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Larry Sagers
Beans were one of the Three Sisters cultivated in Native American Gardens when Europeans arrived in this country (3).jpg

While 1620 stands out in most people's minds as the first Thanksgiving where the Native Americans and the Europeans shared a feast, that is only a very small part of the story. We are indebted to these people for much of the food we eat.

Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac are authors of a most interesting book titled "Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families."

It is not just a history of gardening but it contains fascinating stories of how they worked with nature to create these wonderful gardens.

There are growing instructions for native crops, songs the Native Americans sang as they ground their corn and tips on how to bring this book to life in your garden. There are even numerous recipes to enjoy after you harvest your produce.

I have written previously about the three sisters of corn, beans and squash. While those were featured at the Pilgrims' feast, Native Americans had an amazing range of crops. The Mayans grew more than 80 crops on their farms in Central America.

I asked Caduto what prompted him to do the extensive research required and why he wanted to write this book.

He responded, "I had been writing about and experimenting with traditional Native American gardening practices for years. I wanted to create a simple guide for kids and families to use for growing a historically accurate Native American garden.

"In addition to the Hidatsa garden culture techniques and plans in the book, I spent two years visiting the historic Wampanoag garden site at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Over time, I got to know some of the Native Americans working at that site, and they generously shared the specific methods for growing their traditional garden of corn, beans and squash."

The Plimoth Plantation is a re-creation of the Pilgrim settlement and features gardens that the Native Americans created while teaching the immigrants how to grow crops in the harsh New England weather.

I asked Caduto to share some of his suggestions for people who are interested in trying Native American gardening techniques.

He responded, "Think of the garden as an extension of the natural world, and use ecologically sound growing practices. Healthy soil and proper growing practices produce healthy plants that yield well and are naturally resistant to damage from insects and diseases.

"Remember to plant an extra measure of each crop for the critters to munch on, so you'll still have enough for you, your family and friends to eat at harvest time. Be patient and keep notes on what does and doesn't work so that you can improve on each growing season."

His writing is not just based on what others have told him. He preaches what he practices.

"I practiced growing the Wampanoag and Hidatsa gardens at home for two gardening seasons before I was able to get the timing of planting, and the spacing of plants correct.

"It's very important to make sure the mounds are properly spaced, and that the corn has grown to be 'hand high' before planting the bean seeds — otherwise, the beans will overtake the corn and smother it."

Part of the reason he and his coauthor wrote the book was to help promote interest in their own food producing gardens. He has been following a definite trend. "More and more people are interested in being as self-sufficient as possible. Homegrown food that is cultivated ecologically tastes better and is more nutritious.

"Many people also want to use their garden to explore alternative ways of growing vegetables, and new ways of relating to both the natural and cultivated worlds. Gardeners who are interested in Native American gardening tend to be passionate, knowledgeable and grounded people who love to have their hands in the soil, as a way of caring for Mother Earth."

Caduto does not stop with just telling the history and how to grow the plants. He takes it a step further. "All of the recipes in the book can be made using the foods grown with the garden plans described in the book.

"The meals are simple, easy to make and absolutely delicious. After you've had a nice meal, your family can have fun using corn husks, gourds and other parts of garden crops to make crafts, birdhouses and lots of other creative projects."

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As we give thanks this wonderful season, let's be thankful for those who originally cared for this land. Many of the foods that grace our table are ones they discovered, cultivated and improved over the centuries, long before that first Thanksgiving feast. This book will give you a better appreciation for and help you enjoy how to replicate their contribution in your garden.

Garden tips

"Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families," by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac, is published by Fulcrum Press.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.