EcoDorms 2025

Promoting Environmentally Sustainable Behaviors in First-Year Students

Climate Change Art

Woven Climate Datascapes

Tali Weiberg’s Woven Climate Datascapes project translates climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into woven landscapes and waterscapes, using plant-derived fibers and dyes. She believes that materializing abstract climate change data is a way to rethink climate data visualization: 

Data is valuable in its capacity to condense a vast amount of labor, knowledge, and time into a form that can be consumed quickly. But its value as an abstraction is also its shortfall. It obscures its origins as well as the violence experienced by corporeal and ecological bodies at the hands of anthropogenic climate change.

Weiberg also sees weaving as a means to re-express knowledge and experiences of climate change in a way that is “embodied, gendered female, indigenous, and relational more than representational.” Check out more images of her works on multiple themes from oil extraction to water bodies on her website

Our Changing Seas

Our Changing Seas is a series of creative outreach projects created by Courtney Mattison. A series of large-scale ceramic coral reef installations communicate the exotic beauty of coral reefs, as well as their fragility and the threats that they face as a result of human activity today. 

Along with the installations, another component of this project is a series of interviews with marine scientists, professionals, and nature artists, regarding the importance of coral reef conservation and the role the art can play in promoting coral reef stewardship and policy change. Learn more about this project here

Archiving Eden

Unprecedented changes in the global climate can lead to a reduction in species distribution, and consequently loss of biodiversity. Seed banks plays a critical role in preserving the genetic diversity of various agricultural species in the face of climate change, by collecting, researching, and storing seeds in secure vaults. 

Dornith Doherty’s Archiving Eden utilizes magnified x-ray images to create powerful and thought-provoking visual experiences from the samples in seed banks. One of the installations in this project exhibited x-ray images of 5,000 seeds representing the most common agricultural species grown in Canada. 5,000 is the minimum number of seeds needed for preserving a single plant species. Learn more about this and other projects of the artist here

Sources

https://www.taliweinberg.com/datascapes

https://artistsandclimatechange.com/2019/06/13/an-interview-with-artist-tali-weinberg/

https://courtneymattison.com/

https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12390

https://www.dornithdoherty.com/archiving-eden

Spring and the Birds Are Here!

Spring is here! You may be noticing more chirpings and singings as you walk around campus. Many birds are making their way back from warmer places, in their full breeding plumages of vivid colors, and they are singing a lot of different songs to attract potential mates. This is the best season for bird watching! Here are some of our lovely friends that you might encounter on campus or during a walk along the TAM. 

American Robin

Robins have returned from warmer areas to Vermont for a while. They are easily identifiable with their warm orange breast and you’ve probably already spotted some on campus!

Red-winged Blackbird

The Red-winged Blackbird is one of the bird species that look exactly like its name. Look how cool their bright red shoulder badges are! They are also one of the first to return to Vermont in spring.

Black-capped Chickadee

These cute little songbirds are here all year round and singing the iconic “chickadee-dee-dee!” Chickadees are extremely curious birds, always exploring and investigating people and the environment.

Hermit Thrush

The Hermit Thrush is the state bird of Vermont. They have dark spotted chests and a reddish tail, the latter setting them apart from other types of thrushes. They sing lovely, flute-like songs in a high key, which earned them the name of the “American Nightingale.”

Scarlet Tanager

Male scarlet tanager

Male Scarlet Tanagers have olive-yellow plummages when they are not breeding, but as spring approaches marking their breeding season, they turn into beautiful bright red. Although this brilliant color makes them easy to identify, they’re actually pretty hard to spot because they like to stay higher up on the trees. The females look quite different: they are yellow all over, without the black wings.

Scarlet Tanager Female
Female scarlet tanager

Sources

https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/local/2015/05/03/spring-vermont-tops-birdwatching/26724023/

https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/vermont/7-birds-appearing-again-in-vt/  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hermit_Thrush/overview 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/overview

https://www.wuwm.com/podcast/spotlight/2021-03-11/the-real-harbingers-of-spring-red-winged-blackbirds https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Scarlet_Tanager/id

The Origin of Earth Week: Irony and Advocacy in 1970

Earth Week began in Philadelphia in 1970 as a result of a makeshift committee of students, professionals, leaders of grassroots organizations and businessmen concerned about the environment who decided a sole day for the Earth was not sufficient. It was Democratic  Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, however, who garnered their attention through his call to action in the form of a national “environmental teach-in” and a group of University of Pennsylvania Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning students who originally heeded the call. They called themselves the Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia – straight and to the point – and they soon grew to include a plethora of other students from the surrounding area. 

