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The Garden Decoder: What Is a ‘Three Sisters Garden’?


The Garden Decoder: What Is a ‘Three Sisters Garden’?

November 22, 2023

I first learned about the Three Sisters Garden when I used to teach a kids’ gardening class at an elementary school. As my students sat in a circle on stumpy log stools, I read them a story about this traditional planting method before we dug into our plot with some seeds. I had nearly forgotten this expeirence until I recently picked up the book Lessons from Plants, by Beronda L. Montgomery. In a chapter, Beronda explains the Three Sisters Garden and the lessons to be learned from it. A professor of biology, she sheds scientific insight into this way of planting and helped me dig deeper into its significance—way deeper than the second grade picture book I read to the kids.

Here’s what I learned.

What is the Three Sisters Garden?

The &#8\2\20;Native Food & Farming&#8\2\2\1; course at Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vt., teaches the Three Sisters method. Photograph by Sterling College via Flickr.
Above: The “Native Food & Farming” course at Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vt., teaches the Three Sisters method. Photograph by Sterling College via Flickr.

The Three Sisters is an important intercropping method of gardening developed by farmers of Indigenous cultures whereby three crops are planted together in a shared plot. The traditional players are corn, beans, and squash, and according to Iroquoi legend, they are the three inseparable “sisters” that feed the land, feed people, and give insight into how we should live. Historians say these three vegetables were brought to the first Thanksgiving table in 1621 by Indigenous Americans, and they were the crops they taught the pilgrims to grow. And, yes, what unfolded was tragic bloodshed, which is why many Indigenous Americans mark this holiday as a solemn day of remembrance, not a celebration. However, without these invaluable farming lessons, early settlers would not have survived in the new land.

Why does the Three Sisters method work?

Above: The vertical height of corn stalks provides the prefect support for beans to twine up. Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing for Gardenista, from A Modern Shaker Garden.

To break this down, Beronda shares this: “Intercropping increases the productivity of individual plants through a process known as interspecific facilitation.” That’s a ten dollar word for sure. Beronda goes on: “Each species contributes something that promotes the growth, reproduction, or persistence of the others.” In a nutshell, because individual plant players (corn, beans, and squash) employ different strategies for gaining resources, they can divide and conquer the resources instead of competing for them. The three plants work together harmoniously like a family, nourishing and protecting each other with their unique and complementary strengths.

Above: Beans are a great source of nitrogen for the corn and squash. Pictured are sweet peas in the foreground and runner beans in the background. Photograph by Nick and Bella Ivins, from Garden Visit: Camera Ready in the English Countryside at Walnuts Farm.

So here are the details: corn gives vertical support for the beans to climb up; beans help stabilize the corn and provide necessary nitrogen that fertilize all the crops; and large squash leaves act as a natural weed suppressor, help maintain soil moisture, and thanks to their slight spikiness, discourage predators from munching on its sisters.

Above: Squash growing at Vervain Nursery in England. Its large leaves can help control weeds and keep moisture in the soil. Photograph by India Hobson via The Garden Edit, from Studio Visit: Glasshouse Flowers with India Hurst of Vervain.

Below the surface, the root structure of each crop is also a finely tuned machine. Corn roots are shallow and take up the top layer, bean roots travel deeper, and the squash roots take residence in the empty spaces. This interlocking root system helps establish a symbiotic relationships with fungi and bacteria. “The bacteria fix nitrogen into a form that plants can use, and fungi form mycorrhizae that improve water uptake and nitrogen and phosphate acquisition,” says Beronda.

What are the benefits of the Three Sisters garden?

A well-balanced complete meal. Photograph by Chris Feser via Flickr.
Above: A well-balanced complete meal. Photograph by Chris Feser via Flickr.

Today, commercial agriculture spits out vast monocultures consisting of either corn, wheat, or soybeans, and while this one-crop method makes planting and harvesting easier, it doesn’t lead to higher productivity. “Growing plants that have complementary characteristics can lead to more sustainable growth,” writes Beronda. Basically, the benefits of this diverse Indigenous agricultural practice are productivity and a resilience gained by reciprocal relationships. Another positive aspect of the Three Sisters is that these three food sources together to make a complete and balanced meal. Corn is full of carbohydrates, beans are loaded with protein and have amino acids that are missing from corn, and squash possesses vitamins and minerals that corn and beans don’t have.

