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Leonard Moorehead, The Urban Gardener: Pumpkins, Gourds and all that Squash

Sunday, October 29, 2017


Old traditions endure, harvest symbols garland office towers, city shops and homes. Orange pumpkins have shrank in size for desktops and tables. Larger, old fashioned pumpkins are no longer vital food crops. Many people purchase pumpkins and carve Jack O’Lanterns, pie fillings commonly reside in cans. Colorful Indian corn hung on front doors hint at the vast genetic array within the maize family. Home gardeners need not shop for these heart strings to our agricultural past. It’s fun and easy to grow your own. 

 Samoset taught the English Pilgrims to plant “corn” and more, the indigenous peoples’ agricultural trinity; The Three Sisters. Beans, squash including pumpkins, and corn were cultivated in circular gardens throughout coastal New England and inland along rivers. Within days of stepping off the Mayflower landing parties found corn caches buried in Cape Cod’s sand dunes. The Narragansetts, Wampanoags, Nauset and other tribal groups’ garden techniques remain valuable centuries later. 

Most gardeners lack space, our garden footprints are small. However, the Three Sisters combine vertical dimensions useful for urban gardens and provide soil nutrition as reward for hand labor. Beans as legumes contribute fixed nitrogen into soils via root systems for nitrogen demanding corn. Dried beans became the quintessential Yankee Saturday night supper, baked beans. Blue Sundays were once the norm, no cooking or labor could distract from the commandment, on the seventh day, God rested. 

Beans, corn and squashes have long shelf lives. Gardeners relish fresh produce. Our bountiful crops remind gardeners preservation is key for enjoying our garden harvests during winter months. You too can grow pumpkins for Jack O’Lanterns and winter pies. Multicolored “Indian Corn”, a cultural misnomer, is within grasp. 

Samoset’s lessons are well learned. Create low raised mounds 6 -8 inches above the normal garden surface. Corn likes “dry feet” or rather thrives best in well drained soils rich in organic matter. He planted the corn when the herring runs filled every brook and river with migratory fish early in May or when oak trees begin to leaf out. He buried a fish beneath the corn seeds, kept dry over the winter and ground into flour as needed. The fish were essential soil fertilizers for centuries. Migratory fish bring marine nutrients far inland. Gardeners apply fish emulsion fertilizer to good effect today. Good air circulation is important. Corn is wind pollinated. The Three Sisters require near constant sunshine. A circular planting permits equidistant plantings for maximum pollination and light exposure. A minimum of ten feet across is best for maximum yield. 

Beans and squashes are planted after the corn sprouts. Beans and squash are rambling vines, the beans grow upwards upon the corn, squashes like pumpkins, ramble beneath. Their large leaves shade out competitive weeds and conserve evaporation from soil. The native peoples had few tools. They readily traded beaver furs for iron hoes. The Pilgrims ground the corn into flour, baked into jonny cakes. The synthesis of European tools, introduction of domesticated livestock and the indigenous Three Sisters was fast. Pilgrims grew maize, applied their generic English word “corn” for grain and native peoples soon kept pigs, horses and livestock for decades after initial contact. Our pluralism created the first Americans. 

Sweet corn is relatively new to our tables. Most corn is grown for mass agriculture. Valuable space is the main factor for most gardeners’ crop choices. Consider the multiple yield of beans, squash and corn vs local market conditions. Highly decorative and eatable Indian corn is a high priced item. Locally grown foods are highly nutritious and evade long distance transport and storage. Here’s a chance to have fun. Foster the genetic corn legacy. Plant multi-colored Indian corn for their stunning beauty. Explore the many shapes and sizes. The long arc of maize domestication led to mystery, where was corn first grown? Across millennia corn’s rich history has many offshoots. Strawberry shapes, black, deep blue, red, and parti-colored kernels, long cobs or short, are all within the garden venue. 

Squashes fall into 2 broad groups, fresh eating and winter keepers. Gourds in their fantastic shapes and colors were once utilitarian, their sturdy husks containers long before plastic and stoneware. Adapt their rambling habits to trellises, up corn stalks or along fences. Squashes are as variable in shape, size, and color. Dull indeed is the person who cannot find beauty within their oddness. Save the seeds, easily dried and kept over until spring. 

Seed saving is fun and worthwhile. Roam through the garden and harvest seeds from mature plants. Note that some plants are hybrids, such as foxglove, phlox and sweet peas. Many plants however are not hybrids or “true”. Lift and divide hybrid phlox and separate last summer’s plants. Give the divisions room to establish fresh growth, share the extras with friends. Pamper the divisions for the winter duration. Pep up the soil with bone meal, test the soil ph. and add dolomite lime as needed to reach a mid-range ph. Add compost and stir into the soil, mulch the divisions. 

Cut back past bloom asters down the soil level and mulch. Either snip the tough stems into smaller pieces on the spot or remove to establish the lowest level of new compost heaps. Rough, tough stems are more resistant to microbiological organisms, cellulose high materials such as sawdust, wood chips, corn cobs and stems are slow to transform into humus. Be patient. Covered by soil, dug into trenches, or under mulch, these materials, like Samoset’s fish, add nutrients and texture “tilth” to soil. Make this ordinary practice part of the garden litany. The short term benefit is labor. It’s simply easier not to lug around masses of material from place to place. The long view is improved soil ready to support ever more vigorous healthy plants. 

Breathe deep and bundle up in loose fitting layered clothing. Wear hats and gloves. Go out into the garden. The garden is a mindful place in every season. Focus upon the task at hand. Let go of turmoil. Gaze upwards into the sky. Let busy thoughts into clouds above, reach further into the blue beyond. Inhale, exhale. Be confident. As we pursue the tasks at hand new strength gives us peaceful courage to go on. Remove old stakes and store for future use. Groom remaining plants, cut out deadwood from roses, prune back overgrown shrubbery. Mull over performance, consider better locations for some, the merits of others. Bring in found trowels, coffee cups and glasses. Remember to wipe your feet before entering the house, brisk and renewed from the garden. Pumpkins? Come on, smile, their claim on orange is firm. Their grasp upon the heart? Forever childlike. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit tree.


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