Growing The Three Sisters Garden

Jannie Vaught

Who are the three sisters?

For many Native American communities, three seeds-corn, beans, and squash represent the most important crops. They complement each other in the garden as well as nutritionally. How the three work together. Corn provides the tall stalks for the beans to climb, beans provide nitrogen to fertilize the spoil while stabilizing the tall corn during heavy winds, and large squash leaves shade out weeds and help retain soil moisture. Nutritionally, corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein and have amino acids absent from the corn. Squash provides different vitamins and minerals. Together they grow as helpers in the garden and complete, balanced food.

Let’s talk about when to plant and the 3 types of planting to use. The three sisters are warm-season crops and do not tolerate frost. After the last frost for your zone and when the soil has reached 60 degrees for a week begin the soil preparation and lay-out plan you are going to use. Plant direct into warmed soil as transplants of these particular seeds do not tolerate transplanting well. Sister Corn is planted first so it can grow tall above the other crops. Plant Sister Bean 2-3 weeks later, or at least when the corn is a few inches tall. Plant Sister Squashseeds 1 week later after beans has emerged. There are numerous configurations to The three Sisters. We will look at 3/ Three Sisters Mound. This is the traditional three-sisters layout similar to Iroquois gardens. Mound the soil approximately 4 inches high with a small well in the center. Think moon crater. Plant 4 corn seeds in the center of the well, six inches apart 1 to 3 inches deep. After they have emerged, plant 4 bean seeds halfway down the sides of the mound at least 3 inches from the corn plant, 1 inch deep. After the beans have emerged, plant 2 squash seeds 24 inches from the center of the mound on opposite sides. Train squash to vine outward from the mound and not crowd the beans and corn.

I have had the vine go up the corn and bend the top of the stalk. I had to un-wind the squash and stand the corn back up with a bamboo pole. So watch as these plants will grow rapidly. Place the mounds 3 feet apart. I use a stick with a string attached to make a large circle for the mound. Then measure 3 feet and make another circle. once your layout is in your can mound by digging and using winter compost. I place some liquid worm castings from my winter worm bins and give everything a good dilute watering before I plant. Note I also have had pole beans get too heavy for the corn tops and bend them, I will train them to grow back down, they do not have tendrils like a vine but grow in a circular pattern. I do not use a heavy bean seed for this, such as Dragon Tongue or Foot Long beans as they are heavy. Three Sisters Field. This layout is ideal for corn pollinating because the corn is planted in a large Block. Plant corn 1-3 inches deep, 6 -12 inches apart. The size of the interior Block can vary but the ideal is at least 5 plants on each side, this can be a square or rectangle depending on the size of your garden plot. The pole bean can be planted 1 inch deep and close enough to climb the corn, 3-12 inches away. This also can be planted as a row around the corn with just a few rows inside the Block. The Squash is planted in a row 3 feet set back from a bean row. Plant 2-3 seeds per location 3 feet apart. Isolating the squash to one side of the field makes access to the beans and corn easier.

Three Sisters Landscape In this layout, plant separate areas of fields of corn, beans squash. In a long rectangle plant mounds of squash 3 feet apart, next section plant corn 5 across with 1 foot across, or according to the package directions. plant this as a long Block then Plant the beans 6-12 inches apart in rows that are 18 inches apart. Bush beans can be used in this section or you will need a trellis for runner beans. This can be planted as a border in any area. Some recommendations for this using Indigenous varieties. Corn: Chapalote Pinole Popcorn, Dia de San Juan Dent, Rio Grande Blue Flour. Beans: New Mexico Bolita, Hopi Purple String, Pima Orange Lima. Squash: Navaho Hubbard, Tarahumara Pumpkins. There are also The Other Sisters. For some cultures, other crops are also imported into traditional agriculture. For example, tobacco is equally Sacred as the Three Sisters in much of the Southwest. Sunflowers and Amaranth are considered other sisters. They offer shade during the heat of summer and attract pollinators. Use older variety as the sunflower can grow very tall and be in competition for sunlight and water. I plant them off to the side as a wind block. And because of their similar growing habitats, other cucurbits including watermelon, melons, and gourds can be substituted for the squash.

Soon the sunlight of winter will begins to return. Hope this inspires you.

Growing Green With Jannie