- Christa Nunez
The Beginning of Things: Acknowledging the Origins of Common Gardening Techniques
By Christa Núñez
Ecological Gardening & Knowledge Sharing
Have you ever been out working in your fields or kitchen garden and been disappointed in what you are seeing? Perhaps your wheat or squash has been less and less productive each year or your newly planted saplings dried out. You share what you’re noticing with a friend and ask them for their advice. They tell you a cool trick or technique that could help - maybe rotate your crops so you don’t deplete the soil of the same nutrients year after year, or water newly planted trees enough during the dry season for the first three years. You try their ideas and they work! That friend is pretty darn cool.
Likely, your friend didn’t make up the technique but participated in the age-old practice of sharing knowledge - something we all do - out of love, a desire for each other to succeed and something farmers rely on for success and to build our community. (Maybe your friend is also hoping for some of that squash when you succeed at growing it!) Sharing knowledge, while commonplace, is also an opportunity for us each to dig deep into the information we’re sharing - especially when we’re sharing something widely and attributing credit to originators of the knowledge.
An Ongoing Phenomenon: Cultural Erasure of Customs and Agricultural Traditions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color
There are practices that are so common, like composting or CSAs, it takes effort to remember where they were first practiced. When we do think about their origin, many of us assume or are told these practices were started by the folks dictating the practices widely in use on farms all around us - mainly white men - but, it’s rarely true. The fact that these two examples and so many practices are so visible from day to day has led us to take them for granted, both the technique itself and the stories of how they came to be so commonplace and so successful.
Why History and Story Matter
The Natural Farmer is making an attempt to address the faultiness of not giving credit where credit is due - of the Western practice of cultural erasure. We hope we can take part in exposing the vast sphere of knowledge and influence that Indigenous communities and People of Color have had on agriculture as we know it today and from which we benefit. These groups, from around the world, originally wrestled with these challenges, spent wakeful hours thinking of solutions, tested hypotheses in the fields and forests, did happy dances when their theories worked and created tools and language to teach community members their knowledge.
As a member of TNF’s Advisory Committee, I personally hope this paper further supports the NOFA community to have curiosity about the history of land theft, displacement, dispossession, farmworker human trafficking, labor theft, wage theft, and cultural erasure that inform the agricultural and food systems all around us - that we depend on. We know too well that getting to know the land we tend and grow things on makes us more successful as farmers and land stewards. Likewise, if we don’t develop our ability to learn the history of the origination of practice, we risk erasing cultures, of undervaluing contributions, of losing ancestral stories of thought, ritual, and practice, of repeating historical atrocities, and undermining an environment of accountability to the history that shapes today.
Here, we explore a fundamental step to uplift truth and reconciliation in ways that benefit us all. We express gratitude to the originators of the cultivation techniques that we use today, and of the knowledge and practices that have historically been used and appropriated without proper acknowledgment. The techniques listed here merely scratch the surface of the multitude of ancient techniques that are still in use widely today. This work is just the beginning. But, beginning is the only way to start.
We acknowledge the lands of the First Nations of each region of Turtle Island, what is now called the United States of America.
Here, where I am, in what is now known as Ithaca, NY, we acknowledge the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people (erroneously known as the Cayuga) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (erroneously known as the Iroquois because these were the names colonizers gave these people). On this unceded land, gardens and farms have employed a multitude of techniques that have yielded harvest after harvest.
The Origins of Common Gardening Techniques
Origin: Western Hemisphere Indigenous Peoples (those residing in the Amazon region)
What is it? Charcoal is used as a soil amendment for both carbon sequestration and soil health benefits. Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon, and can endure in soil for thousands of years.
Examples: Controlled burning within agriculture fields to enhance soil productivity in future plantings.
Origin: Africa (Egypt)
What is it? The use of conduits to bring water from one place to an area where plants are growing. It protects from famine and helps in economic development. Irrigation water improves water conditions in the soil, increases the water content of plant fibers, dissolves nutrients & makes them available to plants.
Examples: The earliest known systems of irrigation began in 6000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia where the Nile flooded for a few months each year, and the waters were diverted to ag fields.
Technique: Companion Planting
Origin: First Peoples of Turtle Island (America)
What is it? Planting diverse plant species next to one another in a garden space to reap harvest-time benefits. It boosts growth, repels pests, and improves flavor for each other, uses garden space more efficiently, letting you harvest more, and is also good for pollinators, wildlife, and soil health.
Examples: An example of this intentional use of this type of agricultural symbiosis is the three sisters: corn, beans and squash grown commonly among indigenous tribes throughout the Northeast.
Technique: Crop Rotation
Origin: Asia (Ancient Middle Eastern farmers practiced crop rotation in 6000 BC)
What is it? Planting crops in different plots each growing season. It increases soil fertility, increases crop yield, increases soil nutrients, reduces soil erosion, limits the concentration of pests and diseases, reduces the stress of weeds, improves the soil structure, and reduces pollution.
