Planting the three sisters

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash

The origin of corn is still a subject of intense study and academic debate among paleobotanists. Corn’s generous tendency to produce eight or more rows of kernels (totaling 500 to 1,000 nutrition-filled seeds) per cob is not observed in any living wild grass. Corn may have derived from a naturally mutated or ancient manmade hybrid of teosinte, a genetically close relative that also produces multiple kernels – but only six or so in a single row. Alternatively, it may be a natural or man-made hybrid incorporating tripsacum, another genetically close relative.

Throughout the Americas today, varieties of one or both of these wild grasses tend to grow along the uncultivated outer borders of fields cleared and prepared for corn. The mingling of their airborne pollens with the corn crop results in a genetic variety that can arm open-pollinated (nonhybrid, nongenetically spliced) seed corn against flood, drought, bugs or disease. Without this genetic diversity a homogenous plant population (monoculture) can prove vulnerable to a single pathogen or pest.

The origin of beans and squash is much easier to trace. Many of their wild progenitors still exist. In addition, the insects that freely cross-pollinate the flowers of the cucurbits and wriggle their way into self-pollinating beans carry a huge wild-species’ gene pool that continually strengthens curcubits and beans with the resistance of genetic diversity.

Garden Site and Preparation

To take advantage of the three sisters’ promise of a perpetual, wholesome, handgrown food supply, it is best to follow the example of our predecessors and build homes and gardens downhill or close to a reliable water source. In selecting your own place, look in the lowlands as near as you can get to good, year-round water.

In most of rural North America, you can take advantage of earlier generations’ skill in locating water by finding a 1920’s or earlier farm. Search for a dip in the ground or several large, flat stones covering the wellhead. The stone sheathing of the old well may be caved in, full of decades-old trash or contaminated by any number of modern sources. But with a little work, it can be reclaimed and used to water the sisters. When searching for water at antique homes, one giveaway is a thick stand of Jerusalem artichoke sunflowers.

In the flatlands, a concrete slab with rusty angle irons protruding at the corners can indicate the location of a long-gone windmill. The central well opening may be mortared up for safety’s sake. On any old farm, a shallow hand-dug well may be found in the yard. No matter the circumference or the depth of the well hole, you can get water out with a solar- or hand-powered push-pump or a long, tubular sheet metal-drilled well bucket on a spool of rope.

Incidentally, both new and recycled/antique windmills are available. Many of the newer low-tech water-collecting devices were developed in response to exaggerated fears over the Y2K computer glitch of the late 1990s, but the supply is limited, so stock up now.

The earliest desert gardens were located where plants seemed to grow naturally. Seed was planted deeply, in tubular holes that were sunk with tree-limb planting sticks six to eight inches to subsoil moisture. That way, gardeners didn’t have to mound supporting soil around the plant’s roots. Instead they just filled in the planting holes when leaves broke the surface. The deep-set seeds were also safe from crows and most other marauders. The water that supplied these gardens may still flow underground or be contained in shallow aquifers.

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If you need to collect water in desert country, use cisterns, concrete or plastic sheet-lined impoundments, or barrels filled by water collected from house and barn roofs.

To take advantage of the three sisters’ promise of a perpetual, wholesome, hand-grown food supply, it is best to build homes and gardens downhill or close to a reliable water source.

Soil Preparation

From the limited information available, my guess is that three sisters gardens included about an eighth of an acre for each adult in the family. As they made their way to North America from their southern origins, tobacco and sweet and white potatoes were planted in separate plots. Amaranth, quinoa and sunflowers were often grown separately or along borders of the main three sisters plots. Jerusalem artichokes, the perennial variety of sunflower that produces an abundance of crisp, edible tubers, were given separate, permanent plots to the north of annually planted gardens.

Gardens were prepared entirely by hand and with few tools: a long digging stick, sometimes with the butt-end of a branch protruding from the working end for use as a footrest; a hoe made from the scapula (shoulder blade) of a deer or bison bound into a split stick with rawhide; rakes of deer antlers bound to a sapling handle or a bound sheaf of curve-ended saplings; and flat-rock hand trowels.

The Delaware and a few other East coast tribes cleared and dug up large fields along upper reaches of tidal rivers, planting in long, straight rows. Most gardens were located, sized and cleared as family size demanded and available land allowed. On the prairies, Native Americans planted in floodplains along rivers, where there were few permanent plants and the soil was enriched annually by alluvial silt deposits. Woodland tribes planted in the flat spring flood zones inside of meanders in rivers and streams, as well as in sunny clearings whenever possible.

Cultivation

Most native cultures held the earth sacred, and resisted cutting too deeply into the soil or cultivating unless it was essential for the crop. When clearing land, the hoe and planting stick were used as needed to loosen roots. These were shaken to loosen soil, then left in piles to dry for later burning. Brush and small trees were cut and roots dug out with planting sticks. Large trees were either relocated or destroyed — burned or girdled at the base and left to dry and fall apart over time. Freshly cleared brush was allowed to dry and was burned. Ashes were hoed in, along with lime and minerals, which made the soil soft and easier to work.

Gardens were allowed to lie fallow for two years between corn crops, a pattern that is followed by many homestead-scale gardeners today. Every third year, before planting, the new fallow-ground plants were pulled, dried and burned. Often, even more grass, brush and tree limbs were hauled in and burned on the freshly cleared soil.

The three sisters were planted in hills, in yardwide pits or in raised mounds that were fertilized, tilled and retained for several years. Surrounding land was untilled, but cleared of potentially competing large weeds.

