Garden project will cultivate heirloom veggies, community ties
When the dogwoods bloom this spring, the first seeds will be sown for a new garden based on a centuries-old model.
Students in a Virginia Tech indigenous garden project will plant native vegetables and cultivate them through the summer according to the customs of the Monacan and Tutelo people who were Southwest Virginia’s first farmers.
“When the first European settlers arrived at what is now Blacksburg, they found a meticulously managed landscape,” said Sam Cook, associate professor of sociology and director of American Indian Studies. “The original name of Draper’s Meadow reflects that these settlers came upon a savanna area humanly crafted and maintained to sustain life.”
The garden will follow the Monacan-Tutelo tradition of planting when the dogwoods bloom in mid-April. Students in Cook’s Indigenous Ecologies and Knowledge Systems seminar will prepare, plant, and maintain the plot at the university’s Turfgrass Research Center. Measuring about 60 feet by 60 feet — two-thirds the size of a baseball diamond — the garden will have beans planted with corn in mounds, rather than rows, as well as gourds, squash, and amaranth.
Co-teaching the seminar with Cook are Associate Professor John M. Galbraith of the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Associate Professor Ignacio Moore of the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Science; and Postdoctoral Associate Travis L. Williams of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Guiding the class with her knowledge of Indian agricultural and ecological practices is Monacan horticulturalist Victoria Ferguson, elder in residence in the American Indian Studies program. Also collaborating is the Agroforestry Club, a network of students who take part in community service projects.
The dozen members of the indigenous ecologies class represent a range of disciplines: soil science, forestry, historic interpretation, social science, and community organization. One of the class members, April Stapp of Barstow, Calif., is working on her Ph.D. in sociology and teaching an introductory course in American Indian Studies. She has a lifelong interest in food sovereignty — producing enough food to support one’s own community.
“The garden that we’re putting together here is very much in line with that,” she said. “Aside from the food, democracy and working together as a community are what’s most valuable about this project.”
Cook hopes the garden will attract other students and community residents who will enjoy being on the team. “It’s not just building a garden, it’s interfacing with the whole ecosystem,” he said, while cultivating a sense of community and connection to the land.
Another goal is to develop a seed bank by finding and identifying vegetables that generations of local residents have maintained. “We want to keep not just the seeds but also the stories handed down with them,” Cook said.
Students in the seminar who will stay in the area during the summer will maintain the garden with help from local volunteers. At harvest time, Cook said, there will be a celebratory meal and perhaps a ceremony to commemorate “truly building a community around food production and how we relate to place.”
To sign up for the garden project, contact Cook by email or at 540-231-9596.