Companion plants for corn

Companion Planting With Corn – Learn About Planting Next To Corn

If you’re going to grow corn, squash or beans in the garden anyway, you might as well grow all three. This trio of crops is referred to as the Three Sisters and is an age old planting technique utilized by Native Americans. This growing method is called companion planting with corn, squash and beans, but there are other plants to grow with corn that are just as compatible. Keep reading to find out about companion planting with corn and suitable corn plant companions.

Companion Plants for Corn

The Three Sisters are made up of corn, winter squash and mature dry beans, not summer squash or green beans. Summer squash has a short shelf life and hardly any nutrition or calories while winter squash, with its thick outer rind, can be stored for months. Dried beans, unlike green, store for long periods of time and are packed with protein. The combination of these three created a subsistence diet that would have been augmented with fish and game.

Not only did this trio store well and provided calories, protein and vitamins, but planting squash and beans next to corn had qualities that benefited each. The beans set nitrogen into the soil to be used by successive crops, the corn provided a natural trellis for the beans to clamber up and the large squash leaves shaded the soil to cool it and retain moisture.

Additional Corn Plant Companions

Other companion plants for corn include:

  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Melons
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Sunflowers

Note: Not every plant works when companion gardening. Tomatoes, for instance, are a no-no for planting next to corn.

This is just a sampling of plants to grow with corn. Do your homework prior to planting corn in the garden to see which ones work well together and are also suited to your growing region.

Companion Planting Sweet Corn

Zea Mays Zones: 3-11 Full Sun Soil pH 5.5 – 7.0

Companion Planting is the placement of various crops in close physical proximity to one another so as to symbiotically compliment each others health, vigor, growth and the flavor of their produce. It also naturally involves separating plants whose development is antagonistic to each other.

A plant that attracts a certain class of insect pest, fungal or microbial pathogen should not be placed near another plant that is adversely effected by the same pests and pathogens. A plant that depletes certain nutrients from the soil that is needed by its neighbor should be separated from those plants so as to avoid competition for those nutrients.

Tomatoes – Attracts many of the same pests that feed on Corn. Such as the Tomato Fruitworm, ironically also known as the Corn Earworm. Tomato hornworm is another pest that feeds on both corn and tomato plants. Potato aphid, Beet Armyworm, cutworms, fall armyworm are a few others and there are many more. Planting Corn and Tomatoes together is a bad idea.

Potatoes are touted by many Garden gurus as a “good neighbor of corn”. Potatoes are closely related to tomatoes and attract many of the same pests.

Potatoes need high levels of organic nitrogen and potassium , corn does also, at roughly the same times as potatoes, so hence they are competing for the nutrients. The only viable advantage of planting corn and potatoes together is the shade furnished by the corn to the potato plants. Potatoes are a cool weather crop, inter-planting them with corn furnishes the partial shade they need during the dog days of summer. This works fine if you only have a small patch of corn, if not properly laid out the potatoes could be starved of sunlight.

There is no evidence that potatoes provide any benefit to the corn stalks. Planting Corn and Potatoes together is a not a good idea.

Cucumber, pumpkin, squash are compatible with corn, they can be grown with maturing corn stalks, will serve as a living mulch, although not as efficiently as some plants and will themselves benefit from the shade of summer sun. Be sure to use varieties that fare well in partial shade. Expect to see slightly lower yield from curcubits grown in this fashion.

Cucumber vines growing with corn helps to anchor corn and discourages raccoon’s “Cucumbers are offensive to raccoons, so it’s beneficial to plant it alongside corn. Corn seemingly protects the cucumbers against the virus that causes wilt.” Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening – L.Riotte

Planting Sunflowers with corn is said by some to increase the yield. This is not proven out – however sunflower and corn do work very well together in a rotation scheme.

Corn produces a beneficial fungus known as arbuscular mycorrhizal that enhaces the plants phosphorous uptake.

