Native Americans, like many other ancient civilisations, were clued in on the inner-workings of nature. They found ways to harmonise with it, taking advantage of biological cycles and utilising astute observation to make abundance seem almost fortuitous. But, it wasn’t all luck. Sometimes colonisers simply didn’t (and still don’t) recognise the guiding hand behind these highly productive, innately cooperative systems that were in place when they arrived. We continue to pay a price for that oversight today, and our payments may have only just begun.
One of the reasons permaculture is such an appealing methodology for creating sustainable homes, gardens, and lifestyles in the modern world is that it so often harkens back to ancient techniques, adopting the logic behind them whilst imbuing them with today’s technological advancements. In this interplay between bygone ingenuity and mechanical diggers, wells of inspiration spring forth for innovative design that keeps us comfortable and, at the same time, emboldens nature to put forth its best work on our behalf.
With that in mind, perhaps now—amidst Pacific Coast wildfires, cues of hurricanes in the Atlantic, and a pandemic putting the brakes on consume-it-all capitalism—is a good time to revisit what was happening in the gardens of North America a few hundred years ago, before colonisation. Maybe we don’t want to live exactly that way today, minus the internet and all that good stuff, but maybe there are some answers for today’s problems that were overlooked back then.
Often noted as perhaps the most productive and sustainable agricultural system the world has ever seen, chinampas were an Aztec technique (adopted from an earlier civilization they conquered), and essentially Mexico City is fed by what used to be incredibly soggy swampland. Chinampas were a clever method of converting very difficult land, agriculturally speaking, like this into multiple layers of production that continually renewed itself.
What they did was took low-lying wet land and dug canals through it, piling the sides of the canals with alternating levels of mud and decaying vegetation excavated during the process. The canals were used for fish and aquatic plants, and the very fertile “floating islands”, about four meters wide and whatever length made sense, had diverse crop plants growing on them, as well as over the channels between them.
The canals were periodically dredged to keep the waterways deep enough for canoes and the land fertile from the rich silt added to the garden beds. In addition to providing aquatic production, the canals functioned as a network of transportation for harvesting and tending to the chinampas. It requires much less energy, be it human-power or engine-driven, to float crops to their destination rather than move them over land.
The Three Sisters
Probably the most recognisable technique in Native American gardening is “the three sisters” or milpa, a Native American take on what is now called companion planting. This annual plant guild involves corn, beans, and squash. Under (and above) the surface, these three plants are working in harmony, with beans providing nitrogen for fertiliser, squash providing ground-cover for weed suppression, and corn providing a trellis for the bean vines to climb to get more sun. Ultimately, the combination yields a rich mix of nutrients for human consumption.
Rather than growing mono-crop fields of each of these, which degrades the land and ultimately causes erosion issues, the trio grown together improves production and maintains fertility. Furthermore, they were grown on small, fertile, well-draining mounds built of organic material (separate raised beds, basically) rather than bare rows of tilled earth. The mounds were continually reinvigorated with organic matter, humanure, and so on. Increasing the overall yield, the spaces between and surrounding the mounds were also cultivated with Jerusalem artichoke, amaranth, flowers, and other crops.
Similarly, small “no-dig” beds were commonly built to growing both annual and perennial crops, like the aforementioned Jerusalem artichoke, in available clearings. These beds were kept fertile by composting crop plants and other stuff in troughs within the beds, no compost bin necessary. This technique continually gives back to the garden so that it can produce higher yields.
Up to about century ago (the early 1900s), the vast forests stretching from Maine to Florida and west to the Mississippi River, were home to billions of chestnut trees. They comprised about a quarter of all trees in the forest. Obviously, these trees produced huge quantities of food each year, the chestnuts used for human consumption as well as feed for wildlife (hunted for human consumption) and domesticated animals. Then, an imported chestnut tree from Asia introduced the America chestnut to a parasitic fungus, and they were all but erased from the forests they once dominated.
Studies have shown that Native Americans in the Northeast US gently swayed often visited or occupied sections of forest to have certain trees and plants with edible (and useful) output, such as the American pawpaw, persimmons, honey locusts, elderberries, oaks, and chestnuts. In essence, they were growing food forests to make foraging something much more akin to harvesting. Of course, many of these same species were attractive to birds and mammals that would were part of the Native American diet as well.
Some of the indigenous forest management methods are now being revisited. The Ancient Maya of Southern Mexico and Central America also cultivated tropical food forests, and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, is re-instituting the technique. Native American techniques for controlling forest fires are now being revisited, and this carefully managed burning was used both on the East and West coast, both for preventing fires and cultivating bio-diverse stands of valuable trees (not monoculture fields).
Along with Chinampas, though completely different in design, Hawaii’s ahupua’a gardens were amongst the most productive in history. Rather than working with a swampy landscape, native Hawaiians developed agricultural systems that functioned sustainably on the slopes of volcanoes. These set-ups included forestry, forest gardens, freshwater fish ponds, staple crops, and ocean cultivation.
In general, ahupua’a were established in a pie shape, encapsulating a watershed area along the side of a volcano, moving down into the lowland slopes and all the way out to the coast. The unstable, upper slopes were planted with trees and left largely wild. Below there, forest gardens for goods like timber and medicine were cultivated. Lower still, gardens, stream-fed ponds, and homes dotted the gentle slopes that stretched from the foot of the volcano to the ocean. The system was a careful mix meant to provide safe, sustainable living on remote islands.
The ahupua’a largely disappeared with the introduction of US and British plantation bent on growing sugarcane for exporting. Lawyers and businessmen founded the Hawaiian League and systematically acquired most of the islands’ arable lands. Sanford B. Dole, of the Dole Fruit company, was part of this group and instrumental in toppling the Kingdom of Hawaii, as well as having the islands annexed as US territories for tax exemptions. Sustainable agriculture transitioned into exploitive practices and now all the way to GMO test sites.
Ancient Gardens of North America Re-imagined
This short list only begins to explore the interesting and useful techniques for food cultivation that Native Americans employed. The wild rice paddies around the Great Lakes region provided staple food for the Ojibwe people for centuries, replanting themselves each year as the grains were harvested. Ancestral Pueblo people from arid regions of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah knew to farm in canyons rather than out in the open, utilizing cold sinks and natural water routes, and they mulched with pumice stone to sponge up water when it was available. Native Americans existed in every climate, finding their own niches within the environment, and it’s from their discoveries that we might once again start benefitting from and bringing benefit to the environment.
Permaculture looks to compile these simple, effective techniques in its treasure trove of ideas and hopefully spread them across the world as old solutions to new problems. The ancient gardener, unlike today’s, wasn’t growing food for profit but rather sustenance, and that gave them an entirely different perspective on what constitutes a successful yield. Part of that perspective was that next year’s crop would come just as next decade’s and next century’s, and we have to find our way back to that mindset.