Fish carcasses were often buried beneath corn hills, but no manure — human or from horses or wild animals — was used as fertilizer. It often contained still-viable weed seeds and was considered unclean in both a temporal and spiritual sense. This is one area where we can part company with Indians, who did not compost. Properly composted “humanure” or a winter’s collection of livestock dung, mixed with straw or sawdust bedding and allowed to rot during the summer, makes a matchless soil enhancement.

Straw scarecrows, as well as long grass leaves bound into twisted-grass cord and arrayed over the garden, were used to deter crows and other birds. From our experience, they work as well today as long as locations are changed at least one a day — crows are still pretty smart.

Post-planting crop lands were thoroughly hand-cultivated, but only twice in the season. The first shallow hoeing took place on a hot, sunny day a few weeks after planting. By that point, most of the inevitable crop of windblown weed seeds had germinated and grown to six inches or so — not yet shading crop plants or vying with them for water or soil nutrients. Soil was shallowly shaved by the hoe, cutting stems just below ground level, which allowed roots to decay in the soil and above-ground growth to dry into mulch. A second hoeing followed several weeks later. After that, the few weeds that were not shaded out by the crops were pulled by hand.

Varieties and Planting

The earliest wild-corn varieties probably produced kernels that dried rock-hard on one- to two-inch long cobs. The corn was roasted in the husk and enjoyed in the immature “green” stage as it is today. The earliest types were probably popcorn, which retains a bit of water inside mature, dried kernels. By all archaeological indications, kernels were eaten off the cob.

Over the millennia, thousands of varieties were bred, both accidentally and on purpose, from the originals. Some modern crossbreeding/hybridizing is being done by agribusiness that breeds candy-sweetness into sweet corn and pesticide genes into field corn. More to MOTHER’S liking are the plant-breeding programs being undertaken by seedsavers — small private and corporate business growers and some universities — to breed back to original Indian strains and to breed natural drought, pest and pollution resistance into native varieties. Most notable – and most accessible to home gardeners – are the efforts of the certified all – organic growers at Seeds Of Change, PO Box 15700, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87506.

Most original Indian varieties have been lost for generations, so anyone making a half-serious attempt to establish a seedbank appropriate to their own area will have to start with a sample of open-pollinated seed, selecting and reselecting the best for their climate. I am trying to dehybridize early developing corn by planting out and reselecting the wildly variable plants that grow from the seed of early hybrid corn (from Vesey’s Seeds of Prince Edward Island. Call 800-363-7333.)

To try this in your own garden, plant hybrid or open-pollinated standbys such as the eight-row Golden Bantam, introduced in 1902. Select the best plants for five years or more and plant the seed in sun-warmed raised beds or in blocks of well-draining sharp sand. Plant as early as you can, even if most of it dies from cold and ground rot. In time, you will have a start on a naturally shorter-season variety of your own.

Nearly all Indian corn, beans and squash were planted in multiseed “hills,” located four or more feet apart in both directions, usually six seeds to a hill and thinned to the best three or four plants. Rows of beans and corn were alternated to keep them from competing for water or minerals. The climbing bean varieties would scale cornstalks, their close-held leaves interfering little with the fanned-out leaves of cornstalks and tillers. Corn was planted in single-variety blocks separated by brush or by blocks of another species to minimize unwanted cross-pollination and genetic contamination of the following year’s seed. Varieties with light, easily airborne pollen were carefully isolated.

Experiment with many varieties of beans. Buy those that are grown to dry and keep for a year or more. Few varieties grown for succulent pods will make good crops of dry beans. One exception is the fine old Kentucky Wonder pole bean; the long pods that are not used fresh or at the mature but still moist shell-bean stage should be left to dry and provide a handful of succulent white, Navy-type dry beans. You can pick from the world’s largest assortment of bean seed (and more) from Vermont Bean Seed Company in Fair Haven Vermont.

Squash – which produces long stems and huge leaves, was planted by Native-American gardeners in segregated plots or in ten- to 20-foot-wide sections of com/bean fields. The tendrils would grow into the corn/beans — but never high enough to shade other crops.

We have a much greater selection of squash than our predecessors — including many varieties that have been improved in Japan and Europe. But when picking a variety for sure cropping, choose and grow wisely. I learned early on to start squash indoors along with the early broccoli. Northcountry Indians did the same a thousand years ago: Seed was moistened, wrapped in moistened grass, bagged in a deerskin pouch and kept warm till sprouted.

Harvest and Storage

Corn you intend to store should be allowed to mature to full hardness and left to field-dry on the stalk. Watch out for corn borers — they can decimate the kernels. To control them, crush a few handfuls of sunflower seeds and boil and mash till their oil floats on top. Skim off the oil, cool, and on a sunny day (when the corn ears are well-warmed), squirt an ample dose into the young silks of new corn. Repeat generously if newly picked green roasting ears reveal live borer caterpillars.

Dry corn can be shucked of its husk by rubbing pairs of cobs together to loosen the kernels. Today you can purchase old-time mechanical one-ear cornshellers or small disc-shaped hand-held shellers from the homesteading catalogs. I keep seed safe from mice in surplus ammo cans, larger quantities of grain keep well in steel garbage cans with the tops well secured. Fifty-gallon steel drums would be more secure.

Dry corn is easily stored in a crib, such as the small air-drying corn crib with aluminum pie plates under its legs to keep rodents out.

The best way to deal with beans is to pull dry vines, heap them on a sound tarp, stomp on them to split dry pods, and run a finger down both halves to remove seeds. Then drop handfuls of beans in a good wind so that chaff flies off.

