Gardening advice from indigenous food growers

Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020

Covid19 has been an additional stressor on many Native American communities already burdened by deprivations from centuries of ongoing injustice. According to Julie Garreau, project coordinator of Cheyenne River Youth Project, which operates a 2.5-acre youth garden in South Dakota, gardens are a source of both food and healing. “Gardens represent so much more,” she said. “Food, yes, but a belief in our future. Gardens represent resiliency, strength, wellness, culture.” During the pandemic, the Youth Project delivered garden produce and other foods to the homes of Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation children.

Another youth-focused gardening organization is Dream of Wild Health. Based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, this Native-led organization operates a 30-acre biodiverse suburban farm that supplies food, learning experiences, and the chance to reconnect with nature. Kids learn cooking and seed saving, and student interns called Garden Warriors help grow food. Due to Covid19, workshops moved online, with the organization delivering ingredients to kids’ homes and then leading them in an online cooking class.  

“Working in a garden develops your relationship to the land,” says Aubrey Skye, a Hunkpapa Lakota gardener who for many years ran a gardening program on Standing Rock Reservation on the border of North and South Dakota. “Our ancestors understood that. Look at the old pictures. It’s etched on their faces. When you understand it as well, a sense of scarcity and insecurity transforms into a feeling of abundance and control—something we all need these days.”

Some tips from the gardeners mentioned in this article:

  1. Start small if you’re a beginner (in a few pots or a raised bed).
  2. Favor companion planting. (“Look at nature, and figure out combinations that mimic it,” recommends Traditional Native American Farmers Association Director Clayton Brascoupé.)
  3. Embellish your garden with colorful native flowers to attract and nourish pollinators.
  4. Use rocks to keep crops cozy and supported; rocks act as heat sink and can protect seedlings from early frost.
  5. Reuse discarded materials – you’ll get for free while building a network in the collection process: mulch with used cardboard and paper; create drip irrigation from soda pop bottles pierced with a needle at the neck, fill with water then bury the neck in the soil close to the plant.
  6. Make compacted soil soft and plant friendly using dandelions, a supposed weed with nutritional value, whose taproot breaks up hardened soil enabling earthworm activity.
  7. Include healing herbs, especially native varieties.
  8. Save the seeds of the plants that thrive best and are favorites, which not only enables future food supply, but also, as Aubrey Skye says, preserves history like little time capsules.
For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 4 Number 1 July 2020