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Biochar update . . . perfect sweet corn without insecticides

Biochar update . . . perfect sweet corn without insecticides

 

To bring new readers up to date . . . beginning five years ago, I slashed, burned, earth-sculpted and nurtured a large terrace garden where there were was once impassible thorns, vines, saplings and trees. All brush and limbs are burned each winter on top of the garden soil.  All wood ashes are dumped on the the garden, as are all organic wastes from the kitchen.  At certain times of the year I spread diluted human urine on less fertile terraces.

All construction of the terraces was with a mattock, axe, shovel and wheel barrow.  The soil is cultivated with a shovel and various types of hoes. Per request of the property owner,  specimen trees such as Native magnolia, sugar maple and white oak were not cut down. Because I was required to preserve certain trees, the terraces meander a bit through the woods. I intentionally allow a native grass to grow in the walking trails next to the cultivation beds. This eliminates most erosion and noxious weeds.  Filmmakers love the garden because it looks like it belongs to another place and time.

 

A Yama in Tabasco . . . the scene could easily be in the South Carolina Low Country, SE Georgia, Florida or south Alabama.

This type of woodland “slash and burn” garden is called a yama by the Highland Maya and Gulf Coast peoples of Mexico, who were ancestral to most branches of the Creek People, and a milpa by Nahuatl and Yucatec Maya peoples.  The term yama was definitely used by our ancestors in Georgia and South Carolina because it is the source of the ethnic name, Yamasi.

An old photograph I had, taken in the region of Tabasco State where the ancestors of the Miccosukee lived, inspired my agricultural experiments this year.  To be honest with you, until 2017 I never looked at the photo closely.  When it was taken, I was a young architect and merely wanted a photo to show architecture or anthropology students what a milpa or yama looked like.  Of course, back then, there was no such thing as personal computers or  graphics software. 

When I magnified the image of the yama on the computer, I saw corn, butternut squash and pumpkins thriving in recently burned soils.   This inspired my agricultural experiments for 2017.  These are all crops, frequently grown by our Muskogean ancestors. 

Experiments in 2016 Magic Biochar Garden

(1)  How well will corn, butternut squash and pumpkins grow on “slash and burn” soil” . . . immediately adjacent to dense woods?

(2) Is it possible to grow corn without applying harsh insecticides to prevent Corn Ear Worms (the larva of a specialized type of moth) ?

(3) Will growing Butternut Squash in soils, heavily mixed with ashes and charcoal prevent fungi from destroying the leaves and nematodes from eating the roots?

(4) Can young corn plants be transplanted in summer weather conditions?

Special environmental conditions of garden

The cabin and garden are surrounded by a dense forest composed of massive hard wood trees over a hundred feet tall, but choked with vines and dense undergrowth.  This time of year, it is essentially an impassible temperate rain forest.  The soil is identical to that at the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  Both there and here, old gold mines are located a few hundred yards away, plus there are the remnants of ancient volcanoes nearby. The soil is highly acidic, plus lacks calcium.  It does contain high levels of magnesium that leaches from steatite (soapstone) stones scatterred about.   Most soils in the Southern Highlands  and Piedmont also lack magnesium.  I have to add large quantities of agricultural lime to the garden soil to get high productivity.  In earlier times, our ancestors would have added crushed freshwater mussel shells to sweeten the soil.

Many of the residents of the county immediately to the west of me (Dawson County) incessantly shoot off firearms and bombs in preparation for “the coming Civil War against Libruls, Marxists, Blacks, Jews, Democrats, Intelligent Women, Non-Baptists, etc.”  This scares off the critters and causes my dogs to be constantly at my feet.   LOL 

I feel no need to practice my marksmanship and never liked guns anyway.*  Instead I frequently play my Native American percussion and wind instruments to CD’s of indigenous and Latin American music late in the afternoon.  The critters love the music.  So, in response to the incessant gunfire elsewhere, many squirrels and a vast array of brightly plumed birds have established nests in the tree limbs immediately around the garden.  Megan the Fox has become so trusting that she will often sit out in the grass at sunset with one of my male dogs and listen to the music.  At night, she hunts rabbits, Woodland Mice and Voles in the garden.

