By Irene Virag
Once Native Americans lived on the land where my garden grows. They tilled the land and honored the elements—the sun, the sea, the earth and the rain. They fished in the creeks and bays, and raised crops in fields by the wigwams they built of sticks.
I think of such things when I travel the crowded highways and byways of today. And a line from a Joni Mitchell song comes to my mind: “They paved paradise; put up a parking lot.” Or the words of a minister’s son who visited my island more than four centuries ago and saw persimmons and plums, and fields dyed red with strawberries, and “an innumerable multitude of delightful flowers not only pleasing to the eye, but smell, that you may behold nature contending with art….”
The Native Americans who planted the fields of yesterday worked their soil with stone tools, and fertilized it with small fish, such as alewives and bunkers, burying the catch around their seeds. They fertilized the earth. They composted. It’s a lesson for today, when sustainable gardening is a rallying cry. You don’t need to choke your soil with chemicals.
And those Native Americans used their space wisely. They discovered the “three sisters”—they’re not a singing group but they harmonize well, and gardeners dig them. They are corn, beans and squash.
They’re good sisters. Beans replenish the nitrogen that corn sucks from the soil. Corn offers a sturdy support for the beans to latch onto. It also leaves a cozy open space for the squash to spread into a thick prickly mat that makes access harder for raiding raccoons.
Other plants help each other out. For example marigolds are everybody’s best friends when it comes to flowers and veggies. They protect roses from root nematodes, and tomatoes from whiteflies.
Herbs, such as chives and cilantro, knock out aphids. I plant nasturtiums around my beds. They make beautiful borders and trap aphids before they can do in my dahlias.
It’s common folklore that garlic repels vampires, and some experts believe it’s also good for roses because it keeps black spot and mildew at bay and enhances the queen of flowers' perfume. Maybe that’s why garlic is known in some quarters as the “stinking rose.” I have no reason to doubt garlic’s attributes, but you won’t find it in my garden because, sadly, my husband is allergic to it.
There are many other ways to stay attuned to nature. Make sure your soil is well composted in spring or fall to enrich your beds and borders for the growing season; compost is the stuff of life. Put down mulch in spring after the soil heats up. The mulch helps hold back weeds and allows the earth to retain moisture.
And do the environment a favor by rotating your crops. The same plant in the same place every year only invites trouble. Crop rotation keeps soil nutrients from being used up, and diseases from proliferating.
The simplest approach is to cultivate members of the same plant family together and rotate them as a group, with the goal of keeping them out of the same bed for three years. It’s a family matter. For instance the beetles that bother tomatoes also attack other members of the nightshade family such as potatoes. If you know carrots and celery are cousins and radishes are related to kale, you’ll stay on the pest-free path.
Another thing: Water wisely. Your best bets are a drip-irrigation system or soaker hoses. That way you won’t lose water to evaporation or runoff, and moisture will get down to the plant’s roots. Water in the morning so foliage dries before nightfall, lessening the chance of fungal diseases such as black spot. Rain gauges, rain barrels and rain chains can help too.
All of which leads me back to where I began: the people who tended their crops along the creeks and harbors of a long-gone eden. The Native Americans had deities for their beans, corn and squash. They venerated the wind and the sea and they were, in their beliefs and practices, one with the earth.
In modern parlance they gardened in sync with nature.