When the first immigrants settled in Jamestown, they survived by learning how to plant and grow corn—thanks to the Native American. Here in St. Louis immigrants and refugees from Africa and Asia are learning some of those same planting techniques today, one called The Thee Sisters,* where corn, squash and beans are planted in the same mound. (More on that method at the end of this post.)
It’s all part of an organic farming program sponsored by the International Institute and conducted in two city locations each with approximately an acre of land. The institute has been around St. Louis since 1919 and today serves more than 7,500 new Americans from 75 countries.
Joel Walker, farm manager, and Summer Jensen, with AmeriCorps, gave me a tour of the farm locations: the North Site at Hodiamont and Plymouth and the South Site on Folsom in the Botanical Heights neighborhood. A third site is in the works and is located on Cabanne in the West End neighborhood
Those who were once farmers in their homelands or want to become part of the agricultural scene in St. Louis can learn the needed skills for farming in the Midwest. Participants are able to grow fresh, inexpensive food for their families and market the excess.
Immigrants not only learn about new fruits and vegetables, they’re able to plant familiar foods, such as bitter eggplant and roselle, a species of hibiscus grown in the tropics. Participants also take classes in finance, business, and English to facilitate their adjustment to a new culture. Those completing the Global Farming Program will be eligible to apply for a loan to buy, or lease, small farm plots.
Below are some photos of the unusual vegetables raised this year, varieties I’ve never seen raised in a garden.
Farming and gardening help new American families participate in something familiar, when everything else in their lives is rapidly changing. Soon after resettling many immigrants experience a period of mourning from the loss of their culture. Urban gardening not only helps provide an activity that is familiar, it also puts food on the table and helps preserve the family’s culinary history.
*More about the The Three Sisters
According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters, who only grow and thrive together. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb and bean vines help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to wind. Shallow-rooted squash plants become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating.
For those with a small plot of ground wanting to try this planting method, The Three Sisters guide at Renee’s Garden is excellent.