Hubbards and butternut squash will keep for almost a year if the temperature remains cool and the air dry. We store winter squash in a dry cellar room kept from freezing by wood-stove heat piped down a floor duct or just radiating from the ground floor.

Saving Seed

Native Americans learned thousands of years ago that the best planting seed comes from the fattest kernels at mid-cob of a corn ear; in addition, they also knew that it comes from the most uniform and fattest-sounding uncracked beans and squash seed.

Seed to be saved is cleaned and sundried-indoors on a windowsill or in the shelves over a woodburning range. I have gotten into the habit of jotting down the details of its history and enclosed note and seeds in paper bags (to let drying air in and out) and store them in my ammo boxes – left open a crack – on a high shelf in my always-warm kitchen.

The Three Sisters

Have you heard of the Three Sisters or a Three Sisters garden?

No, this isn’t a garden tended to by 3 women who are related to each other! The Three Sisters Garden is a kind of companion planting; the corn, beans and squash are grown at the same time in the same growing area.

History:

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!

Read examples of the Three Sisters legends here from the Minnesota Ag in the Classroom Three Sisters Lesson plan.

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture / CC BY 2.0

What makes a Three Sisters Garden Special?

They help each other grow! As corn grows, it acts as a pole for bean vines to climb up. The bean vines also help stabilize corn so they won’t blow over in windy conditions! Beans are a type of legume. Bacteria on the roots of legumes take nitrogen found in the air and soil, and make it usable for crops. This is called “fixing” nitrogen. Squash plants have large leaves that protect all 3 plants, creating “living mulch” that keeps the soil cool and moist by shading it; squash also protects from weeds. That’s not all though! Spiky squash plants also keep predators like raccoons away, protecting bean and corn plants too.

Corn, beans and squash also create a balanced, nutritious diet which is why these crops were so important for Native Americans, and later the Pilgrims. Corn is a great source of carbohydrates, beans are high in protein and squash has many vitamins and minerals.

Photo by Michael Charron-Plante / CC BY 2.0

Want to grow your own Three Sisters garden?

Here are a few tips:

  • Plant in the spring! Corn, beans and squash love warmth so wait until the threat of frost has passed.
  • Make sure the soil is fertile ahead of time, using compost or fertilizer.
  • Create a mound of soil (a hill) that is about a foot high and four feet wide; this will help water drainage and soil warmth.
  • Plant the corn first, then beans, then squash.

For more growing tips check out this article from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Want to create a classroom lesson centered around the Three Sisters? Check out this article or this lesson from Minnesota Ag in the Classroom.

I have to be honest. I had no idea who the three sisters were and what their importance was. Or how it was connected to Thanksgiving until just recently when I came across it on social media. My interest was sparked and so here I am researching what this relationship is all about.

I recall growing up and hearing my parents say “back in the day” or “in my generation”. As I read this legend it brought back fond memories of learning things that were passed from generation to generation. The legend of corn, beans and squash – and these plants being referred to as the “three sisters” – relates back to Native Americans. According to Iroquois legend these three plants when planted together thrive in the same way three sisters can be found to be inseparable. The Native Americans chose to plant corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, which created a sustainable system that provided for soil health and fertility. The connection of these three plants gives us a look back to how things were done when the America’s were first being inhabited and agriculture was in view as far as the eye could see.

Iroquois believed that the corn, beans and squash were gifts from the Great Spirit. The plants were thought to be watched over by the three sister spirits, called the De o-ha-ko or Our Sustainers and translates to “life support”. These three sister spirits protect and inhabit the croplands. Sister Corn stands tall to guard and protect the crops. Sister Bean feeds the roots of Sister corn. Sister Squash, the oldest of the three sisters stays close to earth and encircles the sisters in a protective fashion and uses her large leaves to protect and shade the soil. Planted together the sisters get their water supply from Father sky.

Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops for early settlers. By the re-telling of the story and this way of planting as well as the legacy was passed down from generation to generation. This process of planting did much for the health of the crop. Corn provided a physical pole for the bean vines to cling to. The beans (as legumes) host bacteria on their roots that help increase the nitrogen levels of the soil around the plants roots and fertility of the soil would then increase. The bean vines would actually strengthen and stabilize the tall corn plants. Nearer to the ground the squash vines created natural shading and helped to hold moisture in the soil and also prevented weeds from taking over beneath the corn and beans. I am amazed to see how the early farmers knew the importance of all of the components of planting and not just the end result of a crop. They worked diligently to protect the soil so that a good crop would be maintained for years to come.

These three crops also helped provide Native Americans with a nutritionally balanced diet. The corn provided quick energy in the form of carbohydrates. The beans were rich in protein. And the squash helped supplement the diet with vitamins from the fruit and oils from the seeds.

Corn, squash and beans are all native to the Americas and have been cultivated for thousands of years. This trio helped keep soils healthy and it helped keep the Native Americans healthy. When early settlers landed and pushed west these three crops were quickly adopted into cultivation practices. The bounty of fall harvest surely included these and now, hundreds of years later, they are still served on the table as part of our Thanksgiving dinner menus.

~ Sheri

Using the ‘Three Sisters’ Method to Grow Corn, Beans, and Squash – Companion Planting at Its Best

Written by Jennifer Charlotte Date Posted: 7 January 2018

Successful vegetable growing is a fine art. It involves striking the right balance between letting nature do its thing, while leading it toward the kind of productivity you’re aiming for. Some gardeners turn to chemical fertilisers and pesticides for help with this, but increasingly, natural methods are taking centre stage.

