Bean tricks that I learned from the Mayas

Part 26 of The Americas Connected Series

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

An Itza Maya weeds his bean crop on the side of a mountain.

The Mayas living in the highlands of Campeche State and Guatemala usually grow their beans on terrace complexes that are identical to the ones that we are studying in northern Georgia. The bean vines drape down over the fieldstone retaining walls so the all parts of the bean plants can be exposed to maximum sunlight.

Rich Mountain Terrace Complex near Ellijay, GA – This sophisticated double wall supported the platform on which a temple was constructed. This impressive site is in the Chattahoochee National Forest, but much better maintained that the larger complex at Track Rock Gap. Many of the lower terraces at Track Rock were destroyed by logging equipment.

Eight years ago, I began to survey the available archaeological literature from Georgia to discern if any archaeologists had discovered other terrace complexes in Georgia . . . but their reports had been conveniently forgotten by the current generation. Yes, indeed! While studying the Morgan Falls area of the Chattahoochee River, my old mentor, Dr. Arthur Kelly, had discovered several terrace complexes on the slopes of the Chattahoochee River Gorge. That area is now part of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in North Metro Atlanta. He saw discovered a Scandinavian-style stone boat grave next to some Scandinavian Bronze Age-style petroglyphs. Bet you didn’t know that!

The University of Georgia Department of Anthropology refuses to examine the enormous Sandy Creek Terrace Complex . . . which is an eight minute drive from their building and mostly on publicly owned land. When asked by Jackson and Clarke County governments to do an archaeological study, the professors responded, “We don’t want to be connected to the Maya thing.”

Kelly and several other archaeologists of the mid-to-late 20th century found other agricultural terrace complexes on the Amicalola River in the southern tip of the Appalachians and at several locations in the Georgia Piedmont. Some are rather close to the cities of Atlanta, Athens, Commerce, Columbus and Macon. The Sandy Creek Terrace Complex is only six miles from the University. Much of the complex is in a county park. The walls are in better condition than those at Track Rock Gap.

Sandy Creek Terrace Complex

I thought that this one below, near Macon and the Ocmulgee National Historic Park, was the most interesting of the Piedmont terrace complexes. The one near Macon also had a mound at the top of the terracing, plus several stone cairns.

Site plan by Dr. Arthur Kelly of terrace complex near Macon, GA.

Gwinnett County, GA officials have preserved a 330 acre terrace complex near Auburn, GA as part of the Little Mulberry River County Park. The park also includes the probable ruins of the European colony of Melilot, which was founded in 1566 by survivors of Fort Caroline AND is shown on many late 16th century and 17th century maps. I have photocopy of a letter written on January 6, 1660 by Eduard Graeves, a natural scientist and lawyer, who was on the governing council of Mellilot. It was a real place.

The county fathers purchased the land for Little Mulberry River Park, after three archaeological consulting firms refused to label the ancient stone ruins that dot the tract as being “historic.” That’s the job of a licensed Architect, with credentials in historic preservation. Archaeology is not a licensed profession. I don’t know why they didn’t go to an architect in the first place.

A recently cleared, burned and seeded milpa in eastern Campeche.

Lowland Maya bean farmers

At least here is the Southeast, gardeners have traditionally constructed elaborate fence-like structures for growing “pole beans” and other beans (or peas), which grow on vines. The term pole refers to the original practice of building lattice fences for beans that grow on vines . . . not just green beans. Nowadays, that much labor and capital expenditure seems to be unjustified, when the cheapest vegetable that you can buy is a can of green beans. The custom is withering away.

Long, long ago, when I was on the fellowship in Mexico and touring the wilderness of eastern Campeche with University of Campeche student, Ana Rojas, we came upon a region where the Mayas were clearing jungle to create milpas . . . slash and burn agricultural clearings that typically last 3-5 years.

We noticed that one Maya farmer had left saplings laying in the field after sowing seeds. (photo above) Ana asked him he was going to build a house there. He said no, it was for the beans and squash. We didn’t understand quite what he meant.

Then we drove past older milpas and home vegetable gardens in which the Maya farmers had constructed teepee like structures for beans and squash varieties that grow on vines. We also noticed milpas, where the beans and vine squash seeds were planted on the northern edges of fields, so that the plants could grow up trees, yet still be exposed to the sun.

Fast-forward – the Reems Creek Valley, north of Asheville, NC

I had to clear ALL of the pastures for the nation’s second licensed goat dairy. So, during the eight years that we lived there, I always had a plentiful supply of saplings. I remembered seeing the bean teepees and thought I would try them out . . . even for bean varieties that supposedly grew as bushes. I planted some seeds as recommended for bush-type beans. On other rows, I constructed tree sapling teepees for a bean varieties.

One thing surprising is that if a bush variety of bean or pea sensed wooden poles to climb on, it usually turned into a vine plant. The beans would continue growing and producing more beans as long as they sensed a place to grow on. In general, beans and winter squash vines with teepees to climb, produced two to five times as much edible beans/fruit.

The teepees completely eliminated the problems with leaf rot, ground-dwelling borers and the damp parts of squash being ruined by fungi. It was obvious that the ancestors of beans and squash were opportunistic, fast-growing species that took advantage of holes in the jungle or forest, caused by fires or windstorms.

My former wife lost interest in gardening after we moved to Virginia to a farm, already cleared with some of the most fertile soil in United States. I did grow asparagus and rhubarb, which was sold to restaurants, which bought our goat cheese. I never grew any beans or squash there, because I was extremely busy with both my architecture practice and the cheese creamery.

My Amicalola terrace garden was one year old in this photo. Potatoes are growing above the new stone wall.
The irrigation system at the terrace garden near Amicalola Falls, GA giant tomato plants are growing in cones on the right.

After settling down in a rental cabin near Amicalola Falls, GA, I immediately cleared land for a terrace garden. I was absolutely dependent on being able to grow my own food to survive. The new garden is the one that you see at the beginning of the premier of America Unearthed. I had just been living there two months, when the program was filmed. There was no chance of me getting architecture work, since there was little construction in rural Georgia for many years after the Great Recession officially ended and strangers judge you by the place you live.

There were few saplings, suitable for making bean teepees, so I experimented with tomato cones. These are the cone-shaped frames made with welded galvanized wire that you seen in the recent article on my new terrace garden. They actually work much better than teepees, because they provide many more surfaces for beans vines to cling to.

In contrast, the tomato cones are not suitable for winter squash vines. The wire used to make these cones in China is too weak and pliable. The weight of mature winter squash literally pulls the cone out of the ground and causes the frame to collapse onto the ground . . . often breaking the tender squash vine. Lattices, built from saplings, is still the best way to go for winter squash.

Live and learn!

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