*Our instructor for use of small arms in close proximity engagements in the jungle or forest was a Marine Colonel, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Pork Chop Hill.   He intentionally dropped a Colt 45 semi-automatic, loaded with blanks, on the ground behind me, when we Midshipmen were lined up at attention.  Even though the safety was on, the gun went off.  That scared the willies out of me and so I have never liked guns since then.  A loaded firearm is ALWAYS dangerous.  Never forget that.

These birds seem to be by far the most important factor in eliminating insect pests.  Especially in the early morning, they constantly fly back and forth across the garden looking for breakfast . . . aka insects.  The smaller song birds can sometime be seen standing on the corn stalks.  The large stump below is about 32″ tall.  Because of the steep slope of the garden, perspective is distorted.  Note also that the soil below contains many decomposing leaves. plus chunks of wood and vine fragments. 

The soil is full of small rocks, which are decomposed pieces of volcanic pumice, quartzite and soapstone. I also find Archaic Period artifacts.

The results of the experiment

(1) As discussed in the previous article,  it is late July and there is still no sign of Leaf Blight (fungi) on my squash and pumpkin plants. 

(2)  To my surprise,  young corn plants don’t seem to be affected at all by transplanting as long as all the roots are contained in the soil.  This means that I can start my plants next year much earlier in planting trays then set them out as soon as the soil is warm enough.  That will enable me to have fresh sweet corn for dinner from early July to mid-October.

(3) Corn, yellow squash, butternut squash and pumpkins thrive in soil that contains large amounts of decomposed wood, ashes and charcoal.   That seems to be their natural habitat.  Think about it.   Indigenous Americans developed these species from wild plants to cultivated plants in exactly the same type environments that I am growing them in this year.

(4)  I harvested the oldest row of sweet corn yesterday.  NOT ONE EAR has a worm in it.  At least in the Southeast and Midwest, it is theoretically impossible to grow corn without insecticides. 

We need more birds and Native American music . . . and less chemicals!

The video below is a traditional Green Corn Festival dance done by the Tamulte People of Tabasco and in the past, my ancestors, the Itsate Creeks.  I don’t think that it was a Muskogee-Creek dance, but may have been.   

The Tamulte are ethnic Creeks, now considered by Mexican academicians to be a distant branch of the Mayas, who speak the same language, once spoken by the Tamale/Tamate/Tamatli Creeks of the Altamaha River Basin in Southeast Georgia and North Carolina Mountains.   They are also today the only Mexican tribe that eats corn on the cob,  grits, brunswick stew and hush puppies.  They dance the Stomp Dance and celebrate the Green Corn Festival.  They invented the tamale, which is named after them.   You probably didn’t know this, but Southeastern Creeks and Seminoles also frequently ate tamales.  

 

 

 

 

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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.

14 Comments

  1. ah.all@inorbit.com'

    Good work, Richard! That is some great looking corn. I expected as much, from the personal tour and discussions you gave us, several months ago. One question, though: why no salvia, ie: chia, an historically important and significant crop widely cultivated by the early occupants of the region?

    Reply
    • Chia does best in river bottom lands and cool nights like up in the Smoky Mountains. I am just growing for my own needs and can only cook things that you can cook over an open fire. LOL Chia seeds go into complex dishes. Hopefully, soon I will have the income to move to a decent house with some bottomland, where I can grow a wider range of crops. The corn would actually do better in bottom land, but I love corn on the cob and wanted at least some for accompanying barbecued meats this summer.

      It was a lot of fun having all of you at my hovel.

      Reply
      • wdallain@aol.com'

        Richard please send a way to call or privately talk I may be able to help a little

        Reply
      • ah.all@inorbit.com'

        That makes sense, now that you remind me. Chia grows all through the bottomlands along the river corridors… Thanks, again, for the tour. We all enjoyed meeting you and appreciated your southern hospitality.
        As we say, “Hope springs eternal.” I hope you’ll soon be able to find a better place.

