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The Pilgrims' First Thanksgiving and the Gardening Secrets of Squanto

By: Chip McDaniel

SquantoSquanto is known to many Americans for his special place in American history and particularly, the First Thanksgiving celebration. What many Americans know is that Squanto helped the Pilgrims overcome challenges that were being faced by this new generation of Americans.

When the Pilgrims arrived in New England in the 17th century, they found the soil in the area to be ill-suited to farming. This was due the heavy glacial activity that brought stone, sand and boulders with it. The scouring of the land resulted in a poor quality, acidic soil mixed with lots of rocks.

Unlike the soil in other parts of America that is often up to 14 inches thick, the soil near Plymouth Rock was only a few inches thick, making it more difficult for crops to develop a healthy root structure. The Native Americans overcame these difficulties by developing larger numbers of small gardens, often a garden just large enough to support one family. In conjunction with a gardening technique known as the "Three Sisters Garden," these small gardens succeeded.

When the Pilgrims arrived, they attempted to replicate their own methods from Europe, with large, rectangle shaped communal gardens. For three years the Pilgrims attempted to utilize this model but found themselves starving to death.

When Squanto shared the Indians' techniques for farming, things changed immediately. The Pilgrims abandoned the large, communal concept and each family became responsible for their own plot of land and food stores. By switching to the smaller, independent gardens, the soil in one central location was not so quickly depleted. Of course, the Pilgrims also switched to the 'Three Sisters' technique, which involves planting crops together, rather than separated in individual tracts of land. This combination allows the crops to work together in conjunction so the soil remains healthy and balanced.

Indian CornCorn, beans and squash were staples of the Native American diet, and each one of these contributed to a healthy garden. The corn acts as a pole for the bean vines to climb, eliminating the need and expense of finding real poles. The beans add nitrates to the soil, which helps other plants grow, and the squash provides the ground cover that prevents weeds, and helps the soil retain moisture.

The result is that the vegetables the Pilgrims ate that First Thanksgiving would have not only had higher nutritional content than our vegetables today, but would have tasted better. Of course, many people observe that abandoning the communal farming method and putting each family in charge of their own food supply encouraged everyone to put their best effort toward producing a food supply instead of relying on others and hoping for the best.

Around the world today, gardeners, farmers and governments are actively working to promote healthy soil conditions. The use of manure and artificial fertilizers help to reintroduce some elements back into the soil, but come with their own drawbacks. The 17th century techniques employed by Squanto and the Pilgrims that led to the First Thanksgiving celebration are still valid today and can be used by anyone, from the beginning gardener to large farm corporations looking to produce healthy, nutrition-packed crops that are easy on the soil.

A detailed history of the Pilgrims' First Thanksgiving and the revolutionary techniques they learned in Squanto's Garden can be found at www.firstthanksgivinggarden.com. 

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Hiram • Dallas • Cedarcrest • New Hope GA

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