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The Iroquois Planting System

The Iroquois Planting System

(1996 Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Board of Education) Most Native people used some form of hill planting system.
  • When the leaves of the dogwood are the size a squirrel’s ear it is time to plant.
  • Seeds are planted from east to west, with kind thoughts three days before the full moon. A small hole is dug. Three to four kernels of corn are placed in that hole and then loosely covered with an inch or two of soil. As the corn germinates and begins to grow, the small seedling comes up above the ground surface.
  • The Iroquois would return periodically and as they weeded, they would hill up the soil around those young corn plants. The hills were arranged in fairly uniform rows. The distance between the rows of hills would be approximately three feet and the distance between the hills in each row was also approximately three feet.
  • Usually tow to three weeks after the corn have been planted, the farmers would return in the same hills, they would plant tow to three bean seeds. This is called interplanting. The bean plants are able to fix nitrogen. They can take nitrogen out of the air and turn it into a form that plants can use. Especially corn, which needs a lot of nitrogen. The corn plant, in turn, offers support so bean plants can grow up around the corn stalk.
  • In the area between the rows, many Natives would also plant a low growing crop such as pumpkins or squash that would cover the ground area between the hills. The advantage of the pumpkin or squash seems to be primarily weed control; it covers the land, the soil and is able to choke out any submerging weed seedlings.

The combination of the hill system and the interplanting provided the Iroquois farmers with an agricultural system that controlled weeds, gave nitrogen to the soil and provided a varied and balanced diet.


Iroquois farmers were also aware of the importance of soil management or taking care of the soil. They knew they had to help the soil if they wanted it to provide the nutrients for corn year after year. The Iroquois kept their fields fertile (with lost of nutrients) by composting. They would return all of the plant residues from both weeds and the corn plant to each hill and sometimes add fish fertilizer.

After about ten years the Iroquois noticed that the soil was worn out. The crops were getting smaller and not as healthy. They knew it was time to move to a new field and let the old one recuperate; it could get back its nutrients. This is called fallowing. When the field they were using started to show signs of decline, they would go into a field that had not been used for corn for sometime. Usually trees had grown while the field was not being used. They would girdle those trees (strip the bark off in a band all the way around), allow them to die, and the field would be burned. The ashes that resulted from the burnt trees provided the nutrients for the corn that would be planted the following spring. The field would be kept in corn production until the amount of corn began to decline. People would move on to another field and allow the field they had been using to regrow once again to weeds, bush and trees.

This cycle of growth and fallowing allowed Iroquois farmers to have good yields, and at the same time, to take care of the soil and the health of Mother Earth.

Sustainable Agriculture

There’s been a great deal of questioning in the agricultural community in the last several years about whether some of our agricultural practices are sustainable. That is, do our agricultural practices take care of the land for future generations?

First of all, there’s the problem of pesticides. There is a fear that we are contaminating our water, by pesticides running off the farm land into the rivers and streams. Pesticides are also killing wildlife. Spiders eat poisoned bugs, birds eat the spiders, and a fox eats the birds and gets sick and dies.

Secondly, some of our agricultural practices are causing erosion. For example, when the land is ploughed there are no roots to hold the earth in place. A big wind or rain carries it away, especially if there is a slope. Scientists are looking for practices that are more sustainable. Some of their ideas are similar to what the Iroquoian farmers did 500 years ago.

Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in a system of planting that we all no-till. Most corn was planted after the land was ploughed. No-till systems involve planting corn without first ploughing the soil. Rather than overturning the entire field of soil, use a special planter which simply inverts a small section of the soil and plants the corn seed directly in that small section, leaving the rest of the field intact. In doing so, the soil is not exposed and reduces losses by erosion.

Scientists thought their idea was new until they found out that Iroquois farmers were using a no-till system 800 years ago. Indian farmers understood the importance of no-till systems long ago and we are simply reinventing that.

Ridge tillage is a system that has been in use in the Midwest for about 10 years. Instead of ploughing the field, we go through the field with special implements that form the soil into ridges by bringing soil from either side into the middle. On that ridge corn is planted. The ridges are maintained year after year. The next year when corn is planted there’s no ploughing done at all. The ridge is chopped off at the top when the seeds are put in. when the corn grows up to be 6 to 8 inches or 12 inches tall, we go back through and reform those ridges. If you think about it, what we’re really looking at is a hill system that’s been mechanized. The ridge tillage system creates a much more favourable soil environment for the corn plant. Old corn stalks are dug back into the ridges to provide fertilizer

For about 10 years scientists have been working to develop a modern way of interplanting. They want to grow legumes, like red clover, or grasses between the rows of corn. Scientists realize that interplanting has advantages. First you reduce the possibility of soil erosion because you don’t have bare ground. If you use a legume, you give nitrogen to the soil. Finally, red clover or grass grows close together and cuts out the weeds. Once again, farm scientists are relearning what Iroquoian farmers already knew.

In conclusion, there is a tremendous amount that scientists have to learn from the Iroquoian farmer and all people need to recognize the contributions that native farmers have made to our agricultural systems in the 20th century.

Coming Full Cycle: Saving Seeds

(Onkwawen Tkaienthohseron “Our Garden” The Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres)

By saving and replanting some of the seeds from their Three Sisters gardens, Native American gardeners brought the cycle of life full circle. Your group may want to save some seeds to replant or package and give to other gardeners. Below are some tips for gathering and preserving the seeds:

Corn: Leave several ears on the stalk until husks dry and turn brown. Remove and peel back the husks and hang them to dry, out of direct sun, for a month. Once they’re dry, remove the individual kernels. Store them in an airtight container. You should note that if you save and replant hybrid corn, the plants will not have their parents’ good qualities.

Beans: Leave several pods on a plant until they turn brown and brittle. Break open the pods and remove the seeds. Leave them on a flat surface or screen, out of direct sun, to air dry for a few days. Put them in an airtight, dark container and make sure they are protected from extreme heat and cold.

Squash: Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and rinse them with water in a colander. Follow the same instructions as listed for drying and storing beans.