        Reply
    • Also . . . I hope to move to the northern part of the county, where I would be at 2000 to 2500 feet rather than 1500 feet like now. The nights will be cooler so my veggies would bear much longer during the summer.

      Reply
  2. iwg42@hotmail.com'

    Hey Richard,
    Great points in your article! My 87 year old mother said one of the chores the kids had on the farm was to run the chickens through the truck garden once a week so they would eat the bugs. They would also eat the ripe veggies so they had to watch to make sure they did not eat them all. They never burned the garden but put all ashes, kitchen scraps, stable and chicken coop leavings, old milk and lime on the garden area. One of her tricks for good tomatoes was to put powdered milk on the ground around the plants so they would get enough calcium to stop blossom end rot. You can also use sheet rock for the same thing if you remove the outer paper and break up the gypsum. I keep bird feeders near the garden and I do see birds in and out of the plants all the time eating bugs. In an old National Geo. there was an article on the Mississippi Delta region, and they interviewed old farmers that had sold out to big Ag because no one wanted to farm. In the article one old farmer said the big companies took out the wooded areas between the farms and fields that marked different fields so plowing would be easier. The problem with that he said is the birds, spiders, and small predators had no place to live in the fields. That means more chemicals will be needed to kill the pest the birds and spiders have been eating.
    Your ROTC commander showed you the biggest problem with the older Colt 1911’s, discharge when dropped. My older Colt Combat Commander is one of the finest shooting handguns I have ever owned, but DO NOT ever carry it with a bullet in the chamber. Colt redesigned the safety and the newer Model 1911’s are very safe. I have other more modern handguns with better safeties if i need to carry one (not to often or I’m going to the wrong areas). Well stay safe and I hope the bear wont eat to much corn.
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Hey Wayne! The livestock supply store had a deer and bear repellent that was very inexpensive. The bear didn’t come back.

      My grandparents did exactly the same things that yours did. Agricultural lime and charcoal is surer thing thing than old milk to prevent blossom rot.

      Thanks

      Richard

      Reply
      • Iwg42@hotmail.com'

        Glad the bear is gone. Hot peppers should run off mammals, but working with hot peppers is a #$÷^&*#. It is like a hazmat situation.
        I agree old milk is not as good as lime.
        I have tried powered milk with good ,results in pots. In the days before all the fancy scientific fertilizers you did what worked. That has not changed as you are proving in your garden.
        Thanks!

        Reply
  3. jangle@ifdc.org'

    Hi Richard. My name is Scott Angle. Joel Mize was telling me about some of your biochar work. I currently run a large NGO helping farmers in Africa and biochar is used frequently. I was formally the dean of agriculture at the University of Georgia. They were doing a lot of research on biochar. This work was being done by the ag engineering group. You might want to contact them if you want a more local contact for Georgia. Cheers.

    Reply
    • Thank you for the info Scott. My cousin, Dr. Ray Burden, will also be interested in this information. For many years, he was the head of the Agricultural Extension Office in Chattanooga then taught at the University of Tennessee. He recently retire from UT and is now doing his own biochar experiments. Wishing you the best in your career.

      Reply
    • And thank you for the information. Have a great weekend.

      Richard T.

      Reply
      • crustybill@gmail.com'

        My father always had a 5 acre garden. When I was young, I got to hoe it. I thought at that time he was the meanest man in the world. I learned that if you don’t sharpen your hoe, you will suffer a whole lot. I had to learn to identify the young tender plants from the weeds that looked similar and hoe the right ones. The length of the rows seem to grow the longer I was there. Father always gathered extra produce when we harvested.

        My father taught me to be responsible. To learn to hoe to the end of the row. To be man enough to finish what you start. I learned to keep my tools sharp and take care of them. To learn to make good decisions, even on small things in life. He taught me to give service to the widows and shut ins in the small community that had much less than we did. They enjoyed the fresh produce as much as we did. I wish now that I’m old and grey that more father’s grew gardens to help teach life lessons.

        Reply

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