One of the oldest natural growing techniques is companion planting, where carefully selected combinations of plants are grown together, each providing benefits and protection to the others for maximum success. The ‘Three Sisters’ method is one of the more famous companion planting schemes, and is a proven winner with a long history.

What Does the Three Sisters Involve?

The three sisters method is a product of Native American agriculture, and has been used for over a thousand years to grow sweet corn, squash, and climbing beans in a single, compact space. This selection of plants gives a unique combination of benefits for an excellent total yield.

  • The fast-growing corn provides sturdy support for the young climbing beans.
  • As the beans grow, their spiralling stems strengthen the sweet corn plants in readiness for their heavy mature cobs.
  • As with all legumes, the climbing beans fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, acting as a natural fertiliser for the corn and squash.
  • The large leaves of the squash plants shade the ground, acting as a natural mulch to keep the soil moist while also crowding out weeds.
  • Lastly, the tough squash leaves also act as a physical barrier to the more tender stems of beans, keeping out many pests. In North America, raccoons were the original enemy, but with the right choice of squash plant most hungry animals will be discouraged.

Your Planting Guide

The Three Sisters is a fairly flexible planting method which can be scaled up and down as needed. However, the traditional way gives excellent results if you have the right space and location.

  1. Build circular raised beds approximately 30cm high by 120cm across.
  2. Mix in plenty of compost and organic fertiliser to fuel the first year’s growth, until the beans can work their nitrogen magic on the soil for later crops.
  3. In mid to late spring, plant around half a dozen sweet corn seeds or hardened-off young plants in a circle about half way into the raised bed.
  4. When the maize is around 10-12cm in height, add four bean seeds around each young plant.
  5. Shortly after the beans have germinated, add half a dozen pumpkin or zucchini seeds placed in a circle, between the sweet corn plants and the edge of the mound.
  6. Keep the beds well watered while avoiding splashing the squash plants, weed as necessary, and feed regularly with a general purpose vegetable feed.

Choosing Plant Varieties

Considering the strong heritage of the Three Sisters method, most gardeners will select older heirloom varieties when choosing which varieties to grow. While this may offer a satisfying sense of tradition, one of the beauties of this planting scheme is that it’s extremely flexible, and will happily accommodate any of your favourite varieties.

However, one point to bear in mind is that you should choose an early or mid-season variety of sweet corn rather than a slower-growing one. Ideally, the corn should be ready for harvest just before the beans enter their full productive flow, so that the hungrily fruiting plants aren’t in direct competition for sunlight.

Also, compact varieties of squash – including zucchini – are ideal for a smaller space, but choose plants with plenty of foliage to provide the essential shade. Varieties with tougher, spikier leaves will deter more pests than tender ones.

Lastly, some growers like to ring the changes by switching the sweet corn for sunflower plants. While this is in no way traditional, the sunflowers perform a similar role to the corn by providing fast-growing height, and gardeners may prefer this choice if high winds, poor soil, or an unsuitable climate make growing corn difficult.

Growing in Containers

It’s possible to use the Three Sisters method in container gardening by scaling down the number of seeds, using the largest container you can find, and switching to dwarf or miniature varieties where possible.

However, growing sweet corn on a small scale can lead to pollination difficulties, so it’s best to value the maize only for the support it gives, treating any produce as a bonus.

Nonetheless, zucchini and beans are excellent candidates for container growing, making the three sisters an interesting and productive experiment for when space is limited.

If you have an interest in natural methods of vegetable growing, then it’s worth taking a closer look at the three sisters method. It’s easy to do, provides great results even in limited spaces, and it continues a valuable tradition in a world where natural ways are often too easily lost.

Photo 1 (top) by USDA / CC BY 2.0 | Photo 2 & 3 by Joachim Quandt / CC BY-SA 2.0 | Photo 4 by Perry Quan / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Sometimes one vegetable crop can help another vegetable crop grow better just by being nearby. For example lettuce and spinach often grow better in the shade of a taller plant. Growing two or more crops in close proximity for a shared benefit is called companion planting.

A classic planting of three garden companions is corn, beans, and squash. Native Americans call this inter-planted trio The Three Sisters.

Plant corn and pole beans on a mound or small hill; next, plant squash or pumpkin vines at the base of the mound. The corn will act as a living pole or stake for the beans to climb. The beans which draw nitrogen from the air and “fix” or add it to the soil will help the corn grow. Prickly squash vines growing at the foot of the mound will protect the corn and beans from animal crop invaders.

Planting The Three Sisters is an excellent use of space in a small garden.

Companion Planting in the Vegetable Garden

Companion planting is a bit of art and science; anecdotal evidence and collected garden wisdom seem to support keeping some plants close and others at arm’s length. Continue reading>>>

This classic companion planting combo encourages each of the three to thrive. Here’s why and how to do it.

Companion planting is brilliant. By placing plants together that help each other, we let Mother Nature do some of the heavy lifting in the garden. It is basically creating a beautifully synergistic community of plants.

Perhaps the most classic example of companion planting is known as the “three sisters,” which the Farmer’s Almanac notes was a practice favored by the Iroquois for centuries before the European settlers came to town in the 1600s.

The sisters are corn, pole beans, and squash (traditionally winter squash, but summer squash can work too). According to legend, notes the Almanac, “the plants were a gift from the gods, always to be grown together, eaten together, and celebrated together.”

With the corn planted in the center, it offers support for the pole beans. The beans add nitrogen to the soil, enriching it for the other plants, while also vining their way around to hold the sisters together. The large leaves of the squash around the edge shades the soil to keep it cool and hinder weeds and other pests.

