Growing food in the ways of my ancestors

Biochar soil enhancement and terracing is creating 12 feet (3.66 m) tall Easter Lilies, six feet (2m) tall giant-sized Fordhook lima bean bushes and Coushaw sweet squash that will weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg) by mid-October. The proof is in the photos!

Part 34 of The Americas Connected series

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

My Soque ancestors on the Savannah River in Georgia and in Tabasco State, Mexico grew corn on biochar soil platforms in the flood plain. William Bartram described these platforms as being the size of football fields and 8-12 feet (2.4-3.7 m) tall. Beans were grown on the rolling hills above the river. Members of the squashpumpkin family were grown in beds near houses or in recent cleared and burned woodland fields.
My Itsate and Soque ancestors in the Northeast Georgia Mountains and in Chiapas State, Mexico grew their corn in alluvial soil along rivers, but most of their other crops in biochar-enhanced soil on terraced slopes. These terraces usually had log retaining walls at first then stone walls were constructed as needed.

Biochar is a technique for improving the fertility of marginal soils, developed by indigenous Americans. It involves continuous additions of charcoal, ashes, kitchen waste, crushed sea shells or egg shells, decomposed weeds/corn husks, urine and bones that have been burned into potash powder.

Lidar revealed agricultural terraces in the dense forest, immediately south of the ancient capital of the Soque in the mountain hamlet of Batesville, GA. More detailed Lidar and infrared images revealed a pond for storing water and an irrigation system. There were NO stone walls, supporting these terraces. Obviously logs were used to support the terrace walls, but they have long ago decomposed.

Photos on August 14, 2022

The plants in the photos (except the Easter Lilies) will continue to grow and produce food until at least mid-October. We are now not getting “killing” frosts until the second week in November. Until the mid-1990s, killing frosts usually first occurred around October 8 in the Southern Appalachians.

The white tips of the green metal stakes are 6′-6″ (2 m) tall! The blooms on these Easter Lilies are an enormous 8 inches (20.3 cm) long. I did not plant this Easter Lily cluster. It just appeared last year in the garden, but only grew to 8 feet (2.4 m) tall last year. In the town, where I was born, Waycross, GA, Easter Lilies bloomed at Easter and grew about 32″ (81 cm) tall. I have no explanation!
View from my second story bedroom window
From the Mayas of eastern Campeche State, I learned a technique for increasing the productivity of lima beans as much as 500%! Their wild ancestors grew on the edges of forests in the lower mountains of the eastern side of the Andes in a climate, quite similar to the Southern Appalachians. These are Fordhook Lima Beans, which produce beans about twice the size of regular lima beans. By using the Campeche Maya technique of creating “artificial” saplings and vines to climb, I convert bushes that stop growing and flowering, when about 24-32 inches tall, into vines that continuously grow and produce new beans until there is a heavy frost!
The Coushaw sweet squash was developed by Upper Creek (Coushaw) Indians, living in the Southern Appalachians from a native wild squash. They are essentially very sweet pumpkins that can be used in cooking, anywhere that a sweet potato or pumpkin would be used. They grow best on soils containing charcoal and decomposed wood. I tried to weigh this one with a digital scale that measures up to 10 kg (22 lbs) but it was much bigger than the scale! LOL A couple of years ago, an Indiana farmer grew a Coushaw squash that weighed over 2,200 pounds (one metric ton). That squash made a lot of pumpkin pies!
This younger Coushaw squash only weighs about 15 pounds (6.8 kg), but has two more months to grow!
This tropical plant should theoretically not survive Appalachian winters, but has turned into a monster plant. It began when an eviction crew tossed a terrarium out of the house seven years ago. The terrarium landed upside down and apparently protected the small tropical plants in the terrarium from winter weather until they adapted to the climate and established deeper roots. I threw away the broken terrarium, but the elephant ears plant started thriving. Ferns also escaped from the terrarium and began expanding along the rear of the house. They have also turned into Jurassic Age ferns than can get as tall as seven feet (2 m)!

There is no doubt that our ancestors were Master Farmers!


  1. When I came home to Arizona, I wanted to garden. Tohono told me, get under the caliche (layers of lime). Dig down as far as you can, backfill with high carbon (logs and brush) and weeds. Throw on good soil (sandy adobe), top with heavy mulch and let it go for 6 months. It works! but, we still have a problem with heavy, drying winds that will kill anything not native. For that, they plant honey mesquite for beans, light shade, and nitrogen. Tohono have gardened here for thousands of years, and before them, their Hohokam ancestors. Mesquite, not maize, was and still is the queen of the gardens. niio

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  2. Your plants look healthy Richard and I love that Lily. At the moment because of all the heat we have had for weeks everywhere is so dry. Yes we do water the garden but it’s never the same as natural rainwater is it. Having said that, we noticed only today that our potato plants are growing and, I have some tomatoes growing in pots on the balcony. Good luck with the rest of your plants. Your ancestors certainly were great gardeners.

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  3. Makes me homesick! However, I’m adjusting to downsizing from our Arizona (near White Mountains) garden that had 40 years of soil building with wonderful results to my SoCal condo porch gardening where I mostly feed neighboring raccoons, rabbits, birds and lizards. Occasionally they leave a tomato or 2 fir me. I miss my chard!


    1. Time to get the beets and chard in! I’m down in Zone 9A, north of Tucson. If you can, get some snake manure. They’re popular pets. A little laced here and there helps. You should be able to find manure from Mtn lions or a zoo online. Hope this helps. Rodents are dangerous even if only because of diseases they spread. chasing off is much better than trapping. Then all 1,364 brothers and sister come to the funeral and stay for the feast 🙂

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