By 1970, many had begun to refer to Philadelphia as “Filthy”delphia, and while the air and water pollution was dire, it was not necessarily unique. One could find this level of pollution in any major American city at the time. The main goal of the committee was to find out who was doing the polluting and how they were doing it. Eventually the city released to them information that was previously confidential. Among the major pollutants were power plants, oil refineries, city incinerators, chemical plants, coke ovens, smelting operations and automobiles, releasing sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, among other toxic gases. 

Approximately 30,000 people gathered in Philadelphia’s Fairmount park to sign the “Declaration of INTERdependence,” listen to the Broadway cast of Hair sing “Air” (“Hello, carbon monoxide”) and hear from speakers like U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie (author of the landmark U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970), and poet Allen Ginsberg. The committee planned environmental events from educational activities to scientific conferences, but it was the mass media coverage at the national level that gave rise to the Earth Week we know today. 

“Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”

– Gaylord Nelson, Founder, Earth Day

Young people took the lead, as usual, but clerics and politicians soon recognized the value of the movement for their own gain. The former endeavored to “reconcile the conflict between the biblical themes of ‘multiplying and subduing the earth’ and man’s stewardship of the land,” while the latter hopped onto an all-encompassing movement because it contained potential votes of previously apolitical and/or skeptical individuals – including labor and peace activists and the black community – in the hope of attaining them. 

While some black members of the community heeded the call to action, leaders in the black community felt that participating in the movement would only take attention away from their own activism. They responded to the committee’s request by saying, “by joining you we fragment our own power base.” This has continued to be an issue surrounding the environmental movement as a whole over time. More recently, however, the Sunrise Movement has been able to reframe the narrative from protecting the planet to protecting people, something Naomi Klein also emphasizes in her work. Klein’s powerful statement, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism” addresses how the impacts of climate change are disproportionate. 

In addition, the original Climate Plan, on which President Biden campaigned, called for “communities who have borne the toxic brunt of dirty industries, so many of them Indigenous, black, and brown, not only to benefit from the transitions but to help design them at the local level” and last year he released a “Proclamation on Earth Day, 2021”, emphasizing his administration goals with regard to climate justice and combating climate change. This is a step in the right direction, but it does not seem to have come to fruition just yet. Racial justice goes hand and hand with Environmental Justice and this lack of realization at the time of the original Earth Week organization was detrimental. 

Regardless of the participation or lack thereof of these groups, the plans that had been developed were extremely ambitious and required much more money than the group – “with no track record, no recognizable constituency, [and] no 501(c)(3) tax status” – could realistically raise, without help. Not only was the lack of funding an operational dilemma, but it was also largely a personal one, as Edward W. Furia, the Project Director was hired with a salary equal to what he would have received as Assistant DA, stipulated on raising the equivalent to it in addition to operational funds. 

“Thirty per cent of the Earth Week Committee’s $30,000 budget came from business… and there was… delight that this money was being used to publicize how these same businesses caused pollution.”

– David Culhane, CBS News correspondent

CBS Special Report on Earth Day with Walter Cronkite

So, he chased after and roped in over 60 corporate sponsors, including Philadelphia Gas Works, which relied on advertising natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil and would benefit from Earth Week’s admonition of these two energy sources. Some of the sponsors were crucial in the dissemination of information. For example, programs were printed on Scott Paper and phone services were sponsored by Bell Telephone. Each sponsor received merely a line in the official Earth Day program. But it was the acquiescence of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce that put the funding over the edge. 

Originally, the Chamber had planned on using $50,000 raised by its members to put a large full-color ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer “defend[ing] [the business community’s] environmental record … and indirectly impugn[ing] the motives of the Earth Week Committee.” The Earth Week committee was made aware of this by virtue of an anonymous caller and in response, Furia and Austan Librach, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and Chairman of the Earth Week Committee at the time, intercepted the Chamber’s “Business Response to Earth Day” meeting. Together, they convinced the Chamber that it was in their best interest to redirect the money allocated for the production of the ad towards Earth Day and Earth Week in exchange for publicizing their financial support. Despite the fact that the two men were unwavering in their decision to publish data on pollutants Chamber companies emitted, the Chamber announced a $30,000 payment, which ended up being approximately ⅓ of Earth Week’s total funding.

