Founders of the Thanksgiving Harvest: Lessons in Gardening from the Native Americans

Imagine that it’s the year 1620. You’re sailing across the Atlantic for months and months, enduring disease, seasickness, and limited food rations, only to discover that storms at sea have changed the course of your vessel, putting you much further north than the captain and crew wanted.

You land on the rocky soils of New England.

Upon settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the rocky, acidic soil took the pilgrims off guard. They were used to much different gardening conditions in England, and many died that first year of settlement. At first, the Pilgrims practiced the same planting and gardening schedule as they did in England, not realizing that everything was different – from the soil, to the length of seasons. They had to learn new gardening techniques, and fast. Their lives depended on it.

We celebrate Thanksgiving in honor of the Native Americans who stepped forward to help the pilgrims reap a bountiful harvest. Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for the success of our gardens, and to share the bounty with those we love most.

 But what exactly did the pilgrims learn from the Native Americans, and are these lessons still relevant for us today? Read on to find out!

Lessons in Gardening from Squanto and The Native Americans


  1. Fertilize the soil

Any avid gardener knows that you absolutely must fertilize the soil if you want a successful crop. Squanto took things a step further, because he fertilized the soil with dead fish! This helped introduce more bacteria and calcium into the soil and allowed the neutralize the acidic New England soil.

If you’ve ever planted your garden without first testing and fertilizing the soil, you may have realized how poorly your crops grew and how much more you had to pull weeds. Squanto and his tribe knew better – that healthy soil results in a healthy crop.


  1. Work with the land, not against it.

The Native Americans didn’t have fancy gardening tools. They didn’t have plows. In fact, they never tilled or plowed the soil. Instead, they treated their garden like a giant compost pile. They harnessed the soil’s natural beneficial bacteria, fungi, and worms to help the natural order of plant life. They knew better than to disrupt the balance of nature.


  1. Companion planting

Companion planting, or as the Native Americans called it, the “Three Sisters” method, is a way of planting certain crops together to support to growth of each and to enrich the soil.

For example, they planted beans with corn, so the beans could climb up the corn stalks, removing the need for trellises. They planted squash around the beans and corn, to establish ground cover and remove a need for weeding. Their gardens were fields of plants that relied on each other for support.


  1. Certain plants can be used as ground cover.

Speaking of ground cover, the Indians planted low-lying crops for ground cover in their garden plots, so they could cut down on the amount of weeding that had to be done. They would plant pumpkins and squash, eliminating open ground space and preventing the growth of weeds. This practice also maintained moisture and prevented soil erosion.

As soon as the pilgrims received practical gardening advice from the Native Americans, they were able to grow a bountiful harvest, which we celebrate today during Thanksgiving. In reality, the first Thanksgiving probably had more Indians present than Pilgrims, as so many Pilgrims died from their lack of gardening knowledge.


Let’s be thankful that our lives don’t depend on our gardening skills anymore! And remember: here at Stockslagers, we’re always available to answer any questions you have about gardening. Just like Squanto, we want you to have the most bountiful harvest possible. Happy Thanksgiving!


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