The fungi emit fungal filaments somewhat like mycellium known as hyphae from the root system into the soil. These fungal filaments create minute channels in the soil. Sunflower following corn takes advantage of these root channels and follows them to extend further into the soil to find even more nutrients and water. – Sunflower & Corn: Rotational Synergy

Corn, beans and squash were important staples in the Native American diets.

Many people who are interested in green living are turning to Native American gardening techniques to learn how foods were grown in the past. Native Americans had to survive on what they grew, as well as what was available in the wild, for their survival. Some of the techniques that they used in the past are still used successfully today.

Gardening the Native American Way

Native Americans used many of the techniques that we use today in our gardens. For example, corn or maize was grown in rows because it made pollination easier. Beans that couldn’t grow without a trellis were trained on poles or cornstalks. Gardens were often fertilized with fish from nearby creeks or rivers and today we use bone or fish meal for the same reason.

Three Sisters

One of the most often used Native American gardening techniques was the Three Sisters. This method used three different seeds planted together in one large mound of dirt. The seeds were corn, squash and beans. Each of these seeds would provide something that the other seeds would need as they grew. The beans would provide nitrogen to the soil, which the corn and squash would need to grow strong. The corn provided a trellis on which the beans would grow. The squash provided cover for the other two plants as they were growing and helped to deter some pests. Some Native Americans would also put a fish or eel in the hole first, and then place the seeds on top before covering with soil. This provided added fertilizer to the soil.

It is interesting to note that the growing of the Three Sisters varies in the east and west. In the west, the bean varieties cultivated were often self-supporting, so they did not have to be planted in the same hole as the corn and squash.

Four Sisters

Some of the southwest tribes also planted a “fourth sister” in addition to corn, beans and squash. They also planted the Rocky Mountain bee plant, which helped to attract bees to pollinate their gardens.

Jerusalem Artichoke

The Jerusalem artichoke, also known as the sunchoke, is a perennial sunflower that has edible tubers. Native Americans ate them mashed like potatoes. It was also used as a thickening agent in soups and stews. They were grown along dried river bottoms and in fertile loam soils so that the tubers were easy to dig up once mature. They were grown, and still are today, in the northern third of the United States.

Wild Rice

Wild rice was an important part of the American Indian diet. It was grown in Wisconsin, Minnesota and parts of the Great Lakes. Wild rice needs three to eight feet of water to live in. It depends on consistency in the weather and water levels in order to survive.

Women would go into the water several weeks before the rice was ready to be harvested. They would tie the rice into small sheaves, which kept the rice kernels from falling into the water when they ripened. Today, as in the past, the rice is collected in canoes. While several people paddle a canoe, one person sits at the stern and uses long wooden poles to knock the rice grains into the canoe and then the plants are allowed to spring back into place. Some grains are always left behind on the plants so that they re-seed for the following year.

The Native American Diet

The Native American diet consisted of 80 percent fruits and vegetables and 20 percent meat. They did not grow everything they needed because much of what they ate was growing wild around them. Depending upon where they lived they had pine nuts, maple syrup, cranberries, blueberries and many other fruits and nuts growing around them to sustain them. What they collected from their gardens in the fall was stored, often in holes dug in the ground, to help them survive the winter months.

When and How to Plant

These crops are warm season plants and do not tolerate frost. Plant seeds for the Three Sisters outside with the spring, summer, or monsoon planting periods. Check with your local planting calendar to determine the best time for your area. One major concern for the Southern Southwest is the hot, dry heat of the early summer. Corn in particular does not tolerate high heat and low humidity during the period of tasseling. Therefore, plant before April 15 to ensure that the pollen released during the corn’s tasseling period (30-70 days after planting depending upon variety) will occur before June/early July when it will be more likely to be sterile or infertile. Alternatively plant in mid-late July with the summer monsoon season and the corn will reach maturity when the temperatures drop a little and humidity rises.

