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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Light Snow
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Crops of yore
Re-creating the gardens of early Wisconsin
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Squash, sunflowers, gourds, beans - these are just some of the native foods of the Americas that have transformed the world's food supply. And for the last three years, these and many more have been planted at Middleton's Pope Farm Park (7440 West Old Sauk Rd.) by archeologists from the Wisconsin Historical Society, with help from local fourth-graders. Their work highlights American Indian agriculture, as well as the gardens of European settlers.

The Pope Farm Park gardens are just one part of the 105-acre public park and educational environment established by the Pope family and the town of Middleton. A series of interpretative signs in the park describe the ecology, geology and history of the area, in addition to its agriculture.

Archeologists John Broihahn and Amy Rosebrough have planted the squash, sunflowers, gourds and beans (among others) in a garden that re-creates Indian practices of around A.D. 1000, and in a plot that recalls a French kitchen garden from about 1840. The French garden - based on the plantings of an early Wisconsin French family, the Grignons of Green Bay - incorporates corn and other Indian crops into more traditional European food crops. (An accompanying sign whimsically calls the fare "Wisconsin's First Fusion Cuisine.")

Although many people associate the "three sisters" - corn, squash and beans - with Wisconsin agriculture, these plants were actually latecomers to the local food scene. Instead, what is referred to as the Eastern Agricultural Complex (impress your friends with that one) comprised the range of native plants grown in eastern North America and the Midwest before corn and beans made it here.

Among the plants of the complex are pepo squash, marshelder, sunflowers, erect knotweed, goosefoot and bottle gourds. What we think of as American farming really began as weed management, as Native Americans, about 2,000 years ago, took these native plants and tried to control them through cultivation.

Wild rice joined the complex in more northern areas about 1,900 years ago. Giant ragweed, may grass and little barley were also carefully nurtured - and are nurtured now in the Pope Farm Park gardens. Also growing there: gourds. These were actually the first domesticated crop in the Americas, and they were grown here in Wisconsin for use as tools and decorations, and for their edible seeds.

As for corn, the food so many associate with the Midwest, it only arrived in Wisconsin about 1,000 years ago. It soon became a major food source, though, replacing seeds and grasses that were harder to harvest and process.

Beans were added to the mix about 800 years ago. Corn and beans were not only more productive crops, they were easier to grow; and both are growing along with the older complex of crops in the Pope Farm Indian garden.

The adjacent French garden, or potager, features a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers that are grown using companion planting. This system is based on the idea that certain plants benefit when planted in proximity to certain others. Wisconsin's French settlers integrated native crops into this system.

Most of the seeds for the gardens came from Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based nonprofit. Broihahn and Rosebrough expect to have the kids out again in the fall for harvest activities. They will likely plant Indian and settlers' gardens, but with a different European flavor, at Pope Farm Park again next year.

Note: the Pope Farm Park gardens aren't the only heritage gardens in town. This Saturday, Aug. 18, check out the Renewing America's Food Traditions garden at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station, which is holding a field day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The garden celebrates the diversity of America's edible plants. Call 262-2257 for details.

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