Cornell University offers these guidelines:

• Plant corn when the ground has warmed and is no longer cold and wet. Iroquois tradition holds that planting begins when the leaves of a dogwood are the size of a squirrel’s ear.

• Soak corn seeds for several hours, but not more than eight hours, before planting. (Soaked seed may dry out quickly, so keep the seeds well watered for the first week or two if the soil is not kept moist by rain showers.)

• Prepare low hills that are 3 to 4 feet apart within and between the rows. Place five to seven corn seeds, evenly spaced to a depth of I to I ‘/2 inches. Cover with soil.

• There are many corn varieties to choose from. Dent, flint, and flour corns are especially suited to this system, while popcorn often does not get tall enough and may be overwhelmed by the beans and pumpkins. If you care to follow Iroquois custom, plant the seeds with kind thoughts three days before the full moon.

Once the corn plants reach about six inches high, plant pole beans and pumpkins (or other squash) around them. Since I don’t have any media of the three sisters in my garden, I weeded through a gazillion YouTube videos to find one that is very informative and easy to watch. Here are some plot diagrams from the video to get an idea, with more about them in the video itself below.

GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley/YouTube/Video screen capture
GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley/YouTube/Video screen capture
GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley/YouTube/Video screen capture

And once you’ve got your sisters all lined up, you can consider finding some friends for your tomatoes and peppers as well!

• 12 companion plants to grow alongside your tomatoes
• 32 companion plants to grow with your peppers

Sources: Cornell, The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Double-duty: Grow corn to support bean stalks too | Idaho Statesman

Brown and dry tassels can be a signal for when to pick corn. Charlie Neibergall AP

It will be a while before we plant our corn (wait for the soil to warm to at least 50 degrees F.), but consider having your corn patch do double-duty, by producing ears of edible, grindable or poppable kernels, but also providing supports for pole beans. To fill out the “three sisters” complement (corn, beans and squash), plant winter squash to shade the intervening soil from weed germination. Folklore tells us that native Americans grew crops in this efficient manner.

Since we’re in charge of our own gardens, none of us really like strict rules about gardening, but these for “three sisters” growing have reason behind them: first plant corn, and when it’s a few inches high, plant a couple of pole beans a few inches from corn stalks. After those have germinated and grown a few inches high, plant winter squash, one seed per “hill” of corn. By “hill,” we don’t mean an actual rise, just the spot where your corn stalk is. The planting order is important to make growth possible for all three types of plants so they don’t shade or dominate the others prematurely.

It’s important, too, to plant corn to facilitate wind pollination. In the Treasure Valley, our prevailing daytime winds are west to east, and at night from east to west (the west end of the Valley is lower, and as air cools, it sinks and flows to a lower elevation). Some people plant corn in clusters, with the beans around each cluster. Most varieties of corn only produce one full ear per stalk.

All American corn is Zea mays, botanically. All American Zea mays includes sweet, field, popping, ornamental, flour and flint corns, the latter two usually used for corn meal. Any of these can cross-pollinate any of the others within 250 feet or less, if their projected tasseling out coincides with one another.

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The really complex part of this is the various hybrid sweet corns, whether it’s se, su, sh2, syn, sh2 or ssw, identified on the seed packet after the species name. Cross-pollination between any of these results in tough, inferior sweet corn. Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ catalog, online, gives the best definitions of these types I’ve seen.

The su genotype is the oldest of them, widely available before the year 2000, and converts so quickly from sugar to starch that it became axiomatic that one had water boiling in the pot before one picked that ear of corn. The newer types tend to hold sugar longer than the su types, so you can either plant a variety that is different from one planted within 250 feet, or plant at least two weeks later than the other was planted to avoid cross-pollination. Pollination, of course, only affects the seed of a plant, not the flesh of its fruit that season, but since corn IS the seed, it will be affected.

The sugar-enhanced (se or EH) sweet corn germinates most quickly when the soil temperature is 55 to 60 degrees F. The older su type has a sugar content of about 9 percent, but the sugar-enhanced type has about double that sugar content, but the kernel skins are quite tender and fragile, so take care when harvesting. The sh2 types are called supersweet, ultrasweet or shrunken-2 sweet corn. They have about 35 percent sugar content, but tough kernel skins. This variety does not convert sugar to starch. It requires warmer soil for germination: at least 60 degrees at a depth of 2 inches.

If you don’t keep a journal of when you planted your corn so you’ll know when to harvest it, we’re all advised to wait until the silks hanging out of the ears are brown and dry. In my experience, by the time the corn is ripe there are no visible silks because earwigs have eaten them. That does not mean you have had a pollination failure. Pollination occurred before the earwigs had their way. You can feel the ears and they should be rounded instead of pointed at the end of the ear, or you can pull some husks back and peek at the condition of the kernels. Better to pick corn a little early than to pick it late.

Stop that crabgrass

Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of a wet milling process that produces high fructose corn syrup, I think. That corn syrup has been suspected of being a prime cause of human obesity, so consumption of it has been much reduced as people take better care of their health. That also reduces the supply of corn gluten meal, so it’s rather hard to find. In the past, Zamzows, D & B Supply and Edwards Greenhouse carried it. I know that D & B is not carrying it this year. Check the other sources and even Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot for it. I think it’s effective on crabgrass as long as the forsythia are in full bloom.

Planting fragile seeds

I usually plant lettuce indoors and later transplant it outdoors. The seed is so tiny and fragile it’s very difficult to just put a tiny layer of soil over the top, so I just lay the seed on top of moist potting mix, and hold moisture in by topping the pot with a small pane of glass (from a picture frame). Carrot seed is also tiny and fragile, but carrots don’t transplant well or easily. It’s best if you have pelletized carrot seed. If you do not, you can mix that seed with sand or radish seeds for planting outdoors.