We recommend directly planting all of these types of seeds as they will fare better than transplants. Direct planting of seeds leads to stronger root systems that are more adequately able to take up water and nutrients, resulting in more vigorous and healthy plants.

Planting the Three Sisters in the order of corn, beans, and squash will ensure that they will grow and mature together and will not grow at the expense of another Sister. Sister Corn should be planted first so that it can grow tall above the other crops. Plant seeds for Sister Bean 2-3 weeks later, or at least when the corn is a few inches tall. When the beans are sending out tendrils to climb the corn will be tall enough to support them. Plant Sister Squash seeds 1 week later after the beans have emerged. You don’t want the large squash leaves to shade out young corn and bean seedlings before they have time to establish.

There are numerous configurations to Three Sisters Gardens. The main consideration is your space constraints. You will want to give individual plants enough space to thrive and have enough of each type of crop to facilitate pollination. Beans are self-pollinating so even only 1 plant will produce beans. They do get crowded growing up corn plants so expect slightly lower yields than if you grew them in their own plot. Squash require insects to pollinate the flowers so having several plants growing at the same time helps attract sufficient pollinators. Corn is wind-pollinated and while capable of self-pollinating you will have more success with more plants. It is best to have at least 10-20 corn plants to provide sufficient pollen availability but plant more if you have the space to increase your success.

The image below has some suggested layouts for a Three Sisters Garden and is also available for printing in this downloadable handout. Use your creativity and find what works with the space you have.

What Varieties to Plant

The corn should be a tall variety so the bean plants have plenty of room to climb and do not overcrowd the corn. Many Southwestern varieties of corn, such as Tohono O’odham 60-day and Hopi Sweet, are shorter plants that mature quickly. This is a beneficial trait selected to use less water, but not ideal for beans to climb. The bean variety should not be a bush bean but rather a climbing type also called pole beans. Non-vigorous climbers and bushy-pole types are best so that they do not take over the corn plants. Lima, runner, and common bean types do best. Teparies are not recommended for this type of planting. Corn and squash need more water than varieties of tepary beans so they do not grow well together. Traditional winter squash varieties can grow vines up to 15 feet long and therefore need adequate space to sprawl. Consider growing more compact summer squash varieties if you do not have much space such as a raised bed garden.

For corn, we recommend varieties like Dia de San Juan, an all purpose dent corn, or Flor del Rio, a tall popcorn that produces 2-4 ears per stalk. For beans, climbers like Tohono O’odham Vayos or Four Corners Gold work well. Recommended squash varieties depends upon your space. If you have a lot of space for the plants to sprawl consider winter squash varieties like Magdalena Big Cheese or Tarahumara Pumpkin. If you are planting in a raised bed or other restricted plot consider summer squash varieties like Dark Star Zucchini or Yellow Crookneck squash.

Photo courtesy of Pete Rodriguez

The Other Sisters

For some cultures, other crops are also important in traditional agriculture. For example, tobacco is equally sacred as Sisters Corn, Beans, and Squash for many indigenous cultures of the Southwest. Sunflowers and amaranth are considered other Sisters. They and offer shade to the other Sisters during the heat of the afternoon, attract pollinators, and provide additional stalks for beans to climb. The edible seeds and amaranth greens contribute to a nutritionally balanced diet. Because they have a similar growing habitat, other cucurbits like watermelon and gourds can be substituted for the squash. The long, sprawling vines will shade the ground in a similar way to squash. Consider growing some of these other crops in place of or in addition to corn, beans, or squash depending upon what you like to eat and enjoy growing.

Interested in printing this information to share with others? Please download this condensed 2-page handout on How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden.

Growing Native American Heritage: The Three Sisters

by Anthony Walker, Education Intern

In thinking about complex sustainable agricultural techniques, it is easy to think only of modern innovations. In fact, many traditional agricultural communities have developed extremely resilient, efficient, and sustainable techniques. One such technique is companion planting, an agricultural technique where two or more crops are planted together in a single plot. Perhaps the most famous example of companion planting is “The Three Sisters.” It involves three of the first important domesticated crops in Mesoamerican Societies: maize (corn), pole beans, and winter squash. The practice of planting these three crops together was developed over many generations among the indigenous populations of the Americans.

