Native American Heritage Seed Garden
Beth Schiller '98
Oscar H. Will III, Professor of Biology
Sponsored by the Jordan Professorship for Environmental Science, Summer Science Scholar Fellowship
During the summer of 1997 a Native American heritage seed garden was created at the Center. The project, a comparison between the "Three Sisters" polyculture with a conventional monoculture cropping system, and a demonstration of Native American growing systems from the East (Iroquois) and West (Hidatsa) now lies to the East of the Center, adjacent to the Kokosing Gap Trail.
Monoculture vs. Polyculture:
Row corn, as seen in local fields, is representative of monoculture, the planting of a single species in a pattern designed to maximize yield. Monoculture is the most frequently used method of planting corn in the United States. Planting a single plant species in rows is a method of efficiency. Modern machinery is designed to plant in monoculture allowing the farmer to mechanically plant, control weeds, and harvest their crop in large volumes with maximum time efficiency. Hybrid seeds, those that have been genetically enhanced and selected for 'optimum' results, are the base of monoculture planting.
Polyculture is an agricultural technique, commonly practiced by Native Americans from both the East and West, utilizing a single hill of land to plant multiple species. Referred to as the "Three Sisters" model, a traditional polyculture hill contains corn, beans, and squash or pumpkin. Although not planted in the same hill, sunflowers were considered the fourth sister. The method of planting in polyculture is commonly practiced in Asia and South America today, and was practiced by Native Americans in the United States during the early 19th century.
Native American and other heirloom seed sources evolved into today's standard 'true to type' hybrid varieties after a continued process of saving seeds from plants with similar performance. Planting in polyculture and using a large selection of seeds from both native and modern hybrid sources promotes genetic diversity, increases soil fertility, and decreases risk of damage from insects and disease.
The study included 24 square growing plots with sides that are 15 feet in length. There were 12 plots planted in monoculture and 12 planted in polyculture. The monoculture treatments consisted of four 10 foot rows of corn planted 30 inches apart. Polyculture treatments included 16 hills spaced 2.5 feet from one another and from the edge of the plot. Seven corn seeds were planted in a centered pattern in each hill, with beans planted in every third hill and squash planted in every eighth hill. Clover was planted in between the plots as a weed cover and as a means to add nutrients (clover supplies primarily nitrogen) to the soil.
1. Will polyculture growing methods involving corn, beans, and squash result in a greater gross and net productivity than monoculture methods focusing on corn alone?
2. Will open pollinated Native American corn varieties and modern hybrid corn perform similarly?
3. Will plant emergence percentages be enhanced when using polyculture growing methods?
This garden was planted with seeds that are diverse in their genetics, history, origin, and method of planting. Half of the research plots were planted with Mandan sweet corn, a Native American variety, and half with Sugar Enhanced Kandy Korn, a modern hybrid variety. The demonstration garden was planted with several dozen varieties of corn, beans, and squash that are a mixture of traditional Native American varieties and hybrid varieties. A few of the corn varieties planted includes Red Stalker, Arikara Flint, Red Flour Mandan, and Blue Flour Mandan. The squash includes Mandan Banquet, Arikara Watermelon, and Arikara Squash.
-The polyculture treatments produced significantly greater productivity (measured by plant mass per square foot) than monoculture methods. This is also indicative of greater plant emergence percentages associated with polyculture planting methods. Simply speaking, given two equal size pieces of land, one can plant more using a polyculture planting method per area with equal, or greater, success of plant emergence.
-The plots planted with the modern hybrid corn had significantly greater growth than those planted with the Mandan. This region is too wet for the Mandan variety, and consequently the corn did not reach full maturity.
Seeds and Diversity
|There are thousands of varieties of corn in the world, however, only a few of the best varieties are widely planted. The differences among plants occur through the traits they inherit from other plants. If a single female plant is used to create a large pool of offspring, the result may be a large quantity of plants that are designed to be the "best" producers. A uniform group of plants may produce a large crop, but it also increases the risk of disease. For example, in 1970 the United States lost nearly half of its corn crop to a disease called Southern leaf blight. This occurred because the parent plant passed a trait to each offspring which made it vulnerable to the disease. By using a diverse group of species, nutritional quality, pest resistance, and yield can be maintained over generations. Diversity of species can entail growing many different varieties of one plant, growing many different species together (ex. polyculture), or both.|
-Wilson, Gilbert L., Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden. Minnesota H. S. Press, St. Paul. 1987.
-Ausubel, Kenny, Seeds of Change: The Living Treasure. Harper, San Francisco. 1994.
Sources of seeds that preserve cultural and biological diversity
-Native Seeds/SEARCH 2509 N. Campbell Avenue, NO. 235 Tucson, AZ 85719
-Seed Savers Exchange Rural Route 3, Box 239, Decorah, IA 52101 (319) 382-5872
Comments to: Pat Heithaus, BFEC, Heithausp@kenyon.edu