, helping control weeds and deter predators who might feed on the corn. The beans can convert nitrogen from the air info a form that plants can use. (The nitrogen remaining after the beans have grown will be available for the corn, which requires a good deal of nitrogen, the following year.) And the sisters complement each other nutritionally, with the corn supplying carbohydrates, beans contributing protein and additional vitamins, and squash offering lots of vitamin A.

To make one type of Three Sisters garden, create slightly raised mounds about 12 inches high and 18 inches in diameter, 3 to 4 feet apart in all directions. In each hill, plant half a dozen soaked corn seeds in a small circle. As the plants start to grow, weed gently, mounding up soil around them. When the corn is about 6 inches high, plant four to six seeds of pole beans around the circle. Then plant four or five pumpkin or squash seeds near every seventh hill (or plant a couple of seeds if you just have one hill). Thin plants to a few per location.

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