Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
Gab Creek Garden
The garden site was a steeply slope section of woods overlooking Gabs Creek in western Lumpkin County, GA. Gab Creek is a major tributary of the Amicalola River, which is the largest tributary of the Etowah River. The source of the Etowah River is about four miles northwest of the garden site. The garden was about 100 yards from a early 20th century gold mine and about 400 years from an early 19th century gold mine tunnel. The soil there is presumed to contain a relatively high trace level of gold. It is very acidic.
The bottomlands along Gab Creek abound with Native American artifacts. Until the late 20th century there were three mounds in the area, but they were bulldozed by new property owners from Florida, who feared that the presence of mounds would interfere with any development. In fact, zoning restrictions and health department regulations would have prevented any intensive development of these parcels. Pottery shards found in nearby fields are associated with the Swift Creek, Napier, Woodstock, Etowah I-III and Lamar Cultural Periods. No professional archaeological excavations have occurred in this area.
The garden is located in an area of parallel folds, probably indicating an ancient fault line. The rock strata consist of several metamorphic stones, quartzite, plus some white quartz. On the surface along hilltops are clustered white marble boulders. They appear to have been stacked into cairns or altars by inhabitants of the region. The soil tends to be quite acid except near marble boulders.
The official average precipitation for Lumpkin County, GA is 63 inches. The mountainous northern part of the county receives around 67-70 inches a year. Western Lumpkin County where the Gab Creek garden was located, receives around 60 inches a year or less. It is in a rain shadow created by the Rich Mountains in eastern Gilmer County.
The Gab Site matches very closely the slope, orientation and soils of the Track Rock Gap terrace complex. Tall trees on two sides matched the effect of Arkaqua Mountain blocking the morning sun and Wildcat Mountain blocking the setting sun. Growing conditions, therefore, were very close to that of Track Rock. The only difference is that Track Rock Gap receives more precipitation in the middle of summer.
On April 28, 2012 the smaller trees and dense undergrowth of wild grape vines was stripped from the garden site by a Bobcat earthmover. The Bobcat operator also pushed some sterile red clay into the garden area that had been dumped next to the site several years earlier. Upon moving into the adjacent cabin on May 1, 2012 the author sawed down the remaining large trees.
On June 1, 2012 the upper part of the terrace garden was about 10 days old. This is the catchment inlet that channels storm water into the garden By June 15, the plants were beginning to grow. Winter and summer squash initially grew very fast Winter and summer squash initially grew very fast The corn in the foreground took much longer to sprout than normal. These tomato plants grew rapidly from the beginning. Yellow squash and egg plant
(Test of terracing, biochar, urine fertilizer, beans & corn and virgin-woodland soil)
Site preparation – I had originally planned for this experiment to also study slash and burn agriculture. However, when I went online to get an outdoor burning permit from the State Forestry Division, I discovered there was a outdoor burning ban in effect that was issued by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. Metropolitan Atlanta is subject to federal clean air standards. Atlanta’s air is not improving significantly. The state added the mountain counties, which are mostly national forest, to metropolitan Atlanta in 2011, so the average air quality would appear to the feds to show an improvement.
Burning of detritus over a garden plot kills weed seeds, severely damages roots of original vegetation, kills fungal spores, adds minerals to the soil and makes the soil more alkaline. This step was not possible.
This experimental garden was particular significant because it matched environmental conditions and solar orientation of the Track Rock Gap terrace complex in Union County, GA. A major unanswered question about Track Rock Gap is the motivation for expending a great amount of labor to build stone retaining walls for agricultural terraces, when there was an abundance of fertile, river bottomlands along nearby Brasstown Creek, the Nottely River and the Hiwassee River.
As soon as the remaining large trees were cut down, I began building timber retaining walls and cutting into the slope. Ten terraces were created. After the cut and fill process was completed, I turned the soil up and mixed it. I then dug an irrigation system that channeled water washing down the slope above the garden into a ditch and then slowly distributed the water in a zigzag ditch pattern down the slope of the garden. All work in the garden was done with a spade, mattock and hoe. No mechanical tiller was utilized before or during the growth of the garden.
The soil in the planter beds contained a high percentage of woodland humus, from decades of forest growth. The location had never been cultivated but until the 1940s had been used as pasture. I located two areas on the slope where there were significant concentrations of charcoal in the soil. This was probably from burn piles. This biochar soil was dug up and distributed along most of the terraces. In July I also began dumping the ashes and partially burned coals from my charcoal grill on the bean plants. This caused a dramatic effect on their growth rates.
