Dig it! Gardening begins for Cherokee people despite COVID-19 

by Apr 8, 2020COMMUNITY sgadugi, Front Page





With spring here, gardens will start popping up all over tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).  Several of the Tribe’s agriculture officials are encouraging everyone to try their hand at gardening as a way to help combat the ‘cabin fever’ that can be associated with the current COVID-19 quarantine situation.  

“Cherokee people have been gardening and farming for thousands of years,” said Sally Dixon, extension agent and 4-H youth development coordinator with the EBCI Cooperative Extension Office.  “Gardening has been shown to reduce stress, increase physical activity, and save money on food – all of which are things we need to be focused on during this public health crisis.  During this quarantine, people may feel like they are cooped up in the house all day, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can venture outside and start a garden, and it’s a great excuse to enjoy the sunshine.” 

She added, “This is a great activity that can involve the whole family from the oldest to the youngest.” 

Families can get started in gardening by obtaining a Garden Kit from the Tribe.  The first Garden Kit Giveaway will be held Tuesday, April 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the EBCI Cooperative Extension Office.  It will be a drive-thru service with one kit per car being distributed.  Kit Giveaway events are being planned for for Cherokee County and Snowbird Communities.  Dixon said, “We’ll have all types of seeds this year, and we’re excited to get these out to the community!”

Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed is a big proponent of gardening and stated, “During these uncertain times, individuals and families are looking for security, projects to keep themselves busy, and a sense of purpose.  Gardening is one of the best means we have to spend quality time outdoors doing something productive for our families and giving us a stable and dependable source for food.  It is always important for people to garden, but it is especially the case now.”  

Leslie Lossiah Sneed, an EBCI tribal member from the Wolftown Community, said she has helped with gardens her entire life, but is working on her own for the first time.  “My Nanny used to keep a garden, and we always helped her tend it.  Then, later on, my mom started gardening.  I have always loved it, and this will be the first year I attempt my own garden.”  

She is planting cucumbers, squash, corn, green beans, mustard greens, potatoes and watermelons.  “My youngest nephews love watermelons. So, that is a must!  I am most looking forward to being able to grow my own food, but my goal is to teach my family the perks of growing and tending a garden.  Family time is most important to me, and I want to share that with mine.”  

Dixon noted that various forms of vegetables can be grown in North Carolina throughout the year and points readers to a planting calendar at N.C. State University (www.go.ncsu.edu/gardencalendar). 

“During the month of April, there are over 30 different plants you can start growing including carrots, Swiss chard, cilantro, and spinach,” she said.  “From our Garden Kits this year, you can start growing creasy and mustard greens right now.  Both of these plants need cool weather to start growing, and it makes the leaves taste better.”  

Dixon encourages everyone to give gardening a try. “Gardening can be a great experience, but some might say they don’t have any garden space.  Don’t allow that to stop you!  Anybody can garden, even if all you have is a window.  You can always grow some small herbs in a pot by your window, and you can clip away what you need when you’re cooking.  You can even grow many plants in containers on your porch.  If you are growing plants, you are gardening!”  

Joey Owle, EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, also encourages people to take up gardening.  “Gardening provides an excellent opportunity for folks to cultivate portions of their own food supply and be scientists year after year.  An individual, or family, can choose which fresh fruits and veggies they want and need to eat throughout the year.  Growing plants is a science experiment in itself.”  

He went on to say, “Once a garden plot is established, you begin to notice little details of where various plant families and varieties grow best in your landscape.  My advice to beginning gardeners is to start with an area that you can easily manage.  I’m talking about creating a crop plan (where to plant and how much), bed preparation, irrigation needs, weed management, proximity to your front door, and many other factors.” 

Owle states that gardening does not require a ton of equipment.  “To start gardening does not require a tractor.  So, don’t let it become an overwhelming endeavor.  All you need is a few good hand tools and a garden hose for a productive season.  A lot of food can be grown in a 4’x4′ or 6’x4′ raised garden bed.  These systems do not take up a large area of space, unless you want it to, and are easily manageable.”  

Dixon said it is important to do your homework prior to starting.  “Before you get started with gardening, always research everything you can about a plant.  This allows you to be prepared for how to grow a plant and know what requirements it needs.  Some plants like full sun.  Some like shade.  So, always read up on what you’re planting.  One thing that has helped me out a lot is when a plant doesn’t grow as expected, I research why it didn’t grow.  This allows for success the next time I grow that plant.”  

Owle said that gardening in the mountains has its challenges, such as available sunlight, but also its advantages such as very fertile soil.  

“The greatest challenge for families gardening in this mountainous region is of course the peaks and valleys.  While very much possible, a garden is more likely to succeed if it can receive eight or more hours of continuous sunlight.  Before you set your heart on a location for your new garden, first observe your landscape and where the garden is going to receive the most amount of direct sunlight.  Also, look out for areas that are shaded throughout the day.  Take notes on the proximity to water, wildlife paths, your house, forested areas, drainage, and several other factors.”  

He adds, “Our mountainous soils are characterized as acidic and highly weatherized with low organic matter, which fall into the inceptisols and/or ultisols soil orders.  We live in one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, paired with a temperate climate have resulted in soils that are highly acidic and have generally low fertility.  However, our valleys contain some of the most fertile soil found in North Carolina.  I have seen some of the most beautiful, dark soil up and down the Big Cove Community.  That dark color is a result of the soil being rich in humic material or decomposing organic matter often founding the 1 to 5 percent range of the soil’s composition.”  

Owle sees opportunity in this time to expand gardening amongst tribal members.  “I think individuals, families, communities, and subsequently, the Tribe, should be engaging in some form of growing our food, if capable, in that order and all at once, together, if we are truly going to attain a modest level of food sovereignty within our community.  Wartime has historically generated increased movement for gardening and farming in order to generate more food and conserve resources.  This current public health crisis has been described as a ‘wartime’ effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.  It is also a humanitarian effort.” 

Continuing, he noted, “I think we are in the throes of an extraordinarily serious opportunity in which we all must demonstrate greater self-reliance and sustainability in the face of a reduced, or threatened, food supply system.  We can support local gardeners, farmers, livestock, and dairy producers by buying food that is grown closer to home, thus bolstering food sovereignty movements.”  

Chief Sneed said he is appreciative of the efforts to continue gardening during this time.  “I would like to thank our Agriculture and Natural Resources Division, and specifically the Cooperative Extension Office, for organizing and distributing the Garden Kits for families, providing them with a head start on their gardens.”