How About a Milpa Garden? (And, maybe some free seeds?)
By Joanna Will
Have you always wanted to plant a garden but feel intimidated by the level of planning, preparation and precision that seem to be required to ensure a successful harvest? Do you find rows of single species a little dull, or the process of planting individual seeds a bit cumbersome? Is constant weeding not your thing? Does a wilder space teaming with chaotic diversity, offering abundance in a spontaneous manner, sound more up your alley? How about planting all your seeds at once, in one giant mixture, and allowing the plants to come up where they will within the garden, and when they will, and enjoying a bountiful, especially delicious, nutritious harvest? If any of these notions resonate with you, perhaps a milpa garden should be in your immediate future.
Milpa, which translates roughly to maize field, cultivated field, small field or even just field depending on who you ask, is a cultivation system that has been practiced throughout Mesoamerica, and extensively by the Mayan people in the Yucatan peninsula region of Mexico, for millennia. The system traditionally includes cutting and burning a patch of forest, cultivating it for a few years with a diverse mix of crops including corn, beans, squash, chili peppers, leafy greens, root vegetables, and spices, and then allowing it to regenerate for up to 30 years. Yields are typically large, and the system does not rely on amendments or (historically) irrigation.
The process of rotating annual crops with secondary forest allows the milpa system to move “beyond successful food production and become the central axis of a resource management system that upgrades woodlands with species useful to humans, accelerates succession, and constructs an anthrosol (soil that has been heavily modified by human activities) of ever-increasing fertility,” according to the article, “The Maya milpa: fire and the legacy of living soil”, published in 2013 by the Ecological Society of America.
Additionally, milpa is considered a sociocultural construct, as it requires complex relationships between people who share a landscape, and with the crops and land. According to one study of the history of milpa farming, “the making of milpa is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe” and “forms the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance.”
Also, the nutritional and economic importance are not insignificant. The milpa system has provided families and communities with food since its beginning, and continues to do so today, although climate change is threatening the ability for many milperos (milpa farmers) in the Yucatan, and presumably elsewhere, to continue to grow food in this manner. A story on milpa farming that ran on National Public Radio in February 2017 estimated that there are approximately 70,000 Yucatan milperos today. While many are struggling with increasingly unpredictable rainfall, some are adapting successfully and plan to continue to feed their families through milpa gardens, adapting as need be, indefinitely.
In the US, interest in milpa gardens has been growing in recent years. This is owed to increased focus on improving soil health and efforts to increase and expand access to healthy, nutritious locally-grown food to a much broader swath of the population, particularly in areas deemed to be food desserts and in communities that are otherwise underserved. A project in West Chester, Pennsylvania, offered community members the chance to learn about and participate in planting a milpa garden that included corn, beans, squash, tomato, tomatillo, quelites, cilantro, sunflowers and marigolds. The course and materials were presented in Spanish, as well as English, to better accommodate the Latino community in the area.
In Oklahoma, several regenerative farmers and ranchers partnered with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to create milpa gardens to provide fruits and vegetables to the Food Bank. According to Green Cover Seed out of Bladen, Nebraska, who helped sponsor the project, in 2017 6880 pounds, or about 5440 meals, of fresh fruits and vegetables were donated to the Food Bank from the gardens.
Green Cover Seed points out that in addition to providing food to the community, the gardens also add soil-building cover crops that improve soil and water health in the area and provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.
Kansans are getting into the milpa scene as well. Emporia farmers Gail Fuller and Lynnette Miller turned to their own version of milpa gardening when it became clear to Gail that “in the same way cover crops perform better in a polyculture, all crops need to grown this way.” Fuller and Miller plant mainly squash, corn, beans, cucumber, zucchini, pumpkin and okra, as well as flowers, some of which are edible, as well (sunflowers and marigolds, for example). Finding the produce come harvest time can be a challenge but is also half the fun. Including multiple generations in the picking makes the deal even sweeter.
Green Cover Seed has been growing milpa gardens at their plots every year recently, and according to Dale Strickler, a Green Cover Seed representative from Courtland, Ks., “The kids absolutely love going in and picking the stuff – it’s like a scavenger hunt in the jungle.” And, best of all, in his opinion is that “due to the diversity of root exudates, the plants tend to take on an excellent flavor from all the microbial activity.” Win-win.
To encourage the spread of milpa gardening while increasing soil and community health, Green Cover Seed has initiated a program which will provide an acre’s worth of milpa seed mix to any farmer who is interested, so long as the farmer agrees to donate a portion of the harvest to a local food bank. They also strongly encourage the farmers to host a field day to demonstrate the milpa garden, whether with a small group like 4-H or FFA, or open to the public. In addition to these requests, they would also love to have photos from the project shared with the.
If you’re interested in planting a milpa garden, there is still time this year. Contact Noah Young at Green Cover Seed at firstname.lastname@example.org, to request your free seeds and support your local food bank, or you can still purchase the seed so you can get them in the ground between now and mid-July!