The money did not come without consequences, however, as a controversy developed with regard to the ethics of accepting money from businesses that did the polluting that Earth Week was protesting. Regardless, many young people participated, wearing gas masks and passing out surgical ones to signify the danger of air pollution. In the end, Earth Week was deemed a resounding success. “Altogether some 20 million people – 10% of the U.S. population – participated in 1970 Earth Day teach-ins, marches, and rallies. About half were students, at nearly 2,000 colleges and 10,000 elementary and high schools.”

US Senator Edmund Muskie, author of the 1970 Clean Air Act, speaking at Fairmount Park.

Listen to music played during Earth Week here!

Sources:

http://earthweek1970.org/ 

https://www.epa.gov/history/epa-history-earth-day

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/04/22/a-proclamation-on-earth-day-2021/

https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/philadelphia-earth-week-fifty-years-on

https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2010-04-23/1018735/

Oyster and Cod Populations Are at Risk Because of Climate Change

Climate change’s impacts on the ocean environment can threaten the population of a number of marine species. 

Seawater heating up challenges marine lives that are sensitive to temperature. The eggs of Atlantic cod, for example, are vulnerable to both high water temperatures and acidity – with the ocean heating up and becoming more acidic due to climate change, they will be experiencing harsh conditions that can combine to kill them or cause serious deformation. Scientists estimate that if global temperatures warm more than 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the number of Atlantic cod hatchlings around Norway and Iceland will drop by 60 percent. 

Oysters are particularly threatened by ocean acidification. Baby oysters need to use carbonate ions in the ocean to form calcium carbonate that make up their shells. Carbon dioxide reacting with water consumes carbonate ions, depriving oysters of their shell materials and putting them under the risk of dying before reaching maturity. 

Climate change harms marine lives in many more ways than making the ocean too hot and acidic for them. High ocean temperatures also provide optimal conditions for some bacteria and viruses to thrive. The Oyster Herpes Virus, which once decimated oyster populations in France oyster farms, has been increasing rapidly due to rising sea temperatures. 

For other species, unusually high temperatures even affect their sex ratios and reproductive success. Southern flounders, like many other species with temperature-dependent sex determination, would experience masculinization, transforming from female to male, by high temperature during the juvenile period. This could produce unbalanced sex ratios and reduce the number of offsprings. 

It is not just these specific species that are affected. Species are interconnected through food webs, where disruption to one of the chains can spread to the entire ecosystem. Impacts can extend beyond the boundaries of ecosystems – Atlantic cods, for instance, are likely to migrate further north into the Arctic Ocean, and compete with Arctic cods native to this region. The Arctic cod is a keystone species in the Arctic ecosystem, providing food sources for various fish, birds, and marine mammals like orca and humpback whales. If their numbers decline, almost every species in the Arctic could be affected. 

Sources

https://bitterrootmag.com/2019/12/13/climate-change-was-killing-northwest-oysters-growers-and-scientists-fought-back/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-42944-x

https://www.carbonbrief.org/in-depth-how-will-climate-change-affect-animal-sex-ratios

https://insideclimatenews.org/news/29112018/atlantic-cod-climate-change-fish-population-crash-risk-arctic-food-web-impact-study/

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-50690995

https://blog.response.restoration.noaa.gov/keystone-species-arctic-cod-extremely-sensitive-oil-exposurehttps://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/100806-oyster-herpes-global-warming-climate-change-science

Nature Documentary Recommendations!

The Classics

Planet Earth (2006)

BBC’s most expensive nature documentary series, Planet Earth features a range of natural biomes and habitats that spread over 64 countries around the globe. The show is renowned for its arrestingly beautiful depictions of the natural habitats barely untouched by humans. 

– The Blue Planet (2001)

Another production of BBC narrated by David Attenborough, The Blue Planet was described as “the first ever comprehensive series on the natural history of the world’s oceans”. Each of its 8 episodes examines a different aspect of the ocean, from the coasts of the Galápagos Islands to 4,000 meters to the bottom of the ocean. 

