As preparation for seasonal abundance begins, and the need for adapting to a changing climate continues, we must consider the lessons humankind has had access to since our beginnings, lessons from the Plant People. When in nature, observing the growing green beauty and diversity that we are dependent on for our breath and nourishment, what are ways we can emulate and learn from nature about how to grow food and medicine?
When I look out at the layers of plants—from the tallest tree to the smallest blade of grass—I can see the layers that exist in harmony and codependence. In our mountains, the upper canopy is the foundation and protector of our watershed cycle, a producer of oxygen through photosynthesis, food and shelter for animal kin, and, thanks to a mix of deciduous and evergreen species, a year-round provider of shelter and nutrients for plants below, while nurturing healthy soils.
It is possible for us to develop sustainable systems that not only provide food but also nurture the harmony that we were once in relationship with; sustainable systems that can help us find that balance once again. “Food forests” are a sustainable solution to healthy land management that also supports our ability to feed ourselves.
When I observe plants growing, even in the lower desert valley, I see that they are not growing alone, contrary to the monoculture planting style Big Ag (industrial farming) would have us buy into. There is always a cluster of plants growing together in community. The metaphor and life lessons for humanity are clear: We need each other to survive; the strengths of the individual contribute to the well-being of our survival as a whole; and, as peoples, our diversity and ability to respect and honor differences are part of our strength and resilience.
Long ago, indigenous agriculture understood what science has confirmed and is now widely known in the example of Three Sisters gardens. Taller plants that need extra nutrients (corn) are best planted with nitrogen-fixing ones (beans) that can climb on the taller ones for support, while low-growing sprawlers (melons and squash) provide plant competition control and help hold moisture as a living mulch. Not only does this planting combination help maintain soil nutrients and plant health but, also, eating these (non-GMO) foods in combination with each other provides healthy, complete nutrition. It is interesting to note that this example of companion planting represents all three forms of pollination: cross pollination, self-pollination and insect pollination. For the last, many add a fourth sister: bee balm, sunflowers, or other bee-friendly plants.
A lot of information and knowledge are available as to which vegetables and herbs grow best when planted together. A good place to start is by observing which plants are already growing together where you live and learning the properties of those plants. It is also a good idea to plant varieties that help resist and deter destructive pests and insects in close proximity with those plants that need protection.
Growing “Fruit Tree Guilds” is also a good way to experiment and nurture holistic food production. Companion planting requires looking at the relationship of living systems as a whole, and the niches particular plants inhabit that serve multiple functions that aren’t in competition and are mutually beneficial.
These days, as we are exploring and continuing these traditions in our yards and fields, we need to nurture a healthy relationship with water once again. Sustainable practice in honoring this gift means that, if we are already using this resource in our gardens, let’s make sure we plant perennial foods and medicines alongside our annuals, so our water is also contributing to the long-term generational growth and health of our landscapes. Let’s make sure it is not wasted, that it is held to our fertile hearts like a slow embrace held in our soils before it is returned to its living cycle.
Nurture the plants and seeds that already are adapted to growing in our desert climate and environments. Learn their nutritional and medicinal values so that our harvesting is balanced in a relationship between wildcrafting/gathering, acequia agriculture and dry-land farming. Our resilience lies in these relationships, and our oldest teachers are all around us, loving us and offering what we need to continue existing in our shared home.
Beata Tsosie-Peña works for Tewa Women United’s Environmental Health and Justice Program. She is a permaculture designer, seed saver, poet and mother and is currently helping grow the Española Healing Foods Oasis demonstration garden. firstname.lastname@example.org