Three Sisters Gardening

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Three hundred years ago, American colonists, in an attempt to feed their families and survive, began looking at growing patterns found in Native American gardens. And learned a thing or two. And called it, Three Sisters Gardening.

Garden Corn, Beans, and Squash

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What they found was “a unique companion planting plan” of corn, pole beans, and pumpkins or squash grown together in a plot. This differed greatly from the neat plowed rows and fields of Europe.

The American Farm Bureau says, “According to Native American legend, these 3 crops are inseparable sisters who can only grow and thrive together. When European settlers arrived in America in the early 1600s, and by the time the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, the Iroquois had been growing the Three Sisters for over 3 centuries!”

In colonial days, cleared lands were hard to find. Native American tribes who grew Three Sisters Gardens, their success amounted to a minor agricultural revolution. With cleared land at a premium, this method provided a way to grow nutritious, easy to store crops in smaller spaces. 

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Three Sisters Gardening in Small Spaces

As the late winter rains prepare the soil for spring planting, gardeners and those who want to be, are cropping up as advice from gardening gurus proliferate. The difference between this generation and those of once or twice removed may just be that by and large, most of us are not living with backyards the size of our grandparents or even parents. So … space is a premium … and seems problematic if we want to give gardening a try and perhaps even grow some of our own food.

When one considers early American history and the customs and habits of Native Americans especially, lack of space, lack of crop growing areas … gardening, in our vernacular … does not usually come to mind. However, we can credit the Native Americans for introducing the “Three Sisters” gardening concept; a plan to increase yield and conserve space.

What is a Three Sisters Garden?

A Three Sisters garden is simply one in which corn, beans, and squash are planted, shoulder to shoulder. The nitrogen-rich climbing beans use the height and structure of the corn stalks while ground-hugging squash reduces soil evaporation and smothers weeds. The result? “Three interdependent and eminently edible crops produced from the same ground,” says Dean Fosdick of the Associated Press.

By employing these space-saving methods, it is conceivable that the process could then be adapted to containers, hillsides, patios, and even fire escapes.

For me, while the potential savings are attractive, the most alluring aspect of home gardening is the freshness of the produce, the beauty of the garden, the fulfillment of nurturing a seed to harvest, and the unquestionable nutritional benefits to our families of providing hormone and pesticide-free whole foods from our garden to their plate in mere minutes.

What the Farmers’ Almanac Says

Only the Farmers’ Alamanac could say it like this…

Each of the sisters contributes something to the planting. Together, the sisters provide a balanced diet from a single planting. 

  • As older sisters often do, the corn offers the beans needed support.
  • The beans, the giving sister, pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three. 
  • As the beans grow through the tangle of squash vines and wind their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the sisters close together.
  • The large leaves of the sprawling squash protect the threesome by creating living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist and preventing weeds.
  • The prickly squash leaves also keep away raccoons and other pests, which don’t like to step on them.

Together, the three sisters provide both sustainable soil fertility as well as a healthy diet. Perfection!

Heirloom Varieties of Corn, Beans and Squash:

When possible, I love use heirloom seeds with historic provenance in my Three Sisters Garden. Here are a few resources and ideas I’ve found along the way.

Corn: Flint Corn

Otto File Flint Corn from the Hudson Valley Seed Co. produces delicious, gold to orange cobs. It’s also known as Eight Row Flint Corn, originated in New England and were cultivated by northeastern Native American tribes for hundreds of years.

Beans: Runner Beans

Runner beans were among the first crops identified by Samuel de Champlain during his voyage along the Cape Cod coast in 1605. They were also crops early colonists sought Native peoples cultivation advice.

The University of Wisconsin says in addition to runner beans, three varieties of beans were planted: Cherokee Trail of Tears, Hidatsa Shield, and True Red Cranberry.

Squash: Pumpkin

The third sister in a Three Sisters Garden is typically squash. Pumpkins, a type of winter squash, is native to North America.

“Pumpkins were one of the first crops identified by European traders in the 17th century, and by 1630 were a favored crop of the first Plymouth Colony settlers. So loved was the pumpkin by the first English settlers that, in 1636, a law was passed in Cambridge to levy hefty fines on the owners of any chicken, hen, or turkey that damaged a pumpkin plant in the town.”

Old Colony History Museum

Many varieties of squash, however, were grown by Native Americans, including acorn, zucchini, pumpkins and gourds. “They were used long before the development of pottery as containers.  Native Americans ate squash fresh and dried and stored it.”

How to Plan and Plant a Three Sisters Garden

  1. To try them in your garden, in spring, prepare the soil by adding fish scraps or wood ash to increase fertility if desired.
  2. Make a mound of soil about a foot high and four feet wide.
  3. When the danger of frost has passed (see local frost dates), plant the corn in the mound. Sow six kernels of corn an inch deep and about ten inches apart in a circle of about 2 feet in diameter.
  4. When the corn is about 5 inches tall, plant four bean seeds, evenly spaced, around each stalk. About a week later, plant six squash seeds, evenly spaced, around the perimeter of the mound.

For more detailed information on these recommended methods as well as suggested vegetable varieties for small plot gardening, this article is a must-read. Click here for the article.

While the rain drips from the eaves of my house today, my mind is full of sunshine and tender growing plants. I hope you consider growing a garden this summer and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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