Three Sisters: An Ancient Garden Trio

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“The Three Sisters all work together. Critters will find it harder to invade your garden by inter-planting your corn, beans and squash. The corn stalk serves as a pole for the beans, the beans help to add the nitrogen to the soil that the corn needs, while the squash provides a ground cover of shade that helps the soil retain moisture.”[1]

I have read that this companion planting combo helps keep the raccoons off your corn. Evidently they don’t like wading through the pricklies of the squash to get up to the corn.

I am trying this method at our farm/homestead this year (2010) using Golden Bantam corn, The Three Sisters is the name given by some Native Americans to the practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together. The idea is to let the beans climb the corn, while the corn shades the squash. The squash acts like a kind of living mulch, conserving water and providing the even moisture needed for the corn and beans to fully develop.

three sisters - an ancient garden trio
Three Sisters: An Ancient Garden Trio

What are the three sisters?
The Three Sisters include corn, beans, and squash. As part of the circle of life, these New World crops rely upon each other for survival. According to Iroquois — who chant “you who sustain us” to the trio — the Three Sisters hold a spiritual, ceremonial, and celebratory place in the garden. Not only are the Three Sisters rich in mythological, cultural, and botanical history, they belong together nutritionally. Corn, beans, and squash complement each other: corn for grain and carbohydrate, beans for protein, and squash for vitamin A.[2]

How to Grow Three Sisters

Start the corn seeds first. Sow directly in the ground. Sweetcorn is very easy to grow from seed, find a good heirloom or (if you want TALL corn) plant a black Incan corn or Morado (a Peruvian purple corn). I highly recommend seeds, if you buy seedlings from a nursery know that they dislike having their roots disturbed too much and if you are having to carefully pull seedlings apart to separate them when you transplant them you are liable to damage the roots. Better to plant seeds directly in the ground.

The best beans for a three sisters planting?
Any pole bean (as opposed to a bush variety) will work for the second sister. Kentucky wonder is a great producer. But we have found it easier to use a bean that you leave to dry on the vine, like black or pinto beans. The beans are planted the same time as the corn, when the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost has passed.

For the squash sister, any squash with a trailing habit will work well. So don’t use a zucchini (courgette), which grows more like a bush. Butternuts, spaghetti squash, pumpkins, even watermelon can work.

Subscribe to Farm Notes and we will keep in touch and let you know how it all goes. And by all means…. if you try this, take photos and we’ll publish them in August or September!

Decide how much space to give this companion planting. The minimum should be 9 feet square. For one square you will need 4-6 corn seeds, 4-6 green bean seeds, and 2-4 squash seeds.

Plant corn first in a square, at least four corn plants to an area. This is important because they rely on each other for germination…. four is minimum. You could plant as many as 8-10 in a 9×9 area.

In between corn seeds, plant bean seeds and right in the middle, squash. Squash may take a bit to get going, but once it does it will grow Looooong! Keep rounding the squash/melon vine around the three sister’s growing area. You can cut off the end to encourage size on the melons that are already growing.

3-sisters-planting-diagram
3-sisters-planting-diagram

In the photo below we grew watermelon under the Black Incan purple corn (120 plus day corn) it worked out really well… got double the growing space! 🙂 The corn was FABUlous and so was the watermelon!
our version of three sisters

I will definitely try this again.
More Info…

All of earth is crammed with heaven,
And every bush aflame with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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