The “America Unearthed” garden . . . five years later
In the opening scenes of the 2012 premier of the History Channel’s America Unearthed, host Scott Wolter, drives up to a mysterious hovel of a cabin. One hears a strange animal sound coming from a newly cleared terrace garden. You are not told that it is a giant black skink lizard that is only supposed to live in Maya country, but thrives in the section of the Georgia Mountains, where strange stone ruins are found. That little garden has expanded into a mini-farm and gotten oh so fertile. We can thank the biochar agricultural techniques of the Itza Mayas and peoples of the Amazon Basin.
Since Bonnie’s Plants, Inc. have gained a complete monopoly over potted plants sold at Walmarts, Home Depots and garden supply stores around much of the United States, Gulf Coast plant diseases have spread exponentially across the nation’s landscape. The Southeast Alabama mega-corporation probably means well, but with such a massive volume of potted vegetables and flowers being delivered nationally each week, it is quite easy for parasitic fungi, bacteria, insects and worms to become quickly established in a region, where they traditionally were never a problem. In some areas, it is becoming futile to grow members of the squash and tomato families, unless one plans to spend more money on fungicides and nematacides than the vegetables would cost in the supermarket.
It was a different world when my generation marched off to mountain farmsteads, singing John Denver songs and listening to hammer dulcimer music. If you were growing a garden in a remote rural area away from large scale agriculture, there was very little need for agricultural chemicals other than fertilizer and lime. The birds, toads, lizards and praying mantises ate virtually all the predatory insects.
The soil in our North Carolina Mountain garden was so fertile that we only needed lime to get bumper crops of all manner of vegetables. Squash and tomato plants bore fruit until frost. Our sweet corn was 10-14 feet tall. No one would have known what a Japanese beetle, stinkbug or Mexican bean beetle was. Bugs might come at night and nibble a few leaves, but no serious damage was done.
Agricultural myths, promoted by archaeologists, which the People of One Fire has busted in the past five years
(1) The ancestors of the Creeks grew massive, continuous fields of corn near towns.
No! Families in large towns were assigned individual plots of land to grow many vegetables, including corn. Generally, families were assigned several small plots, so they would have access to a variety of soil conditions. The plots were surveyed precisely in late winter by professional town planners-surveyors, called talliya, and assigned prior to the first planting of seeds. The agricultural lands were weeded and hoed by communal teams of women and children, but individual families harvested their own plots. Most of the Creeks’ ancestors, though, lived in the small villages and farmsteads of the Piedmont. There cultivated fields were more dispersed at locations, where the soil was especially fertile.
(2) Georgia’s 12+ terrace complexes were built by the Cherokees for performing sacred dances and burial places for great chiefs.
No! These were all agricultural complexes, built by the ancestors of the Itsate (Hitchiti) Creeks. Itsate is the Itza Maya word for themselves, but in Georgia they were the mixed heritage descendants of Izta Mayas and indigenous Muskogeans. The Cherokees were nowhere around, when these massive projects were constructed. The Cherokees were primarily hunter-gatherers until the 1700s.
Plants that thrived in woodsy, well-drained soils, such as beans, winter squash, yaupon holly, peppers and copal were grown on the terraces. Corn, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke and pumpkins were grown in the bottom lands. Members of the bean family, whose packages said that they should grown about 36″ tall, grow up to 12 feet tall in the Magic Terrace Garden. This year’s tomato plants are 7 1/2 feet tall. The vines must be supported by tree saplings, cut from the nearby woods.
(3) Native Americans grew corn, beans, squash and pumpkin together in their fields.
No, mixing of crops was done experimentally in the 19th century by white agronomists. Someone started this “urban legend” at that time. Corn requires very different soil conditions than beans and squash. Without full sunshine, beans and squash have stunted growth and eventually rot. All these plants would compete with each other for nutrients.
A much better agricultural practice was recommended by POOF’s own agricultural scientist, Dr. Ray Burden, from the University of Tennessee. Rotate your crops each year so that plants, which have a heavy demand for nitrogen can benefit from the previous nitrogen-fixing traits of bean roots.
Oh have the times changed!
These days, gardeners in the Southeastern United States feel fortunate to get a week of tomatoes or squash before either nematodes (worms) destroy the roots of the plants or fungi cause the leaves to wilt away to nothing. Gardens die from massive fungal and insect attacks in early July when they used to be productive till early September or later. For conventional gardeners, early summer garden disasters can only be prevented nowadays by spending large sums of money on insecticides and fungicides. Most have already purchased a $400 to $1200 tiller. When one calculates the total cost of growing the vegetables, these conventional gardeners are spending probably 3 times more to produce vegetables than they would cost retail in the supermarket . . . not to mention that the vegetables probably have just as much chemicals in them as commercial produce. If they wanted exercise, it would have been far cheaper for the gardeners to have gone hiking every day.
Squash species at the Magic Terrace Garden
Perhaps readers should understand. Because of a very modest income in our Post Economic Apocalypse society, I must grow much of what I eat year round in order to survive. This is serious business, not a hobby. I can’t afford a tiller, so I use only hand tools to “plow” and cultivate the terraces. It is absolutely necessary that the soil be soft enough to be worked with hand tools.
