Three Sisters Gardening Log Sheet #1: Preparation

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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Blind Stretch Comb Lao Cai Yen Bai Vietnam Soil by Quangpraha

Keeping a log with data on our Three Sisters Garden can help us find out what’s going on as our plants grow, what they like and need. As we become aware of growth stages, patterns and relationships, we start seeing how this plant community interacts with the larger landscape around our garden as well as within it. Keeping brief notes on this can be valuable to our garden management both in the moment as well as a year or a decade from now. Scientists are grateful to gardeners who do this kind of citizen science over time.

Most important, sharing it with other gardeners—teachers, students, community– can help us all. We are all learning from each other as we go. Each garden is unique in its needs, each is an adventure and a research lab. The mosaic of strategies and thus the techniques we apply will differ from place to place.

This data sheet is based on three practical values, which guide whatever strategies we choose:

First value is assisting our Three Sisters to be the healthiest and therefore most delicious they can be. We strive to do this by working year round to help create the healthiest soil possible in the garden, as people have done in areas where land has been farmed for thousands of years and is still fertile.

How? By helping to create the best conditions available for the microbes which work with the Sisters. These microbes bring the Sisters the nutrients they need to be healthy, delicious, and build good soil. Some farmers call these microbial soil partners “the herd below ground” and themselves “microbe farmers” because these invisible allies are so crucial to all of us.

We can also help the Sisters be the best they can be in our area by saving their seed that works the best in our conditions, and by continuing to grow it out, “keepin’ on keepin’ on” this cycle of life and growth.

The second value is gardening as part of the larger landscape around our garden, as a member, along with our gardens, of our small and big watersheds. Not fighting to overcome nature, but learning to work with nature in our particular area in as low-cost a way as possible.

The third value is working with our human family and community to bring them corn, beans, and squash that are good, clean, and fair, produced in a way that has enhanced the dignity of living beings, very much including humans. And we aspire to be like the generations before us who would only enter and work in the garden with good thoughts, not in a terrible mood!

As a refresher or an introduction before working with Data Sheet #1, watch anything by Ray Archuleta, Soil Conservation Agronomist at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for over 30 years. Soil Health Principles is a good place to start. Watch Soil Health Principles by Dr. Jill Clapperton (same principles, different presenter and content), Farmer Gabe Brown, or any of their colleagues.

Dung Beetle by Creative Passion  

Data Sheet #1: Preparation

Respond briefly—in just enough depth to be helpful to yourself or another gardener in a year or more. It helps to take a minute or few to jot down the information as the garden grows. It may be hard to remember everything otherwise. Keep all notes in one place online or in a gardening log. Questions in brown are for answering after harvest, when you reflect back on the gardening season.

The questions are meant as organizational aids. They are not exhaustive by any means. Please add your own and share with fellow gardeners.

Baseline Information

Year Name of Gardener(s) Location

Altitude? Climate?

Landscape surrounding your garden? (For instance, skyscrapers? A quarter acre of old-growth trees 500 feet away? Manicured lawns? GMO cornfields? Topographical features–a mountain? A stream? A desert? A factory emitting toxins? The surroundings have a direct influence on your garden in different ways.)

Where does your water come from? An aquifer a stream, lake, river above ground or underground, rain? Or?

Where in your  watershed are you, from biggest to smallest?

How does the small water cycle work where you are?

How did your soil over-winter?

Did you cover with crops? If so, which ones?

Weeds? Which?

Mulch? Bare soil all winter? Or?

What kind of basic soil do you have? Sand, silt, clay, some mixture?

How would you describe your soil? When you do the slake test, how does your soil do? Here’s how to do it.

How’s the microbiological activity—the “herd beneath the ground” on whom our crops depend? Some ways of telling:

How wet or dry is it without any supplemental watering?

Microbes need moisture to function well.

How does it smell —like active leaf litter in a good forest, has no smell, smells awful—or? A good earthy smell indicates good microbial action.

What color is it– bittersweet chocolate, milk chocolate, yellowish, orange, blue, some other color(s), or a mixture?

Bittersweet chocolate color indicates good humus, good microbial action.

Is it nice and crumbly, with good humus? Blocky or platy (clay types)? One monolithic block which doesn’t breathe (clay compaction)? Or?

Nice and crumbly—with little aggregates that hold together-indicates good humus, good microbial action.

If you stick a long wire, tape measure, etc. into the soil, how far down does it go?

( Hopefully all the way. If not, you have compaction and will need to plant lots of well-mulched, root vegetables with a top dressing of compost. Even better, make a bunch of deep holes in the bed–roughly the diameter of turnips, if you can– and stick compost in the holes all the way up to the surface. The microbes will munch on this and turn into nice soil so your plant roots can grow and with their microbe partners, break up the compaction.)

Per handful of soil, how many insects and tiny soil animals do you see with your eyes or with a hand lens/magnifying glass? How many pores for insects and worms—hardly any, lots, or in between?

A variety of insects (not an overpopulation of one or two species) and good breathing holes for air and water drainage, as well as humus to hold the water and protect microbes, can indicate good microbial action.

How Did You Prep Your Beds for Three Sisters planting?

For example:

In a dry area, to catch more moisture, did you need to do some water-harvesting structures (swales, compost holes, terraces, waffle beds, etc.? If so, which and why did you choose them?

How did they work? What would you change?

In a wet area to release more moisture, did you put in some water-drainage structures (tiles, pipes etc.)?

If so, which and why did you choose them? How did they work? What would you change?

Did you cut your cover crops down to the soil and laid them down as mulch? Or? How did it work? What would you change?

Did you till them into the top layer of soil as green manure? Or? How did it work? What would you change?

Did you have animals doing this for you? If so, which and how did it work? What would you change?

Did you remove the cover crops wherever you wanted to plant seeds, to let seedlings emerge and get enough sun, but left them as protection elsewhere? How did it work? What would you change?

Did you weed? Did you put the weeds back down as mulch—without their reproductive parts? Or put in the compost pile? Or give to ruminants to eat? Or?

Did you dress beds with manure, compost or compost tea? How did it work? What would you change?

What else? 

Manure, Compost or Compost Tea or Other Bio-Stimulants

For resources: The Compost Story and Rodale‘s blog on composting.

Fresh non-organic manure can be chock full of salts from too much fertilizer or pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and de-worming medicine,all of which of course kill microbes, as that’s what they are formulated to do.So this manure could damage the “herd below ground” on which healthy crops and soil depend.If healthy organic manure is not available, let what you can get compost thoroughly, then test a little bit of it on a plant and if you decide to use it, mix it with good compost. 

So know:

Where did the manure originate? Do you know if it was organic, whether certified or not?

Were the livestock fed fertilized and pesticided feed?

Were the livestock given de-worming and other microbe-killing medicines?

Did you make the compost/compost tea/bio-stimulants? Or buy it? From whom? What source materials did they use?

How did it work?

What kind and how much manure, compost or compost tea did you put on per square foot?

Did you add any other bio-stimulants (humates, kelp, etc.)? If so, what kind and how much per acre or square foot? How did this work? What would you change?

What else did you do or would you do next year to prepare a Three Sisters garden?

Data Sheet #2: Corn follows.

Pamela Sherman gardens with her husband at 8300 feet in the Colorado Rockies. She is the resource admin for the Slow Food USA Facebook group onThree Sisters Gardening.

Photo Credit: Pixabay, CCO Creative Commons


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