I usually just plant carrot seed alone, distributing it in a line near a soaker hose, then firm it into the soil by pressing a 1-by-2-inch board over the seed, and leaving the board in place for a few days. Then, pick it up and if there is a hint of new green under the board, remove it so the carrots can get sunshine. Another way I’ve planted carrot seed is to lay a 4-by-4-foot piece of pegboard on a bed, then pour out all of the carrot seeds I’ve accumulated and brush it into the holes. Move it about an inch in any direction and weight it down, and then again, leave the pegboard in place for a few days

Send garden questions to [email protected] or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

“The Three Sisters:” Legends and Facts

By Angela Judd
Gardener

Growing up in Arizona, I was lucky to learn about the Native American legend of “The Three Sisters”—how corn, beans, and squash came to be grown together in so many different native cultures. This trio sustained Native Americans both physically and spiritually. “The Three Sisters” provide a nutritionally balanced diet and are meant to be grown together and eaten together. There are many versions of the Native American legend of “the Three Sisters.” One I like is:

“A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong. One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters—a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals—this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad. Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water’s edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister—the one in the yellow dress—disappeared as well. Now the Elder Sister was the only one left. She continued to stand tall in her field. When the Mohawk boy saw that she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together and they became stronger together, again.”

(Taken from an oral account by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, compiled by students at Centennial College and found in “Indian Legends of Eastern Canada.”)

Planting “The Three Sisters” creates a beneficial relationship — each plant helps the others grow. As older sisters often do, the corn stalks support the climbing beans, and provide shade and preserve moisture for the sprawling squash vines. The beans help provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. The large leaves of the squash are living mulch that reduce weeds and preserve moisture, and their prickly leaves deter pests.

Tips for growing “the Three Sisters”

Check your local planting dates. For example, in the low desert of Arizona the best time to plant “The Three Sisters” is during the late summer monsoon. This helps take advantage of the added humidity and rain during that time. Check local planting guides for the best time to plant in your area.

Choose a large area. You need at least a 4 foot by 4 foot area for each group of corn, squash, and beans. Ideally, grow several groupings of plants together. Amend the soil well with compost and mound the dirt in the middle of each four foot area where you plan to grow.

Water regularly and deeply. Do not let plants dry out. It’s best to water at soil level, not getting water on the leaves which can spread disease.

Enjoy your harvest!

Plant, eat, and celebrate “The Three Sisters” together, and teach someone you love the Indian legend of sisters who would never be apart from one another.

Angela Judd is an avid vegetable, flower and fruit tree gardener in Mesa, Arizona. A mother of five children, she enjoys growing and preparing food from the garden for her family. She shares garden inspiration & helpful tips on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog growinginthegarden.com.

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

Several thousand years ago, corn, beans, and squash grew together in the wild in Mesoamerica, near what is now Oaxaca, Mexico. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) called this planting combination The Three Sisters.

They planted these three plants together because they supported one another, helped one another to thrive through the combination of their different strengths – much like three Indigenous sisters might live together.

The spiritual significance of Three Sisters

These three plants were considered precious gifts from the Great Spirit, and the growing season was marked at planting and harvest by ceremonies and rituals to honour the three Sustainer spirits that watched over them.

“For many tribes, each plant was assigned a specific spiritual role, and each part of the plant (the roots, stems, leaves and flowers, as well as the fruits) was imbued with deep meaning and a role in native healing practices.”

The story of the Three Sisters became legend and the plants (and seeds) were considered sacred – they were grown together, eaten together, and celebrated together and knowledge of growing, cooking, and preserving them was passed down many generations through storytelling and ceremony.

Ernest Smith, “The Three Sisters and the Jo’ka:o’ Turning the Squash to Ripen”, watercolour, 1937, from the collections of the Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY

A Sustainable Polyculture

The Three Sisters Garden is a perfect example of successful companion planting.

Corn being the eldest sister, at the centre, the corn offers beans needed support.

Beans are the giving sister, pulling nitrogen from the air into the soil, to benefit all three. As the beans grow up towards the sun, curling around the stalks and vines, they pull the sisters close together.

Squash, with its large leaves and sprawling vines, protect the three by shading and cooling the soil, keeping it moist and preventing weeds. The spiky leaves also deter predators.

Together, all three come together in a sustainable polyculture, building soil fertility and providing nutritious food.

When European settlers arrived in North America in early 1600s, the Iroquois had been growing these plants together for centuries. The European settlers, learning from the Iroquois, reproduced these growing methods and thus were able to feed themselves and survive in this new place.

The three crops together provided complete nutrition for the Iroquois, which is reflected in many traditional recipes, such as succotash. Corn provides carbohydrates, beans offer protein and amino acids, and squash provides vitamins and minerals.

Devastatingly, due to colonization and cultural genocide, the spiritual and cultural significance of ancient growing methods and the stories that surround them have been lost. Furthermore, in the last century, commercial agriculture, the prevalence of monoculture, genetic modification, and so on, have displaced polyculture, heirloom seeds, seed saving, etc and caused irreversible damage to Earth’s biodiversity.

