Growing Groceries for the Greater Good

Growing Groceries for the Greater Good

Similar to how our South Dakota farmers raise crops like corn, gardening gives everyone the opportunity to grow crops, just on a smaller scale. Thanks to the pandemic last spring, home and community gardening has grown into a much more-popular pastime.

And now a unique yet historic way to grow your groceries has cropped up. Meet “la milpa,” also known as a “chaos garden.”

Take a quick tour of a South Dakota milpa garden from last summer. How many pollinators can you see?



If your idea of a successful garden looks like neatly organized rows with labeled signs to identify every plant type, growing a chaos garden is probably not for you.

Because a milpa garden is just that — chaos! Several types of seeds are mixed and planted together without rows or in a certain order, which may be a challenge for a highly organized person to accept.

Unlike the way farmers plant seeds for a single crop like corn in rows, this unique method is ideal for gardens. It can help crowd out weeds and pests naturally, while conserving water and improving soil health. Flowering species attract pollinators, which help benefit the environment far beyond your garden plot.


Agriculture and gardening are certainly not new concepts, especially here in South Dakota. Growing food dates back to ancient civilizations, although those methods were much different from the way today’s farmers grow crops across the state.

Historically, corn, known as maize, originated in Mexico several thousand years ago. In Spanish, “la milpa” loosely translates to “corn/maize field.”

Technically the term comes from the Nahuatl, an indigenous language, and means “cultivated field,” or “what is sown on top of the plot.”

Milpa Chaos Garden

The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”

Charles C. Mann 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Three Sisters
CREDIT: Univ of IL Extension


Often at the core of any milpa garden is the “three sisters,” which are rooted in Native American tradition.

Together, this trio of corn, beans and squash provides a mutually beneficial relationship as they grow and are also considered a balanced diet as well.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Iroquois had been growing this vegetable threesome for more than 300 years before European settlers arrived in America.


While a chaos garden can be seeded by spreading or drilling the seed mix randomly into the soil, the Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests a bit more of an orderly planting system for the “three sisters” to space them out for ideal growth and harvest benefits.

Milpa mix seeds
Beyond the "three sisters," a "milpa mix" of seeds can include a variety of vegetables, fruits and even flowers.

They advise starting with corn, then adding in pole beans, which climb up the cornstalks and add nitrogen to fertilize the corn. And finally, plant squash, which sprawls everywhere with its large leaves to serve as the shady mulch cover, holding moisture where it can be used by plant roots and keeping weeds from seeing sunlight.

The Native Seeds/SEARCH organization offers helpful information and ideas for how to plant the three sisters in either mounds, field or landscape designs.


Aside from being easy to plant, another advantage is that a chaos garden extends the harvest season beyond a single day because various plants mature at different times. Harvesting then becomes more of a treasure hunt to find produce that’s ready to pick. Depending on the size of your milpa garden, you might even need extra help hauling in your harvest bounty!

Milpa Harvest ND Menoken Farms
Some of the harvest bounty from a milpa garden at Menoken Farm and Burleigh County Soil Conservation District in North Dakota.

DYK: An expert in the La Milpa movement estimates that each acre can generate up to 4,500 pounds of produce!

Burpee Seeds Three Sisters Collection

While the pandemic’s arrival last spring led to a shortage of toilet paper, we also rushed to buy seeds for gardening, growing the hobby’s popularity to record levels. In fact, the well-known Burpee Seed Company sold more packets of seed in March 2020 than ever before in the company’s 144-year history.


War Gardens for Victory poster

The pandemic set off a global gardening craze that’s similar to what was once called “victory gardens.” This popular war-time effort started in 1920 across the United States, Canada and European countries.

Families were encouraged to grow a garden of their own vegetables, fruits and herbs to help contribute to the cause during World War I and WWII. About 20 million war-time gardens were planted in 1943, which raised close to 40% of our country’s fresh vegetables — an estimated 9-10 million tons! (1940 U.S. population was 132 million.)

The question of whether the newbie green thumbs will plant again this spring may be answered in a 2020 study by Griffin Greenhouse Supplies. It surveyed 1,000 first-year gardeners and found that 80% would absolutely or probably garden again this year, regardless of the presence of the pandemic.

Gardening box of produce

As a result, some gardeners are finding certain seeds to be in higher demand with shorter supply this spring. Thankfully there are companies who are willing to step up and even give back.

One such company is Green Cover Seed, run by brothers Keith and Brian Berns based out of Bladen, Nebraska. They mix 25 million pounds of seed each year, including a warm-season milpa mix of about 40 different types of fruits and vegetables.

If you agree to donate 75% of what’s produced on an acre, they will donate your first acre’s worth of seed (about 35 pounds). The company wants to encourage healthy homegrown food going to places in need, such as local food banks, nursing homes, homeless shelters and the like. It's perfect for community gardens, 4-H or FFA projects. You can also choose to donate a garden if you appreciate the concept but don't have your own land to do it yourself.

Green Cover Seed started this “first acre free” program in 2017 and gave away 500 acres worth in 2020. This year, it will donate enough seed for 1,000 acres and expects to run out by June, said the company’s marketing contact, Noah Young. Check out their informative site with handout at


According to Jim Ristau, Director of Sustainability for South Dakota Corn, farmers can also choose to plant a milpa garden in part of a pasture or along the outer edges of irrigation units.

For example, he planted five acres of a milpa mix from Green Cover Seed in a calving pasture last spring and was pleasantly surprised at the results — a big bounty of fresh vegetables of all kinds.

Ristau explained how late-season weed pressure gave the plot some challenges, yet the pollinators were abundant and later, the grazing cattle loved cleaning up the leftovers.

Lois Ristau, Jim's mother, shows off some of the harvested bounty from their milpa garden.
Jim with giant squash
A giant squash grew in the midst of the Ristau milpa garden!
Leftover produce makes a perfect snack for grazing cattle!
Cattle love to clean-up any leftovers in the field!
La Milpa

“Indian farmers grow maize in what is called a milpa. The term means “maize field,” but refers to something considerably more complex.

A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once, including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jicama (a tuber), amaranth (a grain-like plant), and mucuna (a tropical legume).

In nature, wild beans and squash often grow in the same field as teosinte (grass parent of modern corn), the beans using the tall teosinte as a ladder to climb toward the sun; below ground, the beans’ nitrogen-fixing roots provide nutrients needed by teosinte. The milpa is an elaboration of this natural situation, unlike ordinary farms, which involve single-crop expanses of a sort rarely observed in unplowed landscapes.

Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Maize lacks digestible niacin, the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, necessary to make proteins and diets with too much maize can lead to protein deficiency and pellagra, a disease caused by lack of niacin. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan, but not the amino acids cysteine and methionine, which are provided by maize. As a result, beans and maize make a nutritionally complete meal. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”
Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

“Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight, the world’s most important crop. … One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation."

Charles C. Mann 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
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