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Lower Nottely River Basin

garden 11-7-11

November 7, 2011 the future garden site was hard packed clay that was so infertile that grass would not grow on it.

This medium size garden was on a terrace overlooking the Nottely River Valley in northern Union County, GA about ½ miles south of the North Carolina line. The general terrain is rolling and part of a plateau surrounded on all sides by major mountain ranges. However, the actual garden site was almost perfectly flat.

Approximately, 500 feet west of the garden are three agricultural terraces with ancient stone walls, identical in appearance to those at Track Rock Gap. There are also apparent ditches and stone cairns. No archaeological investigation has been done here. A Native American town (9UN2) site was identified by Robert Wauchope about 1/2 mile to the west of the garden. It contained Swift Creek, Etowah 1 and Lamar Culture components. The Etowah I occupation was contemporary with the Track Rock Gap terraces (c. 1000 AD – 1200 AD.)

The soil of the Lower Nottely River Valley is composed of multiple layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks that include sandstone, mudstone, shale, marble, conglomerate and quartzite. Within the garden area were several pockets of pure, white, powdered calcium carbonate that were the product of decomposed marble. As a result these areas of sub-soil were alkaline. Other areas were decomposed sandstone, while others were dense red clay. Apparently, the starkly different soil types had once been in vertical layers, but extensive folding had resulted in horizontal bands. Virtually all top soil had been stripped off the garden site by a subdivision developer. The subdivision subsequently went bankrupt in 2008.

Northern Union County gets substantially less rain that southern Union County. It is hotter and prone to moderate drought conditions in mid-summer. Total precipitation is probably around 52 inches because the Blairsville Airport, seven miles to the north averages 58 inches. Many times the southern edge of Union County will not receive snowfall when the Town Creek area does. On several occasions in the winter of 2011-2012 the Lower Nottely River Valley only snow flurries, when the Upper Nottely River Valley had 3-5 inches of snow.

On April 29, picture perfect vegetables were thriving. The broccoli plants produced food throughout April. The mixture of sandy sub-soil and biochar looks infertile, but it was almost magic. Absolute no insecticide was applied to protect these perfect vegetables. Onions and spinach were very slow in sprouting, but soon began to grow quickly
The potatoes were zapped twice by late frosts, but ended up being very productive.

(Test of sandy subsoil, biochar soil, natural calcium carbonate and raised planting beds)

Site preparation – In mid-November of 2011 a front end loader dug up the compacted sub-soil revealing hundreds of stones, some quite large. At that time I begin building a retaining wall on one side, while hauling top soil mixed with charcoal from an old tree burning site on the property. Rectangular raised planting beds were created with sod retaining walls. The thickness of the biochar soil varied from 3-8 inches. Pure calcium carbonate, dug out of the garden area, was sprinkled over areas that were to contain members of the cabbage family.

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.

Planting – All pre-potted plants came from a local nursery in Union County, GA that supplies Ace Hardware in Blairsville, GA. The pots were fungus and insect free. All plants were extremely healthy, fast-growing and productive.

On March 3 I began planting members of the cabbage family that included 8 cabbage plants (3 varieties,) 12 broccoli plants, 12 collard plants and 6 brussel sprouts plants. At this time I sowed spinach and snow pea seeds. Two weeks later I planted 50 onion seedlings. The next week I planted 50 potato starter sprouts.

Fertilizer, water and insecticides – No chemical or urine fertilizer was used on the garden. No insect pests appeared in the garden. No insecticides were necessary. Rabbits periodically ate some lower collards and cabbage leaves. It was not possible to irrigate the garden, since the outside faucet had been damaged by grading equipment.

Initial growth rates -The plants grew very slowly for two weeks then began to accelerate. The broccoli grew very fast. By April 1, broccoli florets were maturing. I ate broccoli regularly in April. The collards grew at a phenomenal rate throughout April, while the brussel sprouts were slower. The spinach plants grew very little until black biochar soil was spread over the bed. Then their growth accelerated.

The snow peas were very slow to sprout and grew very slowly in the sandy soil. Adding biochar soil did not help their growth rate.

The potatoes sprouted normally and were growing rapidly until hit by a heavy frost in late April. All plants re-sprouted after about 10 days, but then were hit with a light frost on April 8. They recovered quickly and were growing rapidly by the third week in April. The onions grew very slowly in March, but by mid-April began growing rapidly.

Midseason growth rates – I begin eating mature broccoli on March 25, when the plants were three weeks old. By the end of April, some collards and cabbage were mature enough to harvest. While the sandy, alkaline soil seemed to encourage rapid growth of the cabbage family in the early spring, it was very vulnerable to drought conditions.

I moved away on the last day of April. The owner of the adjacent property did not weed the garden, but began harvesting some mature vegetables as they came ready. A severe, all time record-breaking heat wave struck the Lower Nottely Valley in late June. Temperatures ran from 99 to 105 for five days. The garden was not watered. Most of the plants died at that time.


  • Adding biochar soil to sterile sub-soil impacts some vegetables more than others.
  • The cabbage, potatoes and broccoli thrived in the mixture of biochar soil and sandy, alkaline soil. The cabbages were the most perfect I had ever seen.
  • An alkaline, sandy sub-soil is not desirable for most summer vegetables grown in the Southern Highlands because it cannot hold moisture. If adequate irrigation is possible, this might not be a problem. However, if the red clay, sandy soil and biochar were mixed together, the garden would probably be more resistant to high heat or lack of rainfall.
  • The sandy soil would have probably been entirely wrong for such indigenous plants as corn, beans and squash. These plants prefer heavier soils with more nutrients and nitrates in them. Also, tomatoes, peppers and egg plants thrive in acidic soils.
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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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