Planting – Because of the late date that I was able to start the garden, I initially elected to buy commercially potted yellow squash, tomato, eggplant, pumpkin and water melon plants from Ace Hardware, Wal-Mart and Home Depot in Dahlonega, GA. The Ace Hardware plants were from a local nursery. They never showed signs of contamination by fungi or insect eggs. The Wall-Mart and Home Depot plants were from Bonnie Plants, Inc. and grown in southeaster Alabama.
The cantaloupe plants from Bonnie were infected when I bought them, and died after a couple of weeks. The yellow squash and pumpkin plants were also from Bonnie. They all eventually succumbed to a parasitic fungus, but did produce edible fruit first. The tomato plants grew rapidly, but then, without warning, caterpillars hatched near the roots of two plants, climbed up the stalks and almost devastated them. All tomatoes from one romano plant were infected with a mold on their tips and had to be discarded. The other romano tomato plant was adjacent to the diseased one and came from the same source. Its fruit never showed sign of the disease. This is a sure sign that the disease arrived in the potted plant itself.
On May 15 I planted 40 corn seeds, 40 bean seeds, two squash plants, 8 tomato plants of 6 varieties and an eggplant on the first two completed terraces. The bean seeds were planted about a foot from the corn seeds. This is a Creek Indian agricultural tradition. As more terraces were completed pumpkin plants, three types of winter squash, several varieties of peas and beans and gourd sees were planted. Planting of terraces were completed on June 6.
Fertilizer, water and insecticides – Extensive use of urine fertilizer and some composted horse manure was used on the garden. There were long drought periods in late May and June. During late June, the highest temperatures ever recorded in the region occurred over a period of nine days, reaching 104 degrees. This heat wave killed most of the gardens in the area. I watered the plants in the evening with a hose. No plants died in this garden directly from the heat. None of the plants were permanently stunted from the heat, as was the case in other gardens in the community.
There was no evidence of insect activity until the mid-June drought appeared. Looper caterpillars, whose eggs were in the commercial planting soil of the cabbage plants, suddenly hatched, and almost devoured several of the cabbages. Sevin insecticide was sprinkled on the cabbage. This killed the parasitic caterpillars, but more hatched to climb up the stocks. Many of the cabbage leaves were riddled with holes. The looper caterpillars were not a problem at the other two garden sites described earlier in this article. After nine days of rain in mid-July another species of caterpillar suddenly appeared on one tomato plant and almost devoured it in one night. Sevin also got rid of this pest, but the plant never recovered fully.
Initial growth rates – Many corn seeds did not sprout, and those that did were several days later than normal. I don’t know if the problem was “old seeds” or a growth inhibiter in the soil. In general, the germination of seeds took much longer than normal. There was adequate rainfall during the period. The plants that did sprout grew very slowly for two weeks then began to accelerate. Only one of the first batches of bean seeds sprouted. There was apparently something in the soil that inhibited germination and initial growth of domesticated plants.
While the pumpkin and cantaloupe plants from Wal-Mart grew slow, the yellow squash and watermelon plants grew fast. The sweet peas were very slow to sprout and initially grew very slowly. Several did not sprout at all. I replanted the crowder and purple hull peas around the corn. This time they sprouted quickly and thrived.
Midseason growth rates – Four green bean plants that were planted as seeds in mid-May produced a large crop during the third week of June. Normally, green beans in Georgia produce one crop and die in mid-summer. However, these plants went to dormancy for about a month, then began growing again.
A severe drought and heat wave struck Georgia in late June. There were five days in which record all time high temperatures were recorded in the Dahlonega area. where this garden is located. The all time highs went from 98 to 104 before the drought ended. About 90% of the young winter squash fruits fell off the vines during the heat wave, but the plants remained healthy.
Both commercially potted cantaloupe plants died in late June. Those that were started from seeds thrived. The yellow squash, eggplant and watermelon plants continued to grow at an accelerating rate. I began eating yellow squash from the garden exactly a month after they were planted. After I had pulled weeds, tree sprouts and Muscadine grape sprouts out of the terraces three times, the remainder of the garden exploded in growth. Even though the corn instantly grew more in one week than the previous six, it was always somewhat stunted.