Examples: The sequence of four crops (wheat, turnips, barley and clover), included a fodder crop and a grazing crop, allowing livestock to be bred year-round.
Technique: Water Storage / Rainwater Catchment
Origin: Middle East (Bedouins) / Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island (America)
What is it? Storing water from rainfall. Uses are: Drinking and cooking, rainwater as high-quality water for human consumption, bathing and laundry, flushing toilets, watering lawns, gardens and houseplants, composting, water for wildlife, pets or livestock, outdoor ponds and water features, rinsing vegetables.
Examples: Indigenous peoples use the natural flow of mountain rainwater runoff to collect and use throughout villages.
Technique: Broad Forking
Origin: Africa. The broad fork traces its origins to similar tools which date back to ancient Egypt.
What is it? The use of a large hand-held implement with tines to aerate the soil and improve drainage. The broadfork or grelinette is a simple yet powerful gardening tool that serves the purpose of efficiently loosening soil without flipping it upside down or, thereby, damaging the soil’s internal beneficial organisms.
Examples: For new beds, use it by hopping onto it like a step and wiggling it side to side to break open the crust of the soil.
Technique: Cover Cropping
Origin: East Africa (Ethiopia)
What is it? Cover crops may be an off-season crop planted after harvesting the cash crop. A cover crop is planted to manage soil erosion, soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife in an agroecosystem—an ecological system managed and shaped by humans.
Examples of cover crops are annual ryegrass, crimson clover, oats, oil-seed radishes, and cereal rye.
Technique: Sheet Mulching / Lasagna Composting
Origin: Asia (Ancient Syria)
What is it? Sheet mulching is an agricultural no-dig/no-till gardening technique that attempts to mimic the natural soil-building process in forests. Nowadays, folks stack cardboard or newspaper, wetting layers and then put high-quality composted soil on top and plant in that. When used properly, it can generate healthy, productive, and low-maintenance ag ecosystems.
Examples: Applying cardboard with mulch on top to a lawn, a dirt lot full of perennial weeds, an area with poor soil, or even pavement or a rooftop.
Technique: Mounding, Hügelkultur
Origin: Europe (Indigenous German and Eastern European peoples)
What is it? Hügelkultur is a horticultural technique where a mound constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials is planted as a raised bed. It helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, thus benefiting plants grown on or near such mounds.
Examples: A common application of hilling is for potatoes to prevent chlorophyll and solanine that are present if exposed to light (green potatoes).
Technique: Leaf Litter
Origin: First Peoples of Turtle Island (America), Asia
What is it? Cultivating plants in beds of fallen leaves. Soil and leaf litter organisms help decompose organic material, spreading it around and releasing nutrients for new growth. The leaf litter layer is vital for protecting the underlying soil from erosion, maintaining good soil structure and fertility, and aiding moisture retention.
Examples: Agroforest operations in Bangladesh use leaf litter as the main and fastest source of adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil through microbial decomposition.
Technique: Agroforestry / Integrating perennials
into vegetable landscapes
Origin: Asia (India, Bhutan), Africa (Congo)
What is it? Planting a garden in a forest setting, creating perennially based, polycultural stacked food systems that conserve energy and create beneficial inter-species connections between plants.
Examples: Alley cropping of mixed coffee and cacao crops and lower storey crops, annuals or perennials, where trees are planted to provide nutrients for those crops is a common example of agroforestry in Latin America.
Technique: Heirloom Varieties
Origin: Africa, Asia, Europe, Indigenous Peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere
What is it? Letting some crops go to seed applies whenever a gardener wishes to do less work and enable a species to gain generational knowledge of its soil conditions and environment and proliferate.
Examples: tomatoes, wheat, corn, beans
What has been shared here is again, but a scratching of the surface of a complex, evolving, ancient practice of relationality between soil, plants, and the people who cultivate and steward them. Many of these practices were begun many thousands of years ago by people scattered and migrated to various regions across the Earth. Thus, it can be challenging to accurately trace these origins. Complicating this further is the fact that the strengths of traditional anthropological study are weakened by realities like white supremacy, erasure, bias, and the cultural insensitivities of its methods that are intrinsic to its practice. The acknowledgment of these facts and the work of arresting their practice will help us as we apply ourselves to gaining a better understanding and acknowledgment of the truths of international agriculture and the origins of its practices. Through this maturing of our knowledge and practices, let us also increase the application of humility through the acknowledgment of Indigenous ways of feeding communities, and of communal practices of land stewardship that have ensured our human existence for millennia. In these ways, we may realize a brighter, more respectful, habitable, mutually-uplifting, and well-sustained future.