As November’s sun-angle lowers in the sky and dry nights chill into blanket weather, the season for winter vegetable gardens begins. For these winter gardens, we can draw our inspiration from Padre Kino himself.
Right here, on this very soil of Baja Arizona—through wet seasons or droughts—desert people have been growing their food for 4,100 years. It may be difficult to imagine centuries of desert agriculture, having survived the awesome heat and dryness of the last few years. But archaeologists have shown us the proof: diminutive corncobs dating from pre-Hohokam times, the oldest evidence of maize found north of Mexico.
In the 1690s, Native Americans in the well-established Tohono O’odham village of S-cuk Shon (literally “Black Spring,” where there was water at the base of the black hill now known as Sentinel Peak, or “A” Mountain) were cultivating their traditional monsoon gardens on the fertile Santa Cruz floodplain. Father Eusebio Kino chose this site, a day’s ride north of San Xavier del Wa:k, for Mission San Agustín, and introduced the residents of S-cuk Shon to entirely new ways of life, steeped in Old World tradition. His vegetable “palette” was a colorful and delectable array of plants attuned to the ways of Mediterranean weather—drought-filled summers and wet winters. Padre Kino’s “possible sack” was replete with potential seed-borne experiments, a shotgun approach to gardening in a strange new habitat. With good fortune and prayer, not to mention Sonoran Desert rains, many of his Mediterranean seed trials flourished to feed the Pima Bajo and Desert People who congregated in his mission communities and partook of the bread and wine brought forth from desert soil.
After 300 years, multiple cultural invasions, groundwater pumping and drying of riverine water-sources, agrochemical faddism, the sad loss of gardening and seed-saving knowledge, what has happened to Kino’s plants and the seeds he literally sowed?
Saving local knowledge
For more than a century now, vegetable gardeners have been in the habit of going to catalogs, hardware stores, and nurseries, to buy new seed each year—seeds with few clues as to their provenance. But with food insecurity crises looming and the realization that Baja Arizona cities like Tucson have three to five days worth of food available at any one time, we are at last culturally re-learning that we not only need to grow food but we must also re-learn how to save locally adapted seed—two of the most important basic skill sets humans have honed since they first “invented” agriculture.
At the base of Sentinel Peak in Tucson, on the very site where Padre Kino found the Native community of S-cuk Shon and established Mission San Agustín, visionaries at the non-profit organization Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace have re-created a beautiful living history orchard. It is a huerta of trees known to be cloned from the original mission trees. In addition to reviving these historic trees, the Friends’ goal was to build a vegetable garden each season to grow authentic Mission-period foods. Today, the Friends’ new Mission Garden is almost exactly where Kino’s original walled Mission Garden was situated, offset intentionally by about 30 feet so that future archaeologists will be able to distinguish the different eras.
Using the model of traditional Hispanic jardineros (gardeners) in towns such as Magdalena, Sonora, where Padre Kino’s influence is still very much alive, we placed our jardin de historia viviente (garden of living history) in a low swale, surrounded by young fruit trees planted in 2012 commemorating the Padre’s 300th anniversary. In keeping with examples of Sonoran kitchen gardens, we designed the north half of our almost 1,000-square-foot oval space to be tilled and furrowed. The south half of the jardin temporal (seasonal garden) area we designed as waffles, inspired by ancient farming patterns observed in nearby archaeological sites, three- to four-foot squares surrounded by mini-berms to garner and hold water.
When we began the project, the land had not been farmed or gardened since the 1800s. When we took on the job of soil prep, it felt like mud cement. The waffle squares gave our crew of dedicated volunteers a good workout, digging by hand and shovel to loosen the soil and then amend with compost. I still remember how, as I lifted my pickaxe to cleave the compacted floodplain hardpan of the Santa Cruz to break ground for vegetables, I was struck with deep respect for these ancient desert gardeners and farmers. It still moves me, now, that it is our turn to turn the soil here.
A seed search
Now, where would we get seeds of historically accurate Mission Period vegetables—the ones that Father Kino himself would have brought? Fortunately Baja Arizona is blessed with the seed conservation organization Native Seeds/SEARCH, whose plant explorers have been quietly conserving traditional food-crop seeds for more than 30 years and generously provided precious heirloom seed for our living history project.
Three decades ago, NS/S plant-sleuths found seeds of three different varieties of heirloom wheat, which had been continuously used through the three centuries since Padre Kino introduced them (although they had nearly fallen out of cultivation on both sides of the border): White Sonora wheat, Pima club, and early Baart. Beardless varieties of White Sonora wheat and Pima Club wheat were our first choices for the Mission Period winter veggie garden.
From historical missionary documents, we knew to search for Old World pulses: legumes like lentils, garbanzo beans or chickpeas, fava beans, and so-called English peas. In the NS/S seed bank collection, we found Tarahumara pink lentils, a variety which missionaries had long ago introduced to Sierra Madre natives. NS/S also had Tohono O’odham peas, which the padres had brought to the Desert People—perhaps first to the ground we were re-turning.
