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Celebrating Harvest at our Native American Heritage Garden

This November, the Verde Valley Archaeology Center is celebrating and reflecting on the idea of harvest, especially in the ways it ties into both our museum and our Native American Heritage Garden. 


Rob Estrada, VVAC’s Ethnobotanist, oversees the 12 acre Native American Heritage Garden and Pathway. Estrada decides what will be planted and when, trail maintenance and oversees projects for garden volunteers. 


The property has two primary garden sections: an irrigated garden and a dry garden. The irrigated garden houses post-colonial species brought in by the Spanish. These crops include a variety of chilies, squash and peaches. 

Estrada started the dry farm project around two years ago after Hopi participants at the museum suggested he utilize traditional Hopi style farming methods. This dry farm method relies completely on nature, using only rain and moisture, without any type of irrigation. This year there was a late frost and late rains, which made it a more difficult year for growing. 


Estrada said that the people who lived here hundreds of years ago had to contend with this, hypothesizing that this could be a reason why they had so many calendars and sundials around the Verde Valley to coordinate planting and harvesting times.  


“Time was so significant to these people because if 60% of their caloric intake was from their own cultivation, and they don't have water, then they're going to have to do more hunting, gathering and trading.” said Estrada. 


Last year Estrada did landrace gardening, a technique that he described as dispersing a bunch of different seeds, adding water and seeing what grows best. The sunflower, cotton and red dye amaranth did best, while the beans and squash fell behind. 


“I like to think of our gardens like horticulture laboratories,” said Estrada, always trying out new experiments and techniques. 


“Harvest season is exciting because every year is a little bit different,” said Estrada. “You don't know at the end of the day what you're gonna get. It's like a surprise, it's like Christmas. It's like opening up a package.” 


This year, the garden harvested a healthy crop of gourds, cotton, corn and red dye amaranth, while the beans did not do as well. 


Estrada said that they grew an abundance of red dye amaranth in the hopes of participating in a native seed search at a seed bank in Tucson. This plant was treasured for its red dye and is also a good source of plant protein. 


“Every corn cob is like a present,” said Estrada. “You open up the corn husk and you don't know what you're going to get because these are native varieties.” 


This year, Estrada grew a blue corn variety from Third Mesa and a miniature variety from a Pueblo in New Mexico. He found that the miniature corn looked consistent to what the Sinagua people had from corn cobs left in local cliff dwellings


Peak harvest season is in October, but Estrada and his volunteers can begin harvesting in late August, depending on when the crop was planted. 

Estrada said that he’s more cognizant of the seasons because of gardening, having to become more sensitive to weather and seasonal changes. He also observes animals' behaviors in response to the weather, sharing that this past summer he saw birds attempt to lay another set of eggs due to the late monsoon season. 


“I watch all this stuff because then I know what's happening with the weather,” said Estrada. “Animals have instincts that we don't have. That's what harvest means to me, watching nature and being more cognizant of what's going on around you.” 


“As a museum, it made sense to have a Native American garden property because Native American culture is a land-based culture with land-based practices,” said Monica Buckle, Executive Director. “We integrate the two together. The garden space and all the good work that Rob Estrada and our garden volunteers, Derek Nadvornick and Donna Ullmer, are doing at the garden is relevant to what happens here at the museum.” 


The museum’s collection houses over 8000 corn cobs from the Dyck Cliff Dwelling Site, as well as pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, yucca and others. In the museum there is a Diet and Subsistence gallery that displays these different seeds and varieties of corn kernels. Everything in this gallery that the ancestral Hopi grew is grown out in the garden, almost 900 years later.


“Harvest is reflection,” said Buckle. “Harvest is abundance and immense gratitude. Harvest comes at the time of year where things are on the wane and things are returning back to the earth. You're reflecting on the past year and everything that you yourself have personally sowed, all the work that you've put in the past year to take care of a garden, your personal or professional life or your family.


“It's an immense time for reflection, both symbolically and personally,” continued Buckle. “A harvest means that you reap the rewards of your hard work and there's an abundance to be shared with others.”


The museum currently does a great deal of community outreach with the garden, such as hosting field trips for schools. After spending time looking at exhibits in the museum, attendees can then be immersed in the garden and walk the trail while continuing to learn hands-on. 


Estrada shared that he wants to do more outreach with the Yavapai-Apache Nation and perhaps host culinary events with people from reservations sharing how they prepare different types of food.

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