Garden of Eatin' / How-To / Vegetables

Planting a Three Sisters Garden

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!

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

46 Comments

  • Katie
    April 20, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    I know this is an old post but Im intrigued by this idea. Can you do something similar with florida trellised tomatoes? I would like something to be a cover crop inbetween the rows. Other than oregano, nastirum or thyme. Would Melons work? maybe without letting them climb the tomatoes?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      April 25, 2018 at 2:10 am

      Yes, you can certainly try melons as a ground cover for your trellised tomatoes. Since both crops are heavy feeders, however, make sure to fertilize regularly. I would stick a few borage plants in there for the pollinators too (borage flowers and leaves are also edible).

      Reply
  • Ang Pushak Valent
    May 16, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    I’m trying to grasp in the diagrams above how many corn to plant in my rows. My raised bed is 4′ x 9′. I saw you mentioned 4×6′. So, should I plant more corn than you did?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      May 17, 2017 at 6:55 am

      I recommend spacing your corn about 8 inches apart. Remember that pollination improves when corn is grown in clusters, so plant at least a couple of rows, or one staggered row as I did (and not a single, long, straight row).

      Reply
      • Ang Pushak Valent
        May 17, 2017 at 3:11 pm

        I have a 4×8 raised bed. How would you recommend

        Reply
        • Linda from Garden Betty
          May 18, 2017 at 8:37 am

          You can follow any of the diagrams in the post, and add more seeds as needed to fill the space you have.

          Reply
  • Shawn Gillespie
    April 22, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    Is there a particular timing to planting the different seeds in relation to each other? Do you plant all the seeds at the same time or is there an order and waiting for certain ones to sprout?

    Reply
    • Ang Pushak Valent
      May 16, 2017 at 6:17 pm

      I think you plant the corn seeds first. Then, when the corn is 4-6″ tall you plant the pole bean seeds around the corn. About a week later plant the squash seeds.

      Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      May 18, 2017 at 7:56 am

      I plant the corn first. Once the stalks are 4-6 inches tall, the beans go in, then the squash.

      Reply
  • Danielle Black
    April 22, 2017 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for a helpful post. It looks like there is more bean planted than corn. Is this an issue at all with them getting tangled sharing the same stocks?

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      May 18, 2017 at 8:10 am

      I usually have a couple of bean vines climbing up a corn stalk. It does not hinder your ability to harvest the pods or the ears.

      Reply
  • RNdiva
    June 7, 2014 at 8:53 am

    I am trying this for the first time this summer using the square foot gardening method. In one half of the bed I have bush beans and the other half I have Rattlesnake pole beans planted. It is my first time to plant corn and I tried two different varieties. As long as it doesn’t get into the 100’s before August (the 5th season in SE Texas) I think we will do well. I have also added some sunflowers on one of the boarders as extra support for more pole beans. Hoping for bumper crops!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      June 8, 2014 at 12:54 am

      Just an FYI, you should only grow one variety of corn at a time unless you have physical barriers (like floating row covers) separating the two varieties. They could cross-breed during pollination and produce very unsavory corn.

      Reply
      • Vickie
        May 29, 2020 at 4:11 pm

        It is true that it is better to grow only one variety of corn, easpecially if you have limited space, such as in an urban garden or a square foot garden.

        Corn is wind pollinated. This means that pollen from your neighbor’s corn can blow in and fertilize your corn, creating cross-bred seed. If you want to raise a certain variety of corn, and you want to harvest the seed and have it grow with consistent results from successive generations of seed, you want to minimize cross pollination from outside sources. You can do this somewhat by planting your corn in a sheltered, low wind area, and by growing only one variety of corn.

        HoWever, you can raise more than one variety of sweet corn, but you must make certain that they are not releasing pollen at the same time, causing cross-breeding and possibly unsavory corn. You can do this by:

        (1) planting one early maturing variety (such as Sugar Baby which matures in 65 days) and one late maturing variety (such as Silver Queen which matures in 95 -100 days) at the same time. They will have different pollination times that will not overlap, thus they will not cross-pollinate.

        OR

        (2) by staggering the planting time for two varieties that mature at the same time (such as Sugar Baby and Early Girl which both mature in 65 days) by planting one variety, then waiting at least 14 days before planting the other variety. One planting will release viable pollen much earlier than the other planting, thus they will not cross-pollinate.

        Either method also gives you a longer period of harvesting corn over the growing season.

        Reply
  • Joaquin
    June 7, 2014 at 1:37 am

    If you’re gonna think of how this thing grows you would really be amazed. It only means that God’s creation is such a beautiful one. I love the idea behind it and planning to do the same if there is a chance.

    __________________

    Joaquinn Parker

    Reply
  • Caitlin
    June 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    I’ve just started to learn and try companion planting, but I’ve never heard of the three sisters garden – that is so cool!

    Reply
  • Laurie
    June 5, 2014 at 8:14 am

    I always do companion planting in my garden. It really makes a big difference. I have bush beans browning next to my 5 kinds of squash. I put in a handy panel so the squash wouldn’t take over the garden though. It is still trying to, but it is also growing up the panel and the squash is off the ground and away from bugs. 🙂 My spaghetti squash is a very aggressively growing plant and would be taking over the yard if I didn’t use the handy panel.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      June 5, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      The squash pictured in this post are all winter squash, so I know the feeling. 🙂

      Reply
  • Leslie
    June 5, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Did you plant bush or pole beans?

    Reply
    • Laurie
      June 5, 2014 at 8:15 am

      Bush beans don’t climb like the ones she has in the photo. They are pole beans.

      Reply
    • Linda Ly
      June 5, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      As Laurie said — you want to grow pole beans, runner beans, winged beans, or yard-long beans, all of which like to climb.

      Reply

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