The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Gardening tips from the Native Americans

Strophostyles helvolaNow that I've finally answered my question about what eastern Native American food looked like before corn dominated their fields, I can start to tease permaculture implications out of the information.  First of all, the intricate layering (trees planted above vines above shrubs above groundcovers) often focused on by forest gardening fans seems to be more of a tropical and semi-tropical concept, and I suspect we just don't have enough sunlight in our temperate climate to make layering work well.  I don't think it's just coincidence that the Native Americans from our area used techniques that basically turned their wild food tree systems into orchards by burning and clearing out the undergrowth.  Instead, it sounds like the admonition in Edible Forest Gardens to give your trees lots of space and diversify horizontally (a grape vine just beyond the canopy of your apple tree, for example) rather than vertically is more appropriate for our climate.  Those of you who live in zone 8 or warmer are more likely to be successful with the vertical layering advocated in earlier forest gardening books.

Phaseolus polystachiosI also see implications for the chicken pasture in the ten thousand years of research carried out by the Native Americans.  Perhaps the food plants that were simply encouraged by the Native Americans rather than domesticated and planted can fit into our chicken pasture scheme?  I'm especially interested in the small, weedy species that like disturbance and are also edible, like the wild beans, maypop, black nightshade, amaranth, pokeweed, carpetweed, dock, chickweed, ground cherry, purslane, carpetweed, panicgrass, and spurge.  Black nightshade and chickweed sprang up naturally in our chicken pasture last year and were two of the chickens' favorite natural foods, so the idea probably has some merit.  It sounds like I've got my work cut out for me in 2011, gathering weeds to test them on the chickens.

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This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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