OTKK Garden Kids April 3

75,000 pounds of produce and more! from family and community gardens on Pine Ridge

According to the planting calendar developed by The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the last spring frost of the year on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota is, on average, May 22, and the first fall frost occurs on September 22 – a total of 123 days. This means gardeners must make the most of the days they have during the short growing season.

However, thanks to the Oyate Teca Project’s Medicine Root Gardening program, supported by Running Strong for American Indian Youth®, dozens of budding gardeners have been taking indoor classes since February, learning and preparing when it’s time to start putting seeds to the ground in their backyards.

Thanks to the Medicine Root greenhouses and hoop houses, many of them are getting a head start, with seedlings provided to them through the program significantly speeding up harvest dates for vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, which take about a week to germinate and six to eight weeks before they are ready to be transplanted outdoors, and other garden plants.

“With our all-year temperature-controlled greenhouse, four high tunnels, two open-air gardens, and Pine Ridge’s first-ever plant nursery, we predict an even greater increase in production at Medicine Root Garden,” says Oyate Teca Project director Rose Fraser, who oversees the gardening program. “We anticipate over 75,000 pounds of fresh produce grown on-site next year during the 2024 growing season.”

Other more experienced gardeners who took the classes in previous years are already starting to enjoy the cold-weather crops, which include lettuce, spinach, cabbage, beets, carrots, radishes, and turnips, that they planted in early spring as soon as the ground on the Great Plains thawed enough to be workable.

Since winter, these family gardeners, from beginners to advanced, have attended gardening classes, received seeds and tools, and are finally able to take their seedlings outside this month. Each is eagerly looking forward to hundreds of pounds of vegetables per family, all to help gain food sovereignty.

In addition to planting “salsa” gardens—tomatoes, onions, and peppers—more than 50 families are also learning to grow what is known as “Three Sisters” gardens this summer.

Many Native American tribes use the term “Three Sisters” to refer to three main crops: corn (maize), beans, and squash. These crops are called sisters because they are believed to benefit from being grown together, each plant providing something necessary for the others to thrive.  

Corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, beans fix nitrogen in the soil, benefiting the other plants, and squash leaves create a natural mulch, retaining moisture and suppressing weeds. Together, they make a balanced ecosystem that requires fewer external inputs.   

When consumed together, the Three Sisters provide a balanced and nutritious diet. Corn is rich in carbohydrates, beans are a good source of protein, and squash provides essential vitamins and minerals. (Learn how to make Three Sisters Stew and get recipes for other Native First Foods here: Native First Foods…a Sampling of Recipes – Indian Youth.)

By this fall, Rose is expecting that many of the most successful gardeners will harvest more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables and fruits – fresh produce that is scarce on the reservation (known as a food desert for its lack of grocery stores) and expensive and low-quality when available not only for themselves, their families and relatives and friends and neighbors but for many, the opportunity to generate income through sales at the Medicine Root Farmers Market which is slated to open later this month.

In addition, in June, Medicine Root’s mobile market will travel to remote communities on the vast reservation to deliver produce to elders and families who cannot make the long drive into towns such as Kyle (pop. 943 as of the 2020 census), where the Oyate Teca Project is located.

In addition to the Medicine Root Gardening program, Running Strong also provides support to the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development (SBAG) program on Pine Ridge, which in 2023 helped 85 families start gardens, has planted seeds protected in its greenhouse so seedlings will soon be ready for distribution.  In addition, the SBAG field director has begun his weekly radio program, Wojub Oyanke (Talking of Things Growing), on the local station serving the reservation, with content in Lakota and English on everything from soil tips to nutritional aspects of first foods, and even sharing recipes!

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