Nature Near Us

Springwatch

Springwatch is an annual series that is broadcast live from various locations around the UK, chronicling the reawakening of life in the countryside every spring since 2005. You’ll see house sparrows, bumblebees, hedgehogs and beavers in people’s backyards – this show is a great demonstration of how wildlife and the human world are tightly connected, and will make you want to go outside. 

The Year Earth Changed (2021)

The Year Earth Changed is a documentary about the global lockdown and its impact on nature. The smallest changes in human behavior, like reducing cruise ship traffic and closing beaches a few days a year, can have profound effects on nature and allow humans and wildlife to coexist in a more harmonious way. 

Wildlife and People

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

My Octopus Teacher documented a year spent by filmmaker Craig Foster forging an intimate relationship between a wild common octopus in a South African kelp forest. The story is heartwarming and shows us how meaningful bonds can transcend barriers between human and wildlife. 

Jane (2017)

Jane is a biographical documentary on Jane Goodall, whose 60-year research on wild chimpanzees revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. The film draws from over 100 hours of footage in the National Geographic archives to provide an intimate portrait of this honored conservationist. 

Sources

https://www.discoverwildlife.com/how-to/watch-wildlife/best-nature-documentaries/

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/04/problem-nature-documentaries/618553/

https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/incredible-nature-documentary-series-and-movies-to-stream-right-now/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007qgm3

https://www.bbcearth.com/shows/blue-planet

https://www.apple.com/tv-pr/originals/the-year-earth-changed/

https://films.nationalgeographic.com/jane-the-movie

Eco-friendly laundry

Environmental impacts of laundry

The environmental impact of one load of laundry can be more than you think. It’s intuitive that laundry uses water and electricity. The average washing machine at home consumes about 41 gallons of water per load. The washing machine and the dryer together contributes to around 10% of a household’s total electricity use. But there are more about the detergent we use, and even our clothes themselves that could harm the environment. 

For example, researchers from University of Washington have found that scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets can release over 25 kinds of hazardous air pollutants, more specifically volatile organic compounds (VOCs), through the air vented from dryers. This is particularly concerning because emissions from dryer vents are not regulated, unlike other common air pollution sources. Moreover, if the dryers don’t vent outside, this can be a source of indoor air pollution in households. 

Laundry also releases microplastics, a pollutant present in almost every part of the world’s oceans, as well as the bodies of many ocean lifes like fish and sea turtles. There are approximately 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s ocean today, their weight equivalent to 30 billion 500-ml plastic water bottles. Textiles are a surprisingly major source of microplastics, accounting for 35% of microplastics in the ocean. With every load of laundry, tiny pieces from the synthetic fibers that make up our clothes are peeled off and enter the waterways. They are too small for our current drainage systems to capture. 

Similarly, although the PVA plastic films around detergent pods are soluble in water, they are still plastics. PVA is claimed to be a “biodegradable” plastic, but unfortunately it is only able to biodegrade at certain conditions, which are yet to be met by the wastewater treatment plants in the US. 

What can we do?

To reduce hazardous chemicals and microplastics produced by laundry, we could avoid using scented laundry products and detergent pods. Using laundry bags could help reduce the microfiber from our clothes entering the waters. 

Of course, we can always make our laundry more efficient to save water and energy:

  • Use less hot water, as heating water is the most energy-intensive part of the laundry process. 
  • Using low-suds detergents can reduce water use from extra rinsing. 
  • Pre-treat stains so that you don’t have to rewash your clothes. 
  • Drying can account for up to 75% of the energy use of a laundry cycle. If at all possible, air-drying on clotheslines or drying racks could save tons of energy. 
  • Finally, running full loads and just doing less laundry are always the simplest ways to reduce the environmental impacts of laundry! 

Sources

https://www.nps.gov/articles/laundry.htm

https://wateruseitwisely.com/blog/laundryroom/

https://njwatersavers.rutgers.edu/Ready%20to%20Post/Individual/Indoor/II.%20B%20Tips%20for%20saving%20water%20in%20the%20laundry%20room.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/nov/25/carbon-footprint-load-laundry

https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/reduce-laundry-microfiber-pollution/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffkart/2021/08/08/study-says-up-to-75-of-plastics-from-detergent-pods-enter-the-environment-industry-says-they-safely-biodegrade/?sh=32a71a65796a

https://www.consumerreports.org/laundry/energy-saving-laundry-tips-a9261296729

https://www.washington.edu/news/2011/08/24/scented-laundry-products-emit-hazardous-chemicals-through-dryer-vents/

https://www.motherearthliving.com/health-and-wellness/toxic-laundry-detergent-ingredients-zmez12mazmel/ https://www.technologynetworks.com/applied-sciences/news/twenty-four-trillion-ocean-microplastics-and-counting-355279

What Can We Do To Reduce Travel Pollution?