“The Three Sisters” companion planting technique is often attributed Northeastern Woodland tribes, especially the Iroquois Confederacy. In fact, the name “The Three Sisters” comes from an Iroquois legend. According to the legend, corn, beans and squash are inseparable sisters that were given to the people by the “Great Spirit.” It is important to note, however, that the “Three sisters” are also found in many other areas and tribes around North America. Other known sites include: New Mexico among the Tewa with a fourth sister (Rocky Mountain bee plant); the four corners area among the Anasazi, where it was adapted specifically for an arid environment; and Mesoamerica, where the technique was applied on larger scale farms.

These crops complement each other in a number of ways. Beans are fantastic for soil health because (as with all legumes) they host microorganisms in their roots that take nitrogen (an important nutrient for healthy plants) from the air and transfer it to the soil making it available for use by plants.. Corn has large upright stalks, which act as a pole-like structure that the climbing beans can wrap around. The large leaves of the winter squash shade the soil, depriving weeds from sunlight while preventing moisture from escaping due to evaporation. The squash stems and leaves are also spiny, discouraging animal pests from infiltrating. If a fourth sister was included, it was a plant that attracted pollinators (e.g. Rocky Mountain bee plant attracted bees). Furthermore, the main “three sisters” each provide an important component of a healthy diet: corn provides carbohydrates; beans supply protein; and squash are rich in vitamins. Finally, since each of the “Three Sisters” is from a different crop family, they are susceptible to different diseases and pests making the polycultural planting more resilient than monocultures often seen elsewhere.

The techniques surrounding the “three sisters” developed over generations, passed on through familial and community ties. Passed down was the knowledge about placement of each plant the arrangement of the groupings, and the directional orientation. For example, beans and corn were planted in precise rows that allowing the beans to climb. Another common procedure among the squash seeds were moistened, wrapped in grass and then in deerskin to keep seeds warm to ensure they sprouted before they were planted.

Not only did the technique evolve over many generations – so too did the varieties of crops. These varieties were open-pollinated, meaning that each individual plant of a given variety is genetically unique, but very similar to other plants of that variety. There are many benefits of this genetic diversity. First of all, genetic diversity within a crop makes it more resilient to external forces such as extreme weather, pests, and drought. The genetic variation also gave farmers the opportunity to collect and save seeds from the best specimens of each crop to use for the following year. Through the use of the “three sisters” plantings, for example, thousands of varieties of corn adapted to the local environmental conditions through artificial and natural selection. Unfortunately, many of these corn varieties have since been lost due to current mainstream agricultural practices and seed company consolidation.

The “Three Sisters” companion planting technique is still in use today and for obvious reasons: it maintains high yields, promotes healthy soil, suppresses weeds, attracts pollinators, promotes genetic diversity, and requires low water input – all without harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Perhaps most impressive about the “Three Sisters” technique, is that it was developed hundreds of years ago. This ancient practice from the indigenous populations of the Americas is widely recognized as an extremely sustainable and environmentally friendly farming technique.

We know that the Native Americans were excellent hunter-gatherers, probably from our middle school textbooks. But most of us were not informed of their laissez-faire system of symbiotic agriculture. I’m speaking of the the Three Sisters, one of the farming techniques the Native Americans practiced.

Did you know?

Native Americans had their own distinct tribes, each with their own horticultural traditions. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) coined the term The Three Sisters, although they weren’t the only tribe to use the method.

How it Works

This style of planting utilizes three different crops to their full potential in one space to create a circle of interdependence based on giving and receiving.

The Three Sisters is a combination of three plants working together:

Sister bean fixes, or makes available in plant form, nitrogen from the air.