The garden being cultivated now is approximately six times the size of the garden shown to viewers in the premier of “America Unearthed.” Beginning in the spring of 2012, I progressively cleared an entanglement scrub trees, wild grape vines, thorny smilax vines, wild blackberries and Virginia creeper vines from the side of a slope at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Terraces were created by stacking tree trunks and sculpting the soil with a shovel, pick and wheel barrel. Each year, I have poured all my composted weeds, wood ashes and organic kitchen waste on the terraces. This is know as biochar agriculture. Two thousand years ago, it turned the sterile soil of the Amazon Basin into black terra preta, which could support a dense population and an advanced civilization. Three hundred years later, the Itza Mayas began using the same techniques to convert their mountainous land of Chiapas, into the “breadbasket” of Maya civilization.
The location is near the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. The orientation and soil of the garden are identical to that of the Track Rock Terrace Complex. The mid-summer daily high and low temperatures are slightly higher at the Magic Garden, while the garden’s location averages 10 more inches of precipitation a year than gardens today near Track Rock Gap.
During the first three years of the garden’s cultivation, I purchased squash plants from a local garden supply store. It didn’t really matter where I bought the plants. The only potted starter vegetable plants available in the county were grown by Bonnie’s Plants in Alabama and shipped there weekly.
Three years in a row, the yellow squash plants grew vigorously until they started bearing fruit. I would pick squash for a few days as the leaves started a white powder on them. The squash would not last long in the refrigerator before molding. By the end of the first week in July, the squash plants were near death. The roots were coated in nematodes and the leaves were eaten away by mold. Pretty much the same thing happened with the tomato plants.
The situation with winter squash varieties such as butternut, acorn and Cushaw, was worse. Their leaves wilted with white mold then died just after the fruits first appeared.
In 2016, I did not buy any starter plants. During the winter I built two new terraces for the varies types of squash. As part of the biochard soil improvement techniques, wood ashes were mixed in with the terrace soil. I planted seeds in starter trays after the last frost. Then when the ground was warm enough, I transplanted the seedlings. The yellow squash plants lasted about a month longer, but eventually succumbed to mold growing on the leaves . . . despite the fact we were in a drought and the humidity was low.
The good news was that there were no nematodes on the roots. Evidently, they were being introduced by worm eggs in Bonnie’s Plants potting soil. For the first time I was able to grow a large crop of butternut squash, but could have grown more. Unfortunately, the mold killed most of the leaves on the butternut squash plants by mid-August. Most of the squash did not rot, but did not grow much larger. No new squash budded either.
Applying ancient farming techniques of the Creek Indians
Over the past few years I have read repeated accounts from men, who visited the land of the Creeks and Seminoles in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. Most of the Seminole and all of the Miccosukee ancestors lived in the Southern Appalachians. So early accounts in Northeast Georgia are equally applicable to these Florida residents today and to the Itsate (Hichiti) Creeks, who remained in the Upcountry.
Repeatedly, one hears descriptions of the squash patches being on newly cleared and burned land next to the edges of forests . . . not in the river bottom lands. In fact, many of the explorers mentioned seeing “sweet” squash vines crawling up tree trunks and over the charred remnants of cut down trees. These people intentionally planted crops on landscapes, recently scarred by fires.
Obviously, the Native peoples back then could not afford to lose crops to molds and certainly did not have access to nematacides. The landscape in central and southern Florida was swampy . . . ideal locations for fungi and small worms to be endemic. Yet all the explorers commented on how healthy the cultivated plants looked. The trade secret of these farmers seemed to be the harsh burning of lands designated for cultivation. Apparently, the heat from the fires killed all fungi spore and worm eggs. It was worth a try.
During the winter of 2016-2017, I did not rake up the leaves, which had piled up on the terraces. On sunny winter days, I cut away the vines with a machete and sawed down the scrub trees. These were piled over the area where I planned to build a new terrace just for grown winter and summer squash plants. In mid-March 2016, the pile of debris was dry enough to burn. I ignited the bonfire then afterward began burning sections of the other terraces. The coals of the bonfire and scorched earth was then sculpted into two more terraces.
The amazing results
This growing season, there have been no crawling insect predators in the garden. The late winter leaf fires killed all their eggs and larva. There have been some Japanese beetles, who fly in from elsewhere. However, the lack of a local population made possible their almost complete eradication, using a trap.
The big test involved the squash plants. Always before, white mold began appearing on the squash leaves by the end of the fist week in July . . . more often in late June. So far, it is July 18th and no evidence of mold has appeared on the squash leaves. I already have about 20% more butternut squashes than last year . . . and the vines are still growing and blooming. Things are LOOKING GOOD!
Now if someone could only tell me how to bloodlessly get rid of that young male bear, who keeps stopping by my corn patch every night around 4 AM. It is bad enough that he munches on a couple of ears of corn as he is passing by . . . but he also upsets my three herd dogs, who come into my bedroom to make sure I am irreversibly awake, before going back to sleep themselves for three more hours! The female plops down on the empty side of the bed to reassure me that the bear won’t get her.
And now . . . this essay’s official theme song:
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