We focused on the natural world this year at Pine Ridge, immersing ourselves in nature awareness and communion with the land.
It started with the arrival of over 100 wild horses rescued for release on 8000 acres of prairie stewarded by Oglala-Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitilization Initiative. Nothing could embody the spirit of freedom via self-sufficiency that we’re striving for more than to watch, from the garden, this wild herd in full gallop across the range – purely because they feel like it. Our breath ends up in our throat regularly in response to the beauty and majesty of this animal.
We had many chances to watch the behavior of the wild herd and learn design lessons from it. We’ll share some of those in future articles.
As beautiful and intriguing the horses are, our biggest focus for this year was food sovereignty. Pine Ridge is a “food desert”, with almost no grocery stores on the rez (many people travel 1 hour or more to Rapid City, paying huge sums in fuel costs as well as for groceries), and almost no local, fresh food available. There are small, positive changes being made, and we made connections with some other great organizations on the rez also working on this issue – Roots and Shoots has installed several community gardens in Kyle and other areas, and Thunder Valley is engaging the community in discussions about the subject, raising awareness and gathering information on needs and resources. They have also helped create more access to the few farmer’s markets on the rez. The Pine Ridge Fire Dept is growing a community garden and giving the food away to the public, and this will be a good outlet for our excess crops as well.
Our goal was to make what we did in our garden as relevant and useful for others as possible, and we’ve been gathering information about what people are struggling with in trying to grow food on the rez for a couple of years now.
We decided to completely redo the garden (as the original wasn’t designed for water catchment) and create an experimental site in order to find out exactly what people deal with in the harsh climate of the plains.
A common gardening method here is what could be described as “scorched earth.” In an effort to keep pests from finding the garden, people mow down the prairie grass for dozens of feet surrounding it, leaving the soil exposed to dry winds and baking sun in the summer, and erosion in the wet season. We decided to try to see what would happen if we let succession happen naturally and worked with nature instead of against her, letting the “weeds” grow near the garden.
We sheet mulched about 1/4 acre with composted manure (plenty of it on the ranch), and straw, cut a swale, measured out a pond, and cut paths to capture rainwater and send it into the garden.
We created two small greenhouses out of pallet boxes and old clear tarp lying around. They didn’t warm things up much, but they protected young seedlings from wind, hail and creatures. We planted more than 80 species of heirloom veggie, herb and flower seeds, to see how each would do in this particular environment, and started a spreadsheet to keep track of results.
Because we didn’t do the scorched earth thing, our garden filled up quickly with pigweed, lambsquarter, the dreaded goathead and wild sunflowers. Pigweed and lambsquarter are very edible and also dynamic accumulators, and the pig loves them. So we let them stay and added their nutrition to our salads and potherb dishes.
Goathead is another matter. It is a ground cover pioneer species that spawns a vicious burr that has two giant spikes on it like devils horns, or goat’s horns (thus the name), sharp enough to flatten a bicycle tire or leave a gaping, bleeding wound in your foot. The manure we used for the sheet mulch was inundated with goathead seeds. So we weeded a lot more than we usually do. Normally we would have just mulched it into non-existence, but we also wanted to try out numerous heirloom veggie and herb species this year, and we got a late start for a number of reasons, so we left the beds uncovered to plant seeds and seedlings. Next year, our strategy will be to let the goathead come up while growing seedlings in the greenhouse and allowing the soils to warm up, mulch it down, then plant in the mulch. That way, we should avoid having to weed at all, while adding fertility and protection to the soil.
By pushing the system, opening it to pests and weather, we discovered which varieties did well and which didn’t. We also learned a tremendous amount about the challenges people face when trying to grow vegetables in this tough climate (hot, dry summers, very cold winters, hail the size of baseballs sometimes, strong, dry winds, only a three to four month frost-free window, heavy clay-silt soils, and tons of pests – every plant chomping and sucking insect you could think of seems to live here, and some I had hardly imagined! The abundance of insect life is quite impressive). Though it took some courage because we knew we would probably lose crops, we wanted to deal with what we’ve seen the average gardener dealing with her, and see how hard it would be to get those factors under control, starting from an imbalanced system.
We had visits from just about every pest that must exist in these parts. That was interesting, as I have rarely had to deal with pests in the balanced systems we set up. But, from our surveys done last year, we found that many people do deal with them on the rez and handling them organically seems difficult. So, what works once they are in the system and active?
