The Resilience Garden at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico is a place where tourists and locals can meet like family, plunging their hands into sandy loamy soil to help bring forward the three sisters—corn, beans and squash. From March through October on the second Sunday of every month, for $5 per class, gardeners, foodies and cultural historians of all levels, can come together to learn about thousand year old Pueblo agricultural practices that still promote successful growing seasons.
Each of the experiential classes in the “Seasons of Growth” series will focus on a different aspect of traditional agriculture while getting down and dirty in the garden. In the March 12 session, for instance, visitors will prepare soil and compost and learn about cold-weather crops. They’ll also be able to take home their own seedlings to cultivate indoors until they can either come back and plant them later in the season in the Resilience Garden, or grow them in their own home or community gardens as a souvenir of their time in Albuquerque.
The garden was established last year with a “Power Up” grant from PNM, the local utility, and it’s designed as a kind of living timeline. It has an area devoted entirely to “pre-contact food,” said Bettina Sandoval, IPCC Cultural Education Specialist who will be leading the classes. “Only things that were here before trading with the Spanish and Mexicans began are grown in this section,” she explained. “Choke cherry trees, plums, blueberries, wild celery, spinach, mint—those grew here naturally.”
In the April 9 session participants will hand-form the “waffle” structure that Pueblo farmers have used for centuries to concentrate limited rainfall (the annual average is less than 10 inches) around crops’ roots. Instead of raising the beds, it’s a type of recessed or sunken gardening, a grid of squares, lines or rectangles with berms in between. The water when it comes in monsoons can’t run off, and the berms protect the plants and soil from wind so there’s less evaporation.
“Waffle gardening was one of the first developments in farming,” Sandoval said. “The other was flooding; farmers would notice where the runoff from rainwater naturally pooled, and plant there.”
Planting will begin with beans, corn, zucchini, and watermelon seedlings, as well as radish, carrot, and spinach seeds. Cultivation will continue through the spring and summer, along with lessons on saving seeds for future use. In addition to the fruits and veggies, the garden is filled with flowers to attract pollinators, and is also becoming home for all kinds of fascinating critters including a family of road runners, the New Mexico state bird.
According to Sandoval, who grew up on Taos Pueblo gardening with her family, agriculture is what makes the pueblos what they are—permanent villages.
“When the Spanish found us, our villages had already been around for about 500 years,” Sandoval said. “They considered us more ‘civilized’ because we weren’t nomadic. In living in our original established places we were able to develop our communal government systems and were for the most part spared removal from our homelands.”
Taos, which is fortunate to have the Rio Grande in its backyard, is a place along with Jemez and Tesuque Pueblos, where traditional agriculture continues.
“Everyone gets together and takes care of their gardens,” Sandoval said.
But other pueblos, in just one or two generations, have lost touch with their traditional agriculture practices, and don’t farm because people there no longer know how.
“That’s another goal of the Resilience Garden,” Sandoval explained, “to bring in our own communities, and give them resources to grow their own food again.”
According to Sandoval, some communities are challenged because paying for water is prohibitive; others simply have no place where the people can farm.
“People are living in HUD housing, where the dwellings are right on top of each other,” she said. “And their soil hasn’t been cared for; it will take years of soil regeneration to make it possible to grow healthy food again.”
The garden has plenty of tools, but Sandoval encourages people to bring their own gloves and starting in the July session, a small bag for a portion of the harvest; the remainder is used for summer camp or is used in the New Native Cuisine featured in the Pueblo Harvest Cafe. As an added boon, after the Seasons of Growth sessions from 9 to 11 a.m., (for the price of museum admission) Indian Pueblo Cultural Center presents the colorful and often moving spectacle of traditional dances, drumming and singing in the museum courtyard that begin at 11 a.m.
There is a well-known pueblo prayer that starts:
Hold on to what is good, Even if it's a handful of earth.
“When the seed you hold in your hand grows in the ground and produces nourishing food, when you actually see it happen,” said Sandoval, “that’s a blessing.”
This story was originally published March 6, 2017.