Three Sisters planting technique was Wampanoag idea; growing corn with fish waste compost
By Gregory Jackson
(Turkey, bought from Spain and originally from Mexico, and sold by Turkish merchants, was hunted throughout Europe)
The first Thanksgiving, a celebration of Pilgrims and Wampanoag, of the New World’s first harvest. The first New World Thanksgiving was a three-day event smorgasbord of local foods and local animals including lobster, clams, mussels, goose, duck, and deer. The Pilgrim’s garden considered herbs as: carrots, collards, parsnips, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbage, sage, thyme, marjoram, and onions. There was also squash, pumpkin, and blueberries. Tubers of artichoke, ground nuts, sweet flag, turnip, and water lily.
Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim founder of Plimoth Rock, describes the local culinary harvest at the first Thanksgiving.
“Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels… at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs. Here are grapes, white and read, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and read, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, read, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed… These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God t hanks who hath dealt so favorably with us.”
There are two possible farming techniques the Pilgrims learned from the Wampanoag.
First is “Three Sisters” planting. Three Sisters refers to three (or four) planting ecosystem of corn, bean, and squash. Corn grows in a straight, vertical habit creating a natural support structure. (Although a squirrel ate most of our corn this year). The Pilgrims ate “flint” corn. Beans and peas (or any legume) is a nitrogen fixation crop that converts atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, to feed it a supply of nitrogen for the corn and squash. The beans or peas can climb onto the corn for support; in both cases this year, Groundz grew beans and peas freestanding.
When we grew the peas by itself they would always mat down after heavy rains and we would have to carefully pile the plant back on itself. For the beans we had a decorative heirloom shovel that they climbed on and even tendril around a neighbor’s fence (some of the beans were growing in our neighbor’s property). Had we grown them with our corn (an organic Bantam variety), both crops would have had the structural support and containment they require. Lastly is the squash for any leftover exposed soil areas: While the beans provide ample soil coverage (in fact no soil was exposed), squash would cover the rest, keeping your soil moist and minimize weeds.
Second planting method was taught by Squanto, Wampanoag native, who taught the Pilgrims how to save their corn crop by burying dead fish and fish waste into the soil. As Merwin’s Wharf, Cleveland Metroparks first restaurant, official food waste recycler, Groundz composts crab shell and fish waste every week at Willow Community Garden of Forward Church; we’ve also brought some home in an experimental home garden. Autumn is our favorite time of year for composting, we compost directly into our beds, mix and cover with leaves, and let rest for 6-7 months (or the beginning of the next growing season), but Thanksgiving marks the end of our direct composting in beds method.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie,” writes Winslow.