After a period of nine days of rain, white spots appeared on all the squash and pumpkin plants that I had purchased from either Wal-Mart or Home Depot. It was a systemic fungal infection. According to the county agricultural extension office, this disease often exists in the soil of commercial nurseries, if they do not properly sterilize it. The cost of eliminating the fungus while a plant is mature exceeds the value of its fruit, if it even can be done at all. Such treatments risk putting toxic chemicals into the pumpkins.
The original pumpkin and yellow squash plants from commercial containers died during the last week of July because of the parasitic fungus. However, whereas all portions of the pumpkin plants died, the yellow squash plants established healthy satellite plants outside the area where the fungus was active. They continued to produce normal squashes.
In contrast, the winter squash, pumpkin, gourd and cantaloupe plants that started as seeds, continued to thrive and grow very fast. On July 24, 2012 one Coushaw squash vine grew 18 inches longer in 24 hours!
During late July, whatever had inhibited growth of pea and bean plants, suddenly stopped having an effect. All types of beans and peas suddenly began growing rapidly. These plants grew more in the last two weeks of July than in the previous two months. Their growth accelerated in August, even though weather was hot and rain inadequate.
The tomatoes began ripening in mid-July. Even though they were planted at the same time of year as those in the Town Creek garden and in vastly more fertile soil, the energy of the plant was put mostly into vegetative growth until July. All of the plants grew at least six feet high.
Late growing season – Ears of the various varieties of corn plants developed during the last two weeks of July. They began maturing in early August. The corn ears were small, but very sweet. The green bean plants produced a second crop that was larger than the first in early August.
It is interesting how the various tentacles and vines of competing plants interrelate. The two most aggressive plants are the coushaw squash and bottle gourd. Once the commercially potted pumpkin plants had died from the parasitic fungus, coushaw squash and bottle guard vines entered these locations and began sending roots into the rotted pumpkin vine detritus. The new occupants of these location show no signs of the parasitic fungus.
After the high heat and drought, the members of the squash and pumpkin family began flowering again, to replace the fruits that dropped off during the record hot days. As result there were will be two distinct crops of winter squash, pumpkins and gourds. The first fruits will be ready for picking by late August, while the majority of fruits will not be mature until late September, unless an early frost in September kills them.
The eggplant fruit began maturing during the last week in July. One eggplant produced seven full-sized fruits. Apparently, the decomposed leaves and tree fibers in woodland soils are ideal for this plant.
During the last week in July something unexpected happened. Beginning in the second week of July I had been sprinkling ashes and coals from my charcoal grill over soil around beans and peas. After a heavy rain washed the ashes into the soil, the beans and peas suddenly began growing rapidly. The crowder and purple hull pea vines grew at least 12 inches a day, even though growing conditions were less than desirable.
- Terracing enables a farmer to control, store and channel large volumes of storm water run-off. Intermittent ditches fill with alluvial soil during the spring and then become havens for moisture loving plants in mid-summer.
- The side-shaded western orientation of the garden had no appreciable effect on the ultimate size of the plants, other than corn (maize.) Some species such as Coushaw squash and some beans possibly grew larger because of the orientation.
- The planting of climbing bean vines next to corn stalks worked very well. The ears of sweet corn were almost ready to harvest before the tentacles of the bean vines began wrapping around the stalks.
- The retaining walls of the terraces shaded the bases of plants during a period of extreme heat and drought, enabling them to recover at night.
- Varying amounts of side-shade caused individual plants to mature at different dates, thus extending the availability of vegetables and fruits over a longer period. This is a great advantage if the garden is being primary grown for household consumption. Modern varieties of corn apparently need longer hours of sunshine in order to reach maximum height. Apparently, the river bottom lands near Track Rock Gap were more desirable locations for growing corn that the terraces.
- Terracing enables farmers to adjust the fertilization, soil chemistry and texture more precisely to the particular needs of specific plants than is typical in open field cultivation today.
- Charcoal and ash seems to be the most effective fertilizer for legumes if they are planted in fertile soil.
- Corn must receive a large infusion of nutrients in addition to the nitrates and other minerals naturally occurring in urine fertilizer.
- Members of the tomato and squash-pumpkin family show the most positive response to urine fertilizer. The squash-pumpkin family also seems to thrive in recently cleared land.
- The very poor performance and contamination of mass-produced potted vegetables suggests that if gardeners need to buy pre-potted vegetables, they best go to a local nursery that is more careful with protection of their plants from pests and fungal parasites that than large commercial operations. Before this terrace garden can be used again for members of the squash and pumpkin family, it must be thoroughly disinfected of parasitical mold spores.
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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.
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