We wrote an article about our findings, here:
We spent many hours researching suitable plant species for the area – which are invasive? Which are toxic to horses or cows? (many of our favorite nitro fixers and other permaculture staples are toxic to horses – we now have a pretty thorough list). Which are easy to grow, drought and cold tolerant, nutritious and healthy, similar to what people already eat and like, etc? We came up with a list we were excited about (and still are – some of the things on the list did really well – for instance, we now have several hundred sunchoke plants on our swales and will be adding many more next year – a real survival native crop that grows well under a wide range of conditions found here. Bonus – the inulin in them helps with diabetes, something that 60% of the people on the rez suffer from).
In the midst of planting and caring for the garden, mid-June, we got a hot tip about some bare root trees that could be bought for almost nothing. We were planning to do a food forest, and this seemed to be a perfect opportunity to get the wind break trees we needed to create a suitable microclimate for the more delicate fruit trees we’ve wanted to plant on the plains. We ended up getting more than 600 trees – 400+ honey locusts alone.
Getting 600 trees planted fast when you weren’t planning on it can be a bit of a challenge! Since they were bare root and it was late in the season, soon to become hot and dry, we couldn’t take our time about it – we had about three days before trees started dying.
We received some amazing assistance from Bryan Deans, head of OLCERI, who commandeered getting 600 holes dug with his bobcat in only a few hours, and from three volunteers, Dave Karp, Felicia Hobart and Dani Slabaugh, all of who worked extra long hours to make it happen. We got some key natives into the food forest system such as buffalo berry, hackberry, and cottonwood, and other edibles like rugosa rose, caragena, elderberry, and hawthorn. And windbreaks up in many of the major areas (though we still need cedars, which will come next year).
Many of these trees can be easily propagated, so next year, we will create dozens of pots to give out to people who need windbreaks and/or fodder. Already, we have a number of requests from others on the rez for honey locusts and some of the others for next spring.
The trees are beautiful – leaves swaying in the wind and new growth shooting up faster than usual (probably because of the mychrorrhizia we soaked the roots in and added to the soil). We can’t wait until next spring when the sweet fragrence and flowers of 400 honey locusts will fill the area. This tree has so many uses – it is great fodder for animals, much of it is edible for humans, but perhaps its strongest quality for the mostly treeless prairie is the wood, which grows rapidly and does not rot. It can be used for posts for fences, for firewood (which can be lifesaving in prairie winters), or for round beams in buildings. We visited a greenhouse earlier in the year in Wisconsin that is built from raw trunk wood of black locust, which has similar properties. The architecture is beautiful, and there is a lot less waste of wood. We can coppice honey locust trees for the wood without killing them, and continue to enjoy their beauty for many years. Another possible bonus is that they may fix nitrogen. Though their roots do not collect the nodules usually associated with nitrogen fixers, and some people insist they do not fix nitrogen, there is scientific evidence that they do bring nitrogen to the soil. We’ll be watching how other plants do around them, next year.
We created a list for a seven layer food forest that focuses on native and traditional edibles and medicinals of the Lakota, as well as a wide variety of fruit and nut trees that grow in this climate zone. We are trying a few species that grow in warmer zones, to see how we do with our microclimates. In an area with extremely harsh winters (wind chill of down to -50 F, wide temperature swings, early and late frosts, etc), this is a special challenge. We would love hearing from and exchanging knowledge with people who have food forest experience in this type of climate!
Some of our plants did splendidly well, growing with wild exuberance and abundance, while others struggled with the climate and soils. We’re documenting the heirloom varieties that do the best, so we can share that knowledge with the rest of the rez (and publicly, via our web site). Again, we’re very interested in hearing from others who are gardening in W South Dakota or NW Nebraska climates, their successes, their favorite varieties, etc. Please feel free to post on our page or share on our facebook page at
Our other major project was documenting some of the wild edibles on the prairie. We explored our pasture and the larger range, documenting wild medicinals and edibles and where they are to be found. This has only begun, but we found many wonderful species and will be continuing that project next year. We’re sharing some of our findings on our partner Facebook site at facebook.com/olceri. Check out the photo albums on our Facebook sites, of our gardens, food forests, horses, Pine Ridge life, and more.