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Agricultural scientist confirms results of experiments on biochar terraces

Agricultural scientist confirms results of experiments on biochar terraces


Why would our ancestors commit extensive labor to build terrace complexes on the mountainsides of the Southern Appalachians and the hillsides of the Piedmont . . . but then often nearby cultivate massive fields of corn in the river bottomlands?  For example, the Track Rock Terrace Complex is in easy walking distance of several contemporary towns with mounds in the Nottely and Brasstown Creek flood plains.

Another question that I had was really a “fact check.”    Virtually all American History and Anthropology books state that Native Americans “grew the three sister plants, corn, beans and squashes/pumpkins together,” because the plants were symbiotic.  Is that really true, or is it the speculation of some professor, who everybody believed was infallible many decades ago?  

Five years ago I started construction of a “mini-terrace complex” with the same orientation and soil types as Track Rock Gap.   The only differences were is that the experimental location gets more rainfall and is a 2-5 degrees warmer in mid-summer than Track Rock  Gap.


From the beginning I used biochar, Maya and Creek farming techniques . . . all of which focus on “growing the soil” year-round.  I put all my bones and egg shells in the wood stove throughout the heating season and spread all of the ashes and charcoal on the garden.  I compost all of the weeds and non-burnable organic kitchen waste then mix the compost into the soil during late winter and early spring.  Periodically, during the peak growth periods, I irrigate with diluted human urine.  I sprinkle fine wood ashes on predatory insects, which generally makes them shrivel and die.

Effect on plants

What I have found is that legumes (beans and peas) indigenous to the Americas grow like kudzu on my terraces.  Seeds that the package says should grow vines 32 inches tall, produced vines six feet tall.  Seeds that were supposed to grow vines to about six feet tall grew from 11 to 14 feet  tall.  The legumes seem to be the most affected by biochar soil techniques.

As all those who have seen the magic garden can confirm, the biochar terraces produce picture perfect collards, cabbages and broccoli with very little damage from insects.   The broccoli and collards especially are “super-sized.”   However, Native Americans did not grow members of the cabbage family until after Europeans began colonizing North America. 

Both Yellow and Winter Squash planted near corn did very poorly with stunted fruits, while legumes planted near corn had spindly vines and few peas or beans.  So the mixing of these three plants seems to be an “urban legend,” created by academicians, who never farmed in their lives.

I have found that corn, beans and members of the squash family prefer entirely different types of soil and sun exposure.   Corn prefers sandy loam that is liberally treated with dolimitic lime, shells and animal bones.   Beans do best on well-drained soils consisting of clay that has been converted into brown or black bio-char soil.   Yellow (summer) squash prefers lots of space in soil, which contains a high percentage of decomposed wood or leave particles.  Winter squash prefers rough, woodsy soil with lots of whole decomposing leaves and soil that has been recently burned by “slash and burn” techniques.    I get monster butternut squashes when I plant the seeds directly in the areas where I burned brush and tree limbs the previous fall. 

What the expert said

Dr. Ray Burden was kind enough to drive down from Tennessee to visit my hovel and magic biochar garden today.  He served for many years as the Director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County, Tennessee Agricultural Extension Office then was on the staff of the University of Tennessee for several years.  He has recently retired.  Ray is of Creek and Uchee descent and a member of the Coweta Creek Confederacy.

Beans on a Guatemalan terrace farm

I asked Ray about the the contradiction between how my bio-char terrace garden behaved and what the history-anthropology text books say.    The beans are amazingly productive on the terraces, but the corn is stunted unless build furrows out of sandy loam from bottom land.  

One type of squash likes soil that is halfway between flood plain soils and mountainside soils, while the winter squash behave as if they would be happier growing on the edge of the woods and wrapping their vines around saplings.   Tomato plants grow to seven feet tall in the exact same soil that the yellow squash likes.   In contrast, pumpkins preferred the same soil that corn likes.  They did not do well on the biochar terraces . . . even in the same locations that their cousins, winter squash liked. 

I told Ray that I never saw corn growing on the terrace complexes in Chiapas State, Mexico and in southern Guatemala.  I only saw beans, peppers and small sweet squashes growing on the terraces.  All the corn was grown in bottom lands, while all the pumpkins and tobacco were grown at the bases of mountainsides in between the corn and the bean terraces.  Were the Mesoamerican farmers doing things all wrong or was this actually very sophisticated farming techniques?

Ray responded, “We always told the farmers to grow the corn in the bottomlands and the beans on the uplands.”

So apparently,  the “three sister crops growing together” thing is an urban legend (myth) created by someone, who never saw a Native American farmer and certainly never had a Native American in their home.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Hey Richard,
    The Native American farmers were very smart and observant, they had to be to grow enough crops. I have been building my garden area for about 3 yrs now. This red clay takes a lot of organic matter to loosen it up for good plants. Melons do not do good in the Atlanta area because of the red clay, they need sandy soil like S. Georgia and northern Florida. Beans, peppers squash, and lettuce do well in my yard but my corn was non existent and tomatoes do ok. I will try some cole crops this fall, some Brussels sprouts and broccoli fresh from the garden with several kinds of lettucemake a great salad.
    Well like usual when you start talking food I want to cook up some good Southern grub.
    Thanks again!

  2. Wayne,

    Based on my experiments, I would say that we need to create separate garden areas for each of the plant families. One soil does not fit all. Based on what I saw in Mexico and Guatemala, I suspect that our Native ancestors knew this. There are eyewitness accounts of planting beds near Maya cities in the Lowlands. Since the terrain was too flat to have terraces, the planting beds seem to be the ways that they created special soil for each type of cultivated crop.



      An explanation given for the terraces at Machu Picchu is that it was a demonstration plantation to show how different crops could be grown at different elevations and different soil conditions. The “primitives” may well have had a more sophisticated agricultural technologies than the Europeans.

      Here in northwestern Nebraska, a neighbor is making biochar out of the local ponderosa pines. It will be interesting if he can get a following for this.


    Were the seed you used the same as the Natives would have used or were they more modern varieties? I expect it would make a difference.

    • Whenever possible I cultivated plants that were cultivated by my Creek ancestors. For example, my main beans are lima and cranberry beans. There are no heirloom seeds for yellow squash.


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