Joyce Rychener has spent dozens of hours in the hot summer sun at Steam Pump Ranch, where she's raised a Native American heritage garden.
Summer corn, tepary beans and squash — the "three sisters" of the native diet — are being harvested from the central "monsoon" garden, while winter crops are being planted in sunken beds on its perimeter.
"To me, it's been so phenomenal," said Pat Spoerl, president of the historical society, as she listened to Rychener explain the garden to a group of visitors.
The demonstration garden is intended to replicate what has been done by native people in Southern Arizona for thousands of years, and to show what could be done to preserve cultural practices and educate residents.
"You can learn so much here," Rychener said. "We can preserve a legacy, for children, and a springboard for all kinds of programs."
The "monsoon" garden was planted in a central circle, historically after the season's second rain, utilizing the "three sisters" – a 60-day Tohono O'odham corn that's "right on time," tepary beans and squash -- in a combination planting technique used by the native Tohono O'odham.
Those plants "cooperate," Rychener explained.
Corn grows tall, and the tassels at Steam Pump are more than six feet off the ground. "The tepary beans needs something to grow up on," Rychener said, so the vines climb the corn. Squash plants spread below, and keep the moisture in. There are massive fruits on the squash vines. In sum, corn, beans and squash form "the Holy Trinity" of the native diet. "It's what they ate," Rychener said.
"These are the three staple plants in the Americas since the cultivation of plants began," said Spoerl. "This is what grows well here."
"This corn is drought-adapted," Rychener explained. "It needs some water, but not much. The same with tepary." At the end of monsoon, there is no more water, and the plants produce ears, pods and fruit. Tepary beans are "very high in protein, very nutritious," she said.
There is a central sprinkler in the circle, but Rychener has largely utilized flood irrigation techniques with trenches and sunken beds, as opposed to modern raised beds. Why sunken beds? "It captures the water, and it keeps the water," Rychener explains.
There is an adobe pit within the circle, soaked to yield a clay she's used to keep the berms plastered and in good repair. If the water flows too swiftly, it tears down walls.
Along the perimeter, Rychener has planted more squash, and Apache sunflowers. "They did great," she said. Native amaranth, identified as a food source in lean times, sprouts along the edge. She's planting a living willow fence around it, to serve as a natural barrier and to yield material for baskets.
Around the garden, Rychener has erected a wire fence, its foundation pushed deep into the soil to keep critters out. Rychener has excavated horseshoes and eyehooks, artifacts of ranching life, and they're sitting on a fence line.
The soil is "excellent," she said. Rychener had a soil analysis conducted by the Catalina firm Arbico. It is an alkaline soil – "we did have to add sulfur," she said. But Steam Pump Ranch is in the historic alluvial floodplain of the Canada del Oro, with good soil enriched by the fertilizer of livestock.
"We're in a perfect place to garden right now," she explains, though the flooding effects are lost with embankment of the CDO. The dirt was "very hard." The 1983 flood compacted the soil, and it's been trodden by vehicles, horses and cattle for much of the modern era. "This soil was as hard-packed as you can imagine," she said. Her husband's tiller "doesn't do anything." She started shooting a powerful hose into the soil, through the hard crust and into the "beautiful sand" below. Slowly but surely, the soil began to yield.
"It's fun," Rychener said. "It's better than going to the gym …"
Rychener has cataloged the wildlife, to include insects, lizards, hummingbirds, other birds, and clear evidence of coyotes and a bobcat. Javelinas are "dying to get in here," she said, pointing to hoof prints along the perimeter. A roadrunner took care of a rattlesnake. "It has become alive now," she said of a place previously barren.
Rychener sees the "tremendous potential" the gardens have to educate young people and the community. Her children and their friends have sampled food from the garden. "They understand what I'm doing, and they appreciate it," she said.
There is "a ton of work that needs to be done," Rychener continued. As an example, she could use help with a drying structure for squash and corn. And there is plenty of dirt to be worked. People who'd like to help may e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Youth groups are particularly welcome.
Bill Adler was one of the early corn harvesters. He gave money to help purchase equipment, tools and native seeds. "Bill made this happen," Spoerl said.
"This is just the beginning," Rychener said.