What is a “Three Sisters Garden” you ask?
It is an ancient Native American method of gardening using an inter-cropping system which is comprised of growing 3 different variety of crops. By the time European settlers arrived in America in the early 1600s, the Iroquois had been growing the “three sisters” for over three centuries. The vegetable trio sustained the Native Americans both physically and spiritually. These 3 Sisters primarily consist of corn, beans, and squash crops and they are grown simultaneously in the same area. The Three sisters are often typically planted on a rounded mound of soil, although this is not a requirement.
- Corn may be equated as the oldest sister. She stands tall in the center and will be the support structure for the 3 plants.
- Squash is the 2nd sister. She grows over the mound, protecting her sisters from weeds and shades the soil from the sun with her leaves, keeping it cool and moist (I will discuss the tremendous benefit of this later in the article).
- Beans are the 3rd sister. She climbs through squash and then up corn (which acts like a trellis) to bind all together as she reaches for the sun. Beans help keep the soil fertile by converting the sun’s energy into nitrogen filled nodules that grow on its roots. As beans grow they use the stored nitrogen as food. This, again is a very vital point which will be covered later in the article as well.
It goes without saying that there are so many different Heirloom Varieties that you can use for the Three Sister method. We have our Golden Bantam Corn variety. Known for producing strong stalks and more than 7 ears of corn per plant. Then there is American’s favorite Blue Lake Pole Bean that many gardeners use for canning as well as delicious String Bean recipes. If you’re not a squash fan you can also plant pumpkin, as pumpkin will serve the exact same purpose as squash and in the same family. Wouldn’t it be nice to make great tasting pumpkin pies from pumpkins that came from your very own garden this year?
My method for planting and growing a Three Sisters Garden:
You’ll want to wait for the last frost to have past in your zone. You can start many of these varieties in doors to get a head start on the planting season, especially if you live in a short growing zone. In mid-spring make sure your garden area is prepared, cleared of weeds and you have applied (if you can) a nice amount of organic compost to the planting area. Now it doesn’t matter if the area is round or square, but many, use a round area like the Native Americans. Each mound should be at least 8 feet across in diameter and about 1 foot high. Water it well. Check the growing area frequently over the next few weeks to remove any sprouted weeds. However, if you really want to get control over weed you can use garden netting on top of your soil and you can simply cut into the netting and add your seedlings or seeds.
In late-Spring sow about seven or eight corn seeds in the center of the growing circle, in a ring pattern, spaced out about six inches from each other. Plant the corn seeds an inch under the soil, firm the soil above by patting it down with the palm of your hand. Water the growing mound well. The corn will sprout and begin to grow in about two weeks.
When you corn has grown to about 10 inches or more in height, you can place soil around the based of their stalks. You don’t want to bury the corn, you want to have it’s upper body above the soil, this will cause the corn to grow stronger roots creating a stronger foundation against winds, thereby also creating a much more stronger trellis foundation as well. After this has been accomplished, you can now plant about 12 Blue Lake Pole Beans in a ring (circle) around the Corn stalks. Water the growing mound well. The beans will usually begin to sprout in about 7-14 days. Another good gardening method is to soak your seeds over night before planting. This will help speed up the germination process once they are planted. I can almost guarantee you that your seeds will germinate much quicker using this pre-soaking method.
About a week after the beans sprout, sow six or seven squash or pumpkin seeds in a ring about 12-15″ outside the beans. Push your squash or pumpkin seeds about an inch under the soil and firm the ground above them by patting it down with your hand. The squash seeds will sprout in about a week or if you’re plant seedlings do so in the same distance manner. Whichever method works for you. If you’re planting seedlings you know what is there. If you’re planting seeds you’ll have to wait and see what germinated and what didn’t. I prefer to plant seedlings whenever possible.
As the corn grows the beans will begin to climb on to the corn stalks, you can help them early on by wrapping the bean vines around the corn stalks. The squash or pumpkin will begin to grow it’s vines and the large squash leaves will soon cover the growing mound and shade its soil. On occasion help the squash continue to cover the mound by turning the ends of it’s vines towards the center of the mound. Water the mound well during weeks where there has been little or no rain.
When can we harvest our Three Sister’s Garden?
Corn may be harvested while in it’s green corn stage, but traditionally it is left to ripen and is harvested in Autumn. The cob is sun dried and stored for winter use. To harvest green corn observe the silky threads coming from the tops of the ears, when the silk is dry and a dark brown color the corn may be harvested. To remove an ear of corn, hold the stalk a few inches below the ear. Pull the tip of the ear toward the ground until it snaps off.
Beans may be eaten fresh or allowed to mature and dry on the vine. Fresh beans can be harvested when the pods are firm and crisp, but before the seeds within the pods have begun to swell. Pick beans in late morning after the night-dew has dried from the plants. This helps to prevent the spread of bacteria which can harm the plants. Pick the beans carefully to avoid bruising or snapping the growing vines. Bean plants will continue to flower and more bean pods will develop if they are harvested before bean seeds can mature.
Ideally you’ll want to harvest your squash or pumpkin when the skins have hardened thoroughly, you should hear a nice thumping sound when you test it. Be careful to not damage or break off the stem of the pumpkin or squash when handling them as this can damage it and it will begin to rot. Allow the squash or pumpkin to sit in the sun for a few days to cure and the stem to dry. Store your pumpkins or squash in a single layer, not touch each other and of course don’t stack them on top of one another. Pumpkins and squash can last at least two months, depending on the variety.
BTW I didn’t mentioned that there is a little known 4th sister. Do you know what she is? The Sunflower. 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. Do some research and find out how you can use the Sunflower to increase the Three Sister garden method.
Enjoy growing your Three Sisters Garden!