The Mission Garden Project and the greater Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum community are also blessed with the bi-cultural teacher, farmer, and Hispanic tradition-carrier Jesus Garcia. His family’s roots in Magdalena, Sonora, provided us not only knowledge about regional Hispanic gardening practices, but also the very seeds of plants grown by his forebears and saved from the time of Kino’s mission on the Rio Magdalena. Garcia brought us local heirloom fava beans (habas), as well as heirloom Magdalena cilantro for its fresh green herb and its fragrant spicy seed. In addition, Garcia brought his family’s acelgas seed. Acelgas translates as chard, but this was different from any commercial chard we’d ever seen. Here was an heirloom unknown in the NS/S collection until now, proving that gifts can go both ways.
NS/S located a variety of Tarahumara mostaza roja seed, which produces a giant, leafy, non-biting mustard green called mequasare, originally collected in the Sierra Madre by NS/S founders Barney Burns and Mahina Drees. Definitive information is unavailable whether this mustard green was originally Old World or selected from wild plants by the Raramuri, as they call themselves, though Drees believes it was a mission introduction that came in with wheat.
Root vegetables brought by the padres proved important and healthful. Onions, garlic, shallots supplemented similar wild lily bulbs and roots collected by las indigenes. From the NS/S collection, we garnered a purple-tinted “red” garlic, originally from around Hermosillo, Sonora. Our third root vegetable was an I’itoi’s shallot, a prolific multiplier introduced by the Spanish.
Planting designs and lessons
By the time our site was dug, rototilled and finally ready for planting, November was here. To maximize the cooler season, our seed was into the ground by early December.
Water dictates planting. In each waffle square, set with a spiral of leaky hose, we planted spirals of greens, wheat, or pea seed to “shadow” the water source. For repelling unwanted insects, we also planted an outer circle of onion sets or garlic cloves around all greens, forming a shield of strong aroma. This defensive strategy of companion planting seemed to work, as both the greens and the stinky root crops thrived.
The Orach greens grew gangly and tall with a single spike that reached up to five feet high, with a deep purple tinge to the large firm leaves. In two of the waffles, we broadcast the NS/S White Sonora wheat and, as wheat’s habit is rapid growth, the wheatgrass outpaced foliage predators. We planted the NS/S Pima Club wheat in two different ways: broadcast in a pool-irrigated panel, and row-planted in the furrowed area. As with the White Sonora wheat, both plantings of Pima Club sprang tall, well over three-feet high. For Mission people, wheat was far more than food: After grain harvest, the long stalks were helpful as bedding, animal shelter, thatch, compost, mulch, and insulation. Modern wheat is less than half the stature, genetically manipulated to put energy only into its seed, and low to the ground to be mechanically harvested. More than two decades ago, NS/S sent Pima Club wheat seed back “home” to San Xavier, where it had been lost for generations. With traditional crops in plentiful production now at San Xavier Coop Association, we can find Pima Club wheat at their Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market table, to toast or grind for ourselves.
In paired furrows separated by acequias (ditches), we planted acelgas, habas, and cilantro from Magdalena, commercial garbanzos, Tohono O’odham and Pima wihol (green peas), Tarahumara lentils and mostaza roja. Well-watered Magdalena acelgas were prolific, providing us with tasty greens, better cooked than raw, great for winter fare. So many acelgas seeds were scattered at harvest that our subsequent monsoon garden exploded with volunteer surprise acelgas. Success with the same vegetable in two different climate seasons is rare here indeed.
The Magdalena habas and Tucson Seed Company favas, as well as the Tarahumara lentils, became stunted by the intense winter sun. They bloomed and fruited low to the ground. Some form of shading would have been an advantage. The commercial garbanzos totally bombed, perhaps from being selectively chomped by cottontails or perhaps because they are not heirlooms adapted to our clime. Where our irrigation was plentiful, both the Tohono O’odham and Pima peas grew densely and produced many pods. A watchful eye should be used daily as pods are maturing in order to harvest green fresh peas—they dry quickly. Cilantro produced copious edible foliage but as soon as a February hot spell hit, they bolted. Not a problem, as coriander seed is useful, too.
It was the mostaza roja, the Tarahumara mustard greens, that went off the charts for us. Ever-fresh leaves kept emerging even with weekly plucking through the season, until the branching green mounds were three to four feet around. Steamed, boiled, stir-fried, or chopped fresh in salad, this mostaza roja is delectable right up to its little yellow Crucifer flowers. Here is another double-duty plant whose seed are as plentiful and purposeful as its foliage; after the greens stage its mustard seeds can be added to masa for adding zip to tamales.
Padre Kino’s Garden recommendations for winter
Father Kino’s Mediterranean gifts offer inspiration to dive into winter garden action. Garlic and I’itoi’s onions will be the gifts that keep on giving—in the garden and on the table. Orach greens, acelgas, cilantro, and mostaza roja will provide a profusion of taste and nutrition. With some wind protection or partial shading, fava beans, Tohono O’odham and Pima peas, and Tarahumara lentils should grow productive as winter vegetarian protein sources. White Sonoran and Pima Club wheat will be rewards for the novice gardener. Their grain can be sprouted and eaten for the benefits of wheatgrass. Grow them densely, even in small garden patches for a great reward. Grinding one’s own home-grown grain for homemade bread can truly be a religious experience. ✜
Martha Ames Burgess is an ethnobotanist, desert gardener, wild-harvester, teacher, and seed-saver. She also volunteers for Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace and Native Seeds/SEARCH.