Sister corn provides the support for Sister Bean’s trailing vine.

Sister squash provides ground cover to hold moisture and maintain healthy soil environment while deterring animal invaders with its spiny stems.

The fourth sister can be Sister Sunflower or Sister Bee Balm (aka Bergamot, Horsemint and Oswego Tea). This sister supports the beans, lures birds from the corn with her seeds, and attracts insect pollinators.

Beebalm, or Bergamot

I experimented with growing the Three Sisters using the Wampanoag method, where the sisters are grown in blocks more typical of today’s linear agriculture. Here’s what I discovered:

  • Plant seeds on level soil in full sun.
  • Plant corn, sunflower and squash all at the same time.
  • Beans should be planted between 2-3 weeks after the corn has established a proper support stalk.
  • When planting beans or slightly later, ‘hill up’ the soil around the corn and sunflowers. This will add more strength to their root systems and allow them to stand strong during high winds.

I had a lot of fun seeing these plants all work together. I hope you do, too, and remember to keep on growing!

Chris West is an intern with the Agriculture Supported Communities program.

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Using Sunflowers as Companion Plants

Ingram Publishing/Ingram Publishing/Getty Images

Provide shade for heat-sensitive, low-growing vegetable plants and create a trellis for plants that like to climb sunflowers (Helianthus spp.). While a useful companion plant for many vegetables, sunflowers aren’t the perfect companions for every member of the garden. You can find both annual and perennial sunflower species. Annuals grow in all climates during the summer, while perennial sunflowers grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, depending on the variety.

Increase Corn Crops

Growing sunflowers interspersed with a corn (Zea mays) patch is a smart way to improve overall production and it could help reduce damage from armyworm infestations. Larval armyworms feed on grass and corn. While companion planting corn with sunflowers won’t guarantee against armyworm devastation, having this sunny flower near by can help deter these pests. Both corn and sunflowers need full sun, warm weather and loamy soil.

Shade Cucumbers

Sunflowers get along well with cucumbers (Cucumis sativus), providing shade for these heat-sensitive vegetables. Cucumbers like to climb and will scale a sunflower stalk. To keep them from falling over, drive a stake into the soil near each sunflower and tie it loosely to the stake with string. And it’s not just cucumbers that benefit from the sunflowers’ shade: other related species, like melons (Cucumis melo) and summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), enjoy the sunflowers’ shade.

Separate from Potatoes

Don’t grow sunflowers in the potato (Solanum tuberosum) patch. Both sunflowers and potatoes are susceptible to the fungal disease Verticillium dahliae. To avoid creating a perfect environment for this destructive, wilt-causing disease, keep sunflowers and potatoes in separate areas of the garden and avoid rotating sunflowers with potatoes in the same garden bed area.

Attract the Pollinators

Get the bees to your garden with the perennial sunflower variety “Lemon Queen” (Helianthus “Lemon Queen”), which grows in USDA zones 4 through 9. While most sunflowers attract bees, these busy pollinators find this one particularly irresistible. Sunflowers also attract butterflies and birds to the garden, bringing a diverse range of pollinators for your plants.

An Ornamental Companion

You don’t have to relegate sunflowers to the edible garden. These bright, attractive flowers add color to cutting gardens and work well in cottage gardens, meadows and border areas. The common annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) grows up to 10 feet tall, but you have other choices. For a low-growing perennial variety, plant willow-leaved sunflowers (Helianthus salicifolius). There are two types: the 9- to 12-inch-tall perennial cultivar “Low Down,” which grows in USDA zones 6 through 9; and the 12- to 15-inch-tall “Willow Mountain,” which grows in USDA zones 5 through 9.