Tips for growing the Three Sisters garden

Choose Heirloom Seeds

  • Preserving these heirloom varieties is important to the preservation of indigenous culture and heritage as well as biodiversity.
  • Different heirlooms were grown for specific purposes: cooking fresh, drying, seed oil, or long term storage
  • Heirloom varieties are adapted to specific climates – heartier, more drought-resistant and adaptable for example – than modern-day industrial varieties
  • Choosing the right corn variety is important, since it serves as the main structure of the planting
  • The prevalence of GMO corn in particular has been very damaging. It has transformed this sustaining, culturally significant “mother” into an industrial commodity

Planting & Growing

Timing, seed spacing, soil fertility, the environment, and varieties are all important factors that come into play – paying attention to all of these factors are important, bringing us in a closer relationship with the earth and the plants.

  • Choose a site in full sun
  • Choose a corn variety that grows tall to support climbing pole beans. Oaxacan Green Dent, Black Aztek, Glass Gem, Bear Paw, Country Gentlemen, and Stowell’s Evergreen Sweet are all tall growing varieties.
  • Amend the soil with plenty of manure, since corn is a heavy feeder – fish fertilizer and wood ash are good choices.
  • Mound the soil about one foot high and four feet around to improve drainage and improve soil warmth
  • Form a bit of a lip around the top of a mound. This lip will catch water and bring it straight down into the mound for thirsty roots. It will also prevent the sides of the mound from eroding because it doesn’t let it all run down the sides.
  • Planting should be done in a block and not a wide row, to ensure good pollination for the corn.
  • For a bigger harvest, you can plant several of these mounds in staggered rows, spaced 4 feet apart in all directions

“Many Six Nations people honour the tradition of giving thanks to the Four Directions by orienting the corn seeds to the north, south, east and west.”

  • When your last frost date arrives, plant six corn seeds an inch deep and about ten inches apart in a circle of about 2 feet in diameter.
  • 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.
  • Pull weeds at first and thin your plantings to provide enough space – as things grow, weeds will naturally be suppressed.
  • You can also grow a sunflower in the middle of the corn planting for additional support (and beauty)
  • Large, vigorous pumpkins are best planted in a separate space, as they could try to climb the corn and pull it down.
  • At the end of the season, plant material (if not diseased) can be incorporated back into the soil to build up organic matter and improve soil structure.

For Seed Saving

  • If you plan to save seed for next year, choose one variety of corn to grow at a time in a given area to prevent cross-pollination
  • Read about the incredible history of Glass Gem corn in this article on Reconnecting With a Lost Heritage Through Rare Corn

Drying Beans & Corn

  • Three Sisters gardening is a super low maintenance growing method for drying beans & corn
  • Corn varieties best suited to drying: Oaxacan Green Dent, Black Aztek, Glass Gem
  • Pole Bean varieties best suited to drying: Arikara Pole Bean, Hidatsa Pole Bean, Turkey Craw Pole Bean, Rattlesnake Pole Bean
Planting a Three Sisters Garden – a wonderful family activity

As one of three human sisters, I can say that this relationship is truly something special!

Have you ever grown a Three Sisters Garden? Do you have any tips or stories to share? Leave a comment below!

Renee’s Garden “Celebrate the Three Sisters Corn Beans and Squash.”

Indigenous garden traditions by Food historian William Woys Weaver in Mother Earth News.

How to grow a three sisters garden in CBC Parents

Three Sisters: Exploring an Iroquois Garden from Cornell University

How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden

Thousands of years ago, corn, beans, and squash grew together in the wild in Mesoamerica, near today’s Oaxaca, Mexico. They had a symbiotic relationship with each plant benefitting the others. As agriculture replaced the hunter-gatherer way of life, the indigenous people domesticated these and many other plants for food, medicine, and livestock feed.

Seed was exchanged for other supplies over a vast system of trade routes and trading centers throughout the Americas. Over many millennia, corn, bean, and squash seed found its way north, continually being adapted to local growing conditions. They had been grown together for thousands of years, but the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) named this planting combination ‘The Three Sisters’. The legend tells the story of the strength of three indigenous sisters when they live together.

Companion planting

Some plants are beneficial to each other, and do well when planted together. (On the flip side, others are detrimental to each other, but that’s a post for another day!) Companion planting means interplanting crops that help each other, which is the science and ecology behind The Three Sisters.

The height of the corn supports the bean vines, which tie the corn stalks together for added stability. Beans fix nitrogen, which means they take it from the air and transfer it to the soil, making it an available nutrient. The beans feed the corn and squash, which are heavy nitrogen users. The large leaves of the squash plants act as a groundcover to provide shade, conserve moisture, and suppress weeds. Their prickly stems also deter predators.

Not only do these plants complement each other in the field, they provide a balanced diet for people, too. Corn provides carbohydrates, beans are high in protein and amino acids that complement those in corn, and squash has vitamins and minerals that the other two don’t possess. Many indegenous dishes, like succotash, use these foods together to create a nutritionally complete meal.

How to plant a Three Sisters garden

There are a few different ways to plant the three sisters in your organic garden, but what you choose will depend on how much space you have. I will describe the simplest version here, although that link shows a much bigger garden. No matter which method you use, not all of it will be planted at once. Be sure to choose a tall corn variety, a pole bean, and a bush squash.

Make a raised mound of good soil in your garden 36” across. Level the top, and plant 5-6 corn seeds in a 6” diameter circle in the center. About 2-3 weeks later, when the corn is 6” tall, plant your pole beans in a circle 3”-6” out from the corn. About a week later, plant your squash seeds around the sides of the mound. Use regular spacing, and thin to the strongest plants. Leave four corn plants, because they need each other for pollination. Pull weeds until the plants are large enough to smother them.

Want to learn more about growing an abundant organic garden?
Check out our Guide to Organic Gardening.