Transportation is a major source of carbon emissions and air pollution. In the U.S., transportation accounts for the highest percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions at 29%, exceeding the electricity and industry sectors. Looking beyond carbon, smog and soot pollution from transportation is also a leading cause of health problems. As individuals there are plenty of choices we can make to reduce pollution from our traveling. 

Choosing the way you travel

There is no single most eco-friendly transportation. The average carbon footprint of a vehicle depends on many factors such as vehicle type, model, distance, number of people sharing the vehicle, etc. So we can’t say that driving is always better for the environment than flying – a long distance flight on a large commercial plane with a lot of passengers might be more energy efficient than a 5-minute drive alone. 

Whether cars are more efficient than planes depend on many factors

That being said, there are some general tips for more eco-friendly transportation:

  • For short distances, walking or biking is certainly better than driving. 
  • Public transportation like buses and subways is almost always better than driving because there are more people sharing the vehicle. 
  • Over long distances, trains typically have the lowest carbon footprint per person, especially if it is electric. The next best option is buses, followed by driving a full car. 
  • If flying is the only option, there are still many ways to reduce carbon emissions. For example, choose larger airlines and planes over smaller and private ones to reduce carbon footprint per person. Moreover, taking off accounts for a large portion of energy consumed during a flight, so it’d be helpful to reduce the number of layovers and replace shorter flights with driving or bus rides. 
  • To learn more about eco-friendly travel options around Middlebury, check out our previous blog post

Drive wise

The way you drive also affects the amount of fuel usage and pollution! Here are some good driving habits that can help you save gas AND help the environment:

  • Go easy on the gas pedal and brakes. Rapid acceleration and braking can waste a significant amount of gas. 
  • Observe the speed limit. At speeds above 50 mph, gas mileage typically decreases rapidly. 
  • Avoid hauling cargo on your roof. This increases wind resistance and reduces fuel economy. 
  • Remove unnecessary items from your car. Excess weight on the car lowers fuel economy as well. 
  • Maintain your car regularly so that it can run at its highest energy efficiency. 

Sources 

https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change/overview-air-pollution-transportation

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/transportation-and-climate-change/

https://www.epa.gov/mobile-source-pollution/how-mobile-source-pollution-affects-your-health

https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change/what-you-can-do-reduce-pollution-vehicles-and

https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/driveHabits.jsp

https://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/flight-shaming-flying-environment/

Four Leaf Clovers or Clover Cover Crop?

Clover means nothing to the average person, except for its association with the 17th of March when it becomes a symbol of partying like an Irishman. To farmers, however, they matter each and every one of the other 364 days of the year. They favor the hundreds of variations other than the iconic green clover with 4 leaves. But why do these variants matter to farmers so much? 

They ensure we all have bellies full of our favorite produce every season. Clovers are a type of cover crop, which are planted in early spring after soil is depleted of all its nutrients from the winter harvest of fruits and vegetables like beans, lettuce, garlic, and onions. But unlike other cover crops, clovers are gentle and resilient. They can survive any end season cold temperatures and keep the soil from frosting. These lucky plants also give the soil rest, nutrition, and aeration to reinvigorate the soil for summer crops like cucumbers, tomatoes, and berries.

Keeping your belly full not enough? Clovers are also beautiful when they bloom by the hundreds. Once clover reaches maturity and is ready to die off, it produces thousands of flowers ranging from white wispy petals to purple and pink tufts. If you take a drive in the country in early summer before farmers plant our favorite picnic treat, you can experience a real-life Sound of Music moment, feeling the hills come alive thanks to clovers. 

When people are sipping their green beers on St Patrick’s Day, they should be making sure to toast the farmers who care about those other clover variants. Without them, our caprice salads in the summer would be just cheese and our winter soups would be just broth.

For more in-depth information, visit https://joegardener.com/podcast/100-understanding-cover-crops-the-basics-and-beyond-with-jack-algiere/!

Keep Your Food Scraps Away From the Trash!

