San Carlos teens are learning to plant traditional Apache gardens through a grant-funded project of the University of Arizona's Gila County Cooperative Extension.
A $5,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's People's Garden – one of only nine in the country for the year – resulted in the development of five gardens that are impacting teens throughout the community northeast of Tucson.
Noah Titla, 14, won first place for his watermelon and took grand champion at the Gila County Fair for squash he grew as part of the program offered by the San Carlos Apache Tribe office of UA Cooperative Extension, a program of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"Everything about growing and the seeds and the soil is very interesting," said Titla, who is now gardening with his grandfather. "Gardening is important to the community. It's our culture and without our traditional food, we have nothing."
Sabrina Tuttle, associate agent in agriculture and natural resources and 4-H Youth Development with Gila County Cooperative Extension, has taught gardening in her community for years. Her program got a shot in the arm when it received the People's Garden grant to develop the gardens starting in 2012.
Among them is a flourishing garden at Mt. Turnbull Academy in Bylas, an alternative school for students ages 16 to 20.
For most of the students, it was the first time they had gardened, said principal Jayson Stanley, who grew up in the area.
"They learned the Apache style of planting crops," Stanley said. "They worked with the soil and built the garden themselves. They grew tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, corn and chiles."
In addition to learning life skills, gardening offers lessons in math and science – from seed germination to calculating square footage.
The students and their families enjoyed the harvest, as did elders and the school community. Students are excited about continuing the garden this year, Stanley said, and the program will incorporate cooking.
"Understanding Apache planting traditions helps them to connect to their culture," he said. "A lot of them don't have elders teaching them what to plant and when to plant, and this really gets them in touch with those aspects of gardening."
Also thriving is the garden at San Carlos Alternative High School.
Tuttle teaches students about planting, irrigation technologies, water conservation, harvesting, nutrition and more.
"It's hands-on learning and our kids really respond to that," said math teacher Melissa Brown. "It teaches them – if they have not already learned from elders – how to live off the land."
Gardens were also developed at the Boys & Girls Club of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, San Carlos Adult and Juvenile Rehabilitation and Detention Center and the San Carlos Apache Tribe 4-H.
"People used to garden a lot because they had irrigation in San Carlos until about the 1950s and 60s," Tuttle said. "People had two to three acre plots of squash, corn, watermelon and beans. It was a big part of their diet."
She said much of the farmland and irrigation ditches were replaced by housing.
"I wanted to do the People's Garden project because I felt that the government had really made people even more dependent on the government and the tribe," Tuttle said. "Produce is very expensive in Arizona."
Reinvesting in gardening is critical at a time when diabetes is on the rise. She said 13 percent of the Apache population has diabetes.
Helping to educate young gardeners in Gila County is Millie Titla, San Carlos district conservationist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Millie Titla is teaching heirloom gardening, showing young people how their ancestors planted. She uses seeds given to her by her grandmother for the plantings and is passing her knowledge on to the next generation.
Apache tradition calls for corn, beans, squash and melons to be planted together, not separated in groups or sections. Corn and beans are planted on one side of a drip irrigation emitter, melon and squash on the other.
"All the plants in the garden have a purpose," she said. "The beans provide nitrogen to the corn. The bean vines grow up on the corn. The squash and melon provide shading on the ground to hold the moisture in the soil."
Gardening has been a traditional activity for Apaches for thousands of years. Some have lost the culture of growing traditional crops and changed their diet dramatically in the past 100 years, with adverse health consequences that include diabetes, obesity and heart disease, Millie Titla said.
"These are the types of foods we survived on prior to the 20th century," she said. "Diabetes wasn't part of our lives. We didn't even develop a word for it. I am hoping by sharing these foods they will be able to grow them and eat healthfully."
Bryce Barnes, education instructor at San Carlos Adult and Juvenile Rehabilitation and Detention Center, said he sees the garden as life-changing. He credits Myron Moses, the center's director, with supporting new and creative education programs for the San Carlos Apache youth, inside and outside of detention.
"We are looking for ways to have a more holistic education for the kids involving body, soul, spirit and mind," Barnes said. "We want to expose them to things that will inspire them."
The garden has been fruitful. "We are just a little 30-by-30 garden, but it produces yellow crookneck squash, Apache squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers."
A traditional Apache stew was made, and produce was delivered by some of the teens to foster children and elders in the community.
"It's been a great experience," Barnes said.