Since my home garden is tiny, I’m fortunate to have the use of a plot in a community garden a few minutes’ walk from my home. As I’ve mentioned before, the soil had been scraped off before I inherited the plot and last year I mainly focused on rebuilding. To bring the subsoil to life, I spread granulated humic acid generously before adding a thick layer of compost. In autumn, I spread a layer of leaves, topping that off with more compost. The soil is certainly improved in quality, more open and crumbly and less heavy and claylike. It both absorbs water and drains better, a sometimes challenging pair of qualities to balance. However, the weather was so uncooperative this spring that this hasn’t been a super-abundant harvesting year of anything but kale and garlic. Oh, and a fabulous purple sprouting broccoli!
The good news, of course, is that kale and garlic are staples in my kitchen. That sprouting broccoli also gave generously all last fall, through the winter and spring and into summer. Indeed, I was still picking small but delicious side shoots every week when a prolonged heat wave awoke a devastation of powdery mildew in many gardens this summer, including mine. Removing all the victims created better air circulation and the remaining kale plants are happily thriving. I love the casual abundance of my garden, which is always full of bees, and was mildly shocked to learn that some of my fellow gardeners think I’m a total slob. Actually, that makes me smile, because I realize that some people have a notion that a published garden writer MUST take after Martha Stewart, which I decidedly don’t. My garden probably (ok, definitely) shocks those who prefer tidy gardens (which I also decidedly don’t).
The Three Sisters
Listening to audio books is a favorite pastime while I’m knitting (there’s always a baby coming along), and one of the books I turn to again and again is Braiding Sweetgrass, read by the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Shortly after hearing that my garden was coming in for censure from the Tidy Patrol, the author reached the section called The Three Sisters and said this:
”For millennia, from Mexico to Montana, women have mounded up the earth and laid these three seeds in the ground, all in the same square foot of soil. When the colonists on the Massachusetts shore first saw Indigenous gardens, they inferred that the savages did not know how to farm. To their minds, a garden meant straight rows of single species, not a three-dimensional sprawl of abundance. And yet they ate their fill and asked for more, and more again.”
The Three Sisters, of course, are corn, beans and squash, which are mutually supportive. Corn provides strong stalks for beans to climb up, while squash spreads wide leaves that shade the soil, conserving moisture and discouraging weeds. Planted closely, these three crops provide far more nutrients per square foot anything else, an important point for anyone wanting to grow their own food today. Those nutrients are also relational, each benefiting from the presence of the others in the human diet to provide more complete proteins as well as vitamins and numerous phytonutrients.
As a young gardener, I was strongly influenced by Ruth Stout, who taught a generation of organic gardeners to heal the soil with deep, nutritive mulches. Ruth preferred a combination of bedding straw or salt marsh hay and autumn leaves, layering both as much as a foot or more deep, especially over poor or exhausted soil. By feeding the soil, she indirectly fed her plants, which were famously productive in her New England garden. I also took lessons from the woods and meadows around my home and across the country, where plants are closely intertwined, sharing space graciously and enduringly. That natural reciprocity creates a kind of circular economy in which resources are shared over and over to mutual benefit. When studying biodynamic and permaculture gardens, I found the same principles at work, with the return of compost and mulch to make up for what’s removed by harvesting.
The Three Sisters relationship is mutually supportive, but an additional vital element is the farmer; these three crops are no longer able to reproduce themselves lastingly without human help. That fits perfectly with what I feel about my gardens; we have a genuine relationship and it’s not all one sided. When I tend my soil and my plants, I feel tender towards them, and as I offer water on a hot, dry day, or add some organic fertilizer to a struggling plant in less than ideal soil, it’s easy to see their grateful response. Noticing my own kindly tenderness feels good, and watching my plants strengthen and flourish feels lovely too. Listening to Braiding Sweetgrass always reinforces my feeling that conventional gardening and farming is too often about control, celebrating ‘the hand of man’, and ‘getting the most out’ rather than creating a respectful, reciprocal relationship which includes appreciating and giving back. As Robin Kimmerer notes, most indigenous gardeners are women, and those relational gardens are nurtured by the hand of woman. Just like mine.