Planting a Three Sisters garden
Garden of Eatin', How-To, Vegetables

Planting a Three Sisters Garden

In hindsight, I should’ve taken a picture of my Three Sisters garden when it was just getting started; I simply hadn’t considered how fast it would grow! This shot is only a week old, yet the squash vines have grown several more feet and the corn stalks now have silks and tassels. In just another couple of weeks, I’ll be harvesting from this once-neglected 4×6 bed that was revived over winter through the no-dig method. (Proof that you don’t need to buy bags of expensive soil to start planting; you can make your own!)

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. If you’ve never heard of a Three Sisters garden, you might be wondering what this huge cluster of plantings is all about, and why it’s called the Three Sisters.

Rooted in Native American history, the Three Sisters garden is the original basis for companion planting, a concept in gardening where one plant helps another. The Three Sisters were the main agricultural crops that sustained the Iroquois for centuries before European settlers ever arrived: maize (corn), beans, and squash.

This ancient method of closely interplanting three companion crops created a sustainable ecosystem, in which the corn grew tall to provide the beans a structure to climb, the beans stabilized the corn stalks and fixed nitrogen in the soil for heavy-feeding squash, and the squash sprawled across the ground to shade the soil and suppress the weeds (in effect, acting as a living mulch).

Corn, beans, and squash

Three Sisters crops

Corn provides a structure for beans to climb up

Winter squash vines sprawling across the ground

The Iroquois believed that the Three Sisters could only grow and thrive together in community, as they complemented each other agriculturally and nutritionally. Corn was a source of carbohydrates, beans were rich in protein, and squash provided vitamins — a well-rounded diet to supplement the hunter/gatherer life.

In today’s world of monocropping and overworking the soil, we can still learn a lot from this system to practice companion planting and improve soil fertility.

There are many ways to plant a Three Sisters garden, whether you have sandy soil or hard clay, have a lot of land or are restricted to a raised bed.

For gardeners with sandy soil, it’s best to grow the Three Sisters in a slight well, as opposed to a hill in the traditional method. A well will prevent water from running off too quickly. For hard clay, a hill (basically a mound of soil that sits 4 to 6 inches high) will improve drainage. If you’re planting in a raised bed, just make sure your soil is well amended and well draining — you don’t need to mound the soil.

You can plant the Three Sisters in a circular or linear formation, depending on your space. My 4×6 bed sits against a wall, so I sowed the corn across the back first, placing a seed in a staggered row every 6 to 8 inches. Once the corn seedlings grew 4 to 6 inches tall, I sowed the beans about 6 inches in front of them, placing a seed every 3 to 4 inches, and then the squash along the edge of the bed every 2 feet, letting the vines eventually spill over the side.

My Three Sisters garden in a raised bed

The beans started climbing the corn stalks as soon as they were tall enough, but you can help train the vines and tendrils to latch on in the beginning. They’ll quickly twirl around the stalks as they climb higher, an action that actually helps keep the top-heavy stalks from blowing over in the wind.

Beans start to climb corn stalks right away

Beans help stabilize top-heavy corn stalks

Beans climbing up a corn stalk

Beans climbing up a corn stalk

Here are a few other ways to plant the crops; there is no single “right” way to do it, as long as the corn provides support for the beans and the squash protects the soil from drying out.

Variations on a Three Sisters garden

The types of beans to grow are pole beans, which like to climb. This includes runner beans, yard-long beans, and winged beans (but not bush beans, which have a bushy, upright growth habit). Plant any variety of vining summer squash or winter squash, but keep in mind that most (though not all) zucchini tend to be bush types, and usually don’t spread more than a couple of feet. Corn likes to grow in thick clusters, rather than single rows, as it helps improve pollination (thereby filling out the ears of corn completely).

If you start your Three Sisters Garden now, you’ll have corn that’s “knee high by the Fourth of July,” as the saying goes!

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