Starting from July 1, 2020, Vermont state’s Universal Recycling Law bans disposing food scraps in trash or landfills. Food scraps must be collected and stored separately and processed in the compost. 

What are food scraps? 

All of the following count as food scraps:

  • Parts of the food that are not eaten and discarded: peels, cores, shells, etc. 
  • Food that was not finished: plate scrapings and leftovers that have gone bad.
  • Coffee grounds, filters, and paper tea bags are food scraps and should be composted too.
  • Meat and bones can be composted in industrial compost sites, so they should go to compost unless you compost at home.

Why separate food scraps from trash?

  • Separating food waste from landfills reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste makes up the largest proportion of waste stream: around 30% of a typical Vermont families’ waste is food waste and yard debris. When food waste is mixed with trash and disposed of in landfills, it decomposes in an environment without oxygen. This decomposition process releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more damaging than CO2. If every Vermonter separated their food waste from the trash, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions reduced would be equivalent to taking 7,000 vehicles off the road each year. 
  • Composting recycles nutrients in food waste by feeding them back into the soil. Energy and resources put into producing the food are not wasted. 
  • Compost is indispensable for resilient and healthy soils. Besides providing a rich variety of nutrients, compost improves the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients. It also helps the soil reach the balance point of density, whether it is too loose or too dense. Check out this fact sheet from the US Composting Council for more information on how composting benefits plant growth. 

Composting on campus

By putting your dishes on the conveyor belt in the dining halls at Middlebury, you’re sending them to be composted together with wood chips and horse manure. There are also green compost bins in your dorms which you can put your personal food waste into. To learn more about Middlebury’s composting process, check out this page. Our composting program composts almost 400 tons of food waste per year, and it has been featured on the EPA website as a case study for high recovery rates of food discards! 

Sources

https://dec.vermont.gov/waste-management/solid/materials-mgmt/organic-materials

https://dec.vermont.gov/waste-management/solid/universal-recycling

https://www.vpr.org/programs/2020-07-05/composting-101-what-you-need-to-know-about-vermonts-food-scrap-banhttps://www.middlebury.edu/office/facilities-services/maintenance-and-operations/composting

The Three Sisters Garden: Symbiosis Between Corn, Beans and Squash

Three Sisters Gardens allow for a thriving symbiotic relationship between their components: corn, beans, and squash. These three crops are and have been central to Native American agriculture and nutrition since the 1300s. Nutritionally, corn is a great source of carbohydrates, beans of protein and amino acids, and squash of vitamins. They were all foods that could be preserved by being dried, and thus eaten year-round, even if the growing period was limited. It was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribe, in the regions around the Great Lakes and Northeastern United States and Canada, that coined the term itself and according to Native American legend they are inseparable sisters that can only survive together. 

Tall corn stalks provide the vines on which the beans grow with a quick escape from the sprawling squash vines below, while the bean plant supplies the soil with much needed nitrogen and supports the corn stalks during heavy winds. The bean plant is capable of converting nitrogen from the air to a plant nutrient that can be absorbed by plant roots due to rhizobia located on their roots. Rhizobia itself, in this way, acts as a microsymbiont! See here if you want to delve into a more in depth explanation of its role and the process of nitrogen fixation.

The squash plant’s leaves, on the other hand, prevent the growth of weeds by shading the ground. This shade also heightens water retention for all three plants, while its prickly stems scare off animals looking to eat the beans and corn. 

In some cultures, a fourth sister is often added to the mix, often sunflowers and amaranth because they provide much needed shade, crucial to counteract the heat of the southwest. They also aid the corn stalks by providing more tall stalks that the beans can climb and they attract pollinators. 

Unfortunately for us here in Middlebury, these plants cannot tolerate frost, making the publish date of this blog post a bit ironic. Instead, they thrive in the warmest months of the year. However, in areas like the Southern Southwest in early summer, the high heat and low humidity can particularly harm corn’s tasseling period (30-70 days). So, corn is always planted first in order to avoid peak heat during growth and to allow for its stalks to grow above the other crops. For a step-by-step of preparation and planting, including a video, I would suggest this article.

https://www.nativeseeds.org/blogs/blog-news/how-to-grow-a-three-sisters-garden

https://www.agfoundation.org/news/the-three-sisters

https://www.almanac.com/content/three-sisters-corn-bean-and-squash 

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