How do you plant the Three Sisters?

A Three Sisters Garden mound at a community garden. Photograph by Renee via Flickr.
Above: A Three Sisters Garden mound at a community garden. Photograph by Renee via Flickr.

Just like all great relationships, timing is everything. Because these crops are warm season plants that detest frost, plan on installing these three crops in the spring when night temperatures are in the 50 degree range. Here’s what to do: Find a full sun spot and mound your soil about 4 inches high to help with drainage and soil warmth. You will be directly planting all three types of seeds together in the same mound but not at the same time. (Directly planting a seed will encourage a stronger root system and the plant won’t have to deal with transplant trauma.) Plant in this order: corn, beans, then squash.

  1. Plant 4 corn seeds first, 6 inches apart, so it can grow above the other sisters (make sure you get a tall variety).
  2. Next, plant 4 beans 3 inches from the corn, 2 to 3 weeks later (or when the corn is a few inches tall). Good options are pole beans or runner beans (not bush beans).
  3. Once the beans send out climbing tendrils (approximately 1 week later), plant 3 squash seeds 4 inches apart at the edge of the mound. Pumpkin, Butternut, winter squash or other vine-growing types work well. The reason you plant the squash last is that you don’t want the large squash leaves shading out your baby corn and beans before they grow up a bit.

Regarding spacing, make sure each plant has ample room to grow and not be crowded which could make them susceptible to pests and diseases. Also important is to plant enough of each crop for proper cross pollination. This is especially crucial for squash plants that need the help of insects to pollinate their flowers and for corn that appreciates a family of fellow corn. The other alternative is to plant all this in several rows, instead of a mound. A 10 x 10 foot square is the minimum size to ensure proper corn pollination.

Any other ‘sisters’ you can plant?

While the traditional sisters are corn, beans, and squash, you can substitute tall sunflowers, watermelons, zucchini, and amaranth, for example. The important thing to remember is incorporating plants that work in harmony together, that complement and help each other to become the best (and tastiest) they can be.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a Three Sisters garden?

A Three Sisters garden is a traditional Native American planting technique that combines three main crops - corn, beans, and squash - in a symbiotic relationship.

What are the benefits of a Three Sisters garden?

A Three Sisters garden provides several benefits including maximizing limited space, increased crop productivity, natural pest control, and improved soil fertility through symbiotic planting.

How does a Three Sisters garden work?

In a Three Sisters garden, corn is planted first as a vertical structure for the beans to climb. Beans fix nitrogen in the soil that benefits the other crops. Squash is planted between the corn and beans to provide ground cover and act as a natural weed barrier.

What type of corn, beans, and squash should be used in a Three Sisters garden?

For corn, choose a tall variety that provides a sturdy structure. Common bean varieties like pole beans or runner beans work well. For squash, select a vining variety that spreads along the ground.

How should the Three Sisters crops be planted?

First, prepare the soil by loosening it and removing weeds. Plant corn seeds in small groups or hills, with a spacing of about 1-1.5 feet. Once the corn reaches 4-6 inches in height, plant bean seeds around the base of each corn stalk. Finally, sow squash seeds in mounds or directly between the corn and bean rows.

How do the Three Sisters support each other?

The corn provides a vertical structure for the beans to climb, while the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, benefiting the corn and squash. The squash acts as a natural ground cover, reducing weed growth and conserving soil moisture.

What are some tips for maintaining a Three Sisters garden?

Ensure proper spacing between the corn, beans, and squash to avoid overcrowding. Provide adequate water during dry periods. Regularly check for pests and take appropriate measures. Also, provide support for the corn stalks to prevent lodging.

Can I add other crops to a Three Sisters garden?

While the traditional Three Sisters combination includes corn, beans, and squash, you can add other plants like flowering herbs, sunflowers, or even additional vegetables, as long as they don't compete excessively with the main crops.

Can a Three Sisters garden be grown in containers or raised beds?

Yes, a Three Sisters garden can be adapted to containers or raised beds. Use large containers or raised beds with enough space for the corn, beans, and squash to grow and spread. Ensure adequate soil depth and fertility.

When and how should the crops be harvested?

Corn is typically harvested when the ears are fully mature and the silk turns brown. Beans can be picked when they are young and tender, or left to mature for drying. Squash can be harvested when it has reached the desired size and color.

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