This design will provide you with plenty of food! If you have the space, plant several of these mounds in staggered rows. Find more configurations on this page from Native Seeds/SEARCH.

You can also experiment with sunflowers instead of corn, and vining squashes or pumpkins. The vines would need to be trained away from the center so as not to stress the cornstalks, and to get the most sun for best production.

When you plant a Three Sisters garden, you are improving your soil and practicing ancient growing methods. Read about growing an authentic Native American garden, by William Woys Weaver.

And always appreciate the farmers that have gone before you.

Ancient Companion Planting: The Three Sisters

Ancient Agriculture: The Milpa

Mesoamerican farmers imitated nature by growing crops together in a milpa, which was a field of maize, beans, squash, avocados, jicama, and other wild plants that they’d tamed. Milpas were traditionally farmed for a few years and then allowed to go fallow for better production. The symbiotic relationships among the plants in the milpa created a healthy and richly diverse ecosystem. The plants supported one another, offered habitat for wildlife, and complemented each other nutritionally, providing a balanced diet. In his book 1491, Charles Mann states that milpas have been continuously planted for about 4,000 years.

Through extensive trade routes, this farming system spread across Mexico. Gradually, the milpa made its way to the pueblos of the Southwest, extended farther north to the Great Lakes region, and migrated finally to northeast North America. Some of the tropical plants of Mexico’s milpas weren’t adaptable to the colder regions, but maize, beans, and squash were successfully bred for the shorter growing season and vital winter storage.

Although most native people grew maize, beans, and squash together, the Iroquois named the system Three Sisters, or Deohako. Each nation had its own legend about these plants, the common thread being that the sisters were very close and stronger together than they were apart, which helped the people survive.

In the field, towering maize stalks provided support for vining beans, which helped tie the stalks together for added stability. Beans also pulled nitrogen from the air and, through decomposition, transferred it to the soil, making it available later to the maize and squash, both of which are heavy nitrogen users. The broad, low-lying squash plants acted as mulch to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and keep the soil cool. Plus, their prickly stems deterred predators.

Nutrition for the Earth and the Farmers

The biological diversity of maize, beans, and squash grown together create a polyculture. Each plant utilizes different nutrients in the soil and then returns those nutrients to the soil as they decompose. The root systems of these three crops are of varying sizes and depths, which helps to break up the soil, and because each crop is a different height, they’re each able to capture available light from various angles. Diversity provides protection from devastation, too. One pest or disease wouldn’t wipe out an entire field, and a harvest of some sort is nearly guaranteed.

Maize, beans, and squash also complement one another for a nutritious and well-balanced diet. For example, the combination of maize and beans creates a complete protein. Squash is full of vitamins and minerals that the maize and beans both lack, and squash seeds provide oil and protein. Maize and squash are also both high in calories, which help sustain energy.

The benefits of growing these three crops together are clear to modern soil scientists and nutritionists, although at the time there was no scientific knowledge behind this sophisticated planting method. It was simply the result of Mesoamerican farmers being keenly aware of their environment and experimenting for thousands of years to grow the hardiest and most nutritious crops.

Growing the Three Sisters

Eastern and northern nations grew the Three Sisters in rows of mounds about 4 feet apart on center. In regions with regular rainfall and cool springs, the mounds were warm, dry microclimates in the field. In some locales, the maize and beans were planted in the mounds, and the squash grew between the rows. Where fish was abundant, carcasses were placed in the mounds as fertilizer. At the end of the growing season, the finished plant remnants were incorporated directly into the soil for added fertility.

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The Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico, on the other hand, planted a block of several rows of corn and surrounded it with beans. They planted squash along one side of the field.

In the arid Southwest, the Three Sisters weren’t always planted side by side, either. According to the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH, the Hopi and Navajo planted each crop in a separate part of the field and used wide spacing to take advantage of scant rainfall. Farmers in this region sometimes grew sunflowers and amaranth, which were also important food sources, along with the Three Sisters. The Hopi grew wild cleome (Cleome serrulata, or Rocky Mountain bee plant) to attract pollinators for the squash.

Post European Contact

After Columbus’ arrival, colonizers took some native seeds across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. There, maize, beans, and squash were bred and developed separately, along with many other foods. European settlers returned to North America with new cultivars that had developed characteristics suitable to their European environments and were labeled with European names.

As Europeans moved west, these crops spread west, too, and some have become today’s heirlooms. Others — the most economically important — have been hybridized and engineered for almost 100 years, making the seeds impossible to save true to form and resulting in an increased loss of seed diversity. And yet, some of the original, or purely Native American, cultivars remain, thanks to the efforts of the strong cultures that continue to nurture them and others who have recognized the importance of these cultivars over the centuries.

Continuing the Ancient Tradition

The milpa was the first deliberate companion planting system in the Western Hemisphere, and maize, beans, and squash were the hardiest and most adaptable of those crops for northern climates. Like all of our food, though, they first grew in the wild thousands of years ago.

Today, with the rising popularity of organic gardening and an increasing awareness of indigenous agricultural history, the Three Sisters system is returning to backyard gardens. A handful of native seed cultivars are available commercially, but the best seed choices are those grown locally because they’ve adapted to the soils and weather of the region. To keep the Three Sisters tradition going, and to honor the ancient farmers of Mesoamerica, try growing heirloom squash, beans, and maize together, and save seeds from the hardiest, tastiest, and most beautiful open-pollinated plants in your garden.

Nan Fischer is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange, a free seed-swapping service offered to home gardeners in Taos County, New Mexico. She has a degree in horticulture and has used her knowledge to nurture plants for more than 40 years.

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