Two Sisters: Growing Corn and Shell Beans at Home

Corn is usually direct-sown, but in Maine we get a jump on the short season by germinating the seeds indoors in soil blocks. Although corn can tolerate some cool, moist spring weather, modern varieties don’t germinate well in those conditions. So we transplant the seedlings into the garden when they’re just a few inches tall, in tight clusters of four plants. We space the clusters 18 inches apart. Then, we thin them to three as soon as it’s clear which plant in the group is weakest. We cut it carefully, just under its roots. (Pulling it up would disrupt the others.) This scheme saves space and facilitates pollination because corn is wind-pollinated. Corn’s a heavy feeder, so we add lots of compost or well-rotted manure to the bed in fall before planting.

When the silks turn dark, start pinching the tips of the ears, which go from pointed to rounded as the kernels mature. Peel back a leaf to see whether the kernels have sized up. Puncture one with a fingernail to see whether it oozes its sweet, milky juice.

We enjoy planting several sweet corn varieties in succession to stretch out the harvest, starting with the early ‘Sugar Buns,’ then moving on to a great open-pollinated variety called ‘Double Standard,’ followed by the bicolored ‘Delectable,’ and then the old-fashioned white ‘Silver Queen.’ We prefer the flavor of these to the modern super-sweets.

To remove kernels from the cob, we hold the ears upright, pointed end up, and slice downward with a heavy knife. The kernels go into soup or chowder, salsa, soufflé, shepherd’s pie, a mixed vegetable medley, pancakes, or cornmeal muffins. One of our favorites is creamed corn, made by simmering the kernels in a little cream in the place of butter. When we have more corn than we can eat, we blanch the ears for a minute or two in boiling water, cut off the kernels, and freeze them in 8-ounce portions for winter dishes.

What Are Shell Beans?

Shell beans are a gardener’s secret delight; they’re rarely available fresh in markets. Frozen lima beans are often the only shell beans people know. The term generally refers to a stage between snap beans and dried beans, when the seeds have swelled to fill the pod but have not yet turned hard. As a result, they cook quickly. While they may absorb some water in the process, they don’t expand nearly as much as dried beans, so instead of doubling in size, they might go from, say, 3 pounds of raw shell beans to 4 pounds cooked. Like any bean, they’re usually direct-sown when the ground has warmed up and the danger of frost has passed. Legumes supply some of their own fertility (through nitrogen fixation) and are easy to grow. For a big batch of beans to dry and freeze, grow the bush type in rows. These are short-vined and bear heavily over a short period of time. To get a steady supply throughout summer, grow the long-vined pole beans, so named because of their need for support. You can grow them on individual wooden or bamboo poles, on pole tipis, on a vertical trellis of metal or nylon mesh, or even on a fence. But keep up with picking, or they’ll stop making pods.

A shell bean can be any variety, even one grown for ornament, such as ‘Scarlet Runner’ with its gorgeous red flowers. Some varieties are traditionally favored for shell bean use because the pods tend to be easy to open. Many are red-streaked, such as the heirloom ‘Rattlesnake,’ ‘Tongue of Fire,’ ‘French Horticultural,’ and ‘Vermont Cranberry,’ an old bush type. Flageolet beans are often cooked at the shell stage, as are many Italian types, such as cannellini and borlotti beans. If you have a long, hot summer, you can grow limas — ‘King of the Garden’ is a favorite.

For even cooking, pick a batch of shell beans at the same degree of maturity. Test them by pressing a few beans with your finger to see whether they’ve softened. They’re delicious served with butter or with garlic and olive oil. Make a bean salad with them, dressed with vinaigrette and some minced onion or shallots. They’re wonderful with other summer vegetables in soups, such as minestrone, or puréed with lots of garlic for a spread or dip.

Use your corn grown at home and your fresh shell beans in these summertime sweet corn recipes and shell bean recipes.


Summer Fresh Corn Chowder Recipe

Rainbow Succotash Salad Recipe

Summer Chili Recipe with Fresh Shell Beans

Barbara Damrosch enjoys fresh summer corn and beans right in the garden at her home, Four Season Farm, in Maine. She’s the author of The Garden Primer and co-author of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, both available at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS bookstore.

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