The Three Sisters Garden: Cultivating History and Companionship

Spring is here!

Hooray!

Although, I’m afraid upstate South Carolina skipped spring and rushed straight into summer.

Honestly, 86 degrees?

Battling raspberry canes is painful enough without fear of sunburn.

Fortunately, I’m keeping my eye on the prize: heirloom tomatoes. Pesticide-free strawberries. Peas. Lettuce in more colors, textures, and adornments than a Whole Foods display.

Plus, of course, beans. Corn. Squash. Crook-neck, straight-neck, Pattypan, Cinderella’s pumpkin… the choices are dazzling.

If there’s one thing that rivals my gardening obsession, it’s reading. I especially adore stories from other cultures that combine history, legends, and myths. Now, weave a tale that combines history with gardening—bliss!

The story of the Three Sisters provides a perfect opportunity to combine literature, history, and science into a hands-on activity with kids—or simply to produce a lush, highly productive planting in your garden.

We’ve all heard of companion planting. You know, Carrots Love Tomatoes, Tomatoes Love Roses… it sounds like a bad soap opera.

Poor, spurned okra—who loves you?

But long before today’s companion planting tomes became best-sellers, another tale told the story of companion planting.

The Three Sisters. Otherwise known as the Original Guide to Companion Planting.

Originating with Native American tribes, the Three Sisters refer to corn, beans, and squash—also renown as the “sustainers of life.” Each plant interacts with its companions to thrive. The corn provides a support for the bean vines to climb. The beans fix nitrogen into the soil to feed future crops of corn. The squash vines shade the mound, serving as a living mulch to prevent weeds and retain moisture. Squash also helps protect the planting with its prickly vines, as predators avoid becoming entangled in the vines. When the season is through, all of the plants can be composted to build soil for future gardens.

The story of the Three Sisters varies among Native American tribes. A popular version of the full story can be found here.

The Iroquois believed that corn, beans, and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sister spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko (“Our Sustainers”). The youngest sister, who is small, round, and crawls, represents the squash; the middle sister (beans) adores and hugs her eldest sister, the corn. The eldest sister provides support and stands watch over her younger sisters. Each sister needs the love of the others, much as each plant requires the nutrients and benefits provided by its companions.

Not only do the plants thrive in their companionship, they also complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbohydrates; dried beans are rich in protein; and squash provides vitamins from the fruit. A trifecta of nutrition!

You, too, can add a bit of history to your garden. With as little as a 10′x 10′ plot, you can plant a Three Sisters Garden.

When to Plant:
Corn, beans, and squash are warm weather plants. It’s safe to plant when night temperatures stay at least in the 50 degree range.

What to Plant:
Some day, I will be on an episode of “Hoarders.” You will see me, trying to make a path through the house, being buried alive under thousands of packets of seeds.

Honestly, seeds are the most guilt-free purchase you can make. For about $2, you’ll be the proud owner of enough squash seed to feed your entire neighborhood. Plus, the varieties you can plant are interesting, gorgeous, odd, historical, and sometimes—just plain fun. Popcorn? Yes, please!

For our Three Sisters Garden, we’re planting heirloom varieties: Golden Bantam sweet corn, a non-GMO variety; Cherokee Trail of Tears beans*; and Yellow Crookneck squash (which somehow finds its way into most of the meals I cook).  Whatever varieties you choose, be sure to select pole or runner beans rather than bush varieties so that they will climb the corn, and select squash with trailing vines to provide good ground cover.

(*About Cherokee Trail of Tears beans: it’s a horrifying history lesson. This variety of bean was carried over the Trail of Tears, the infamous winter death march from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma (1838-1839), in which more the 4,000 Cherokee died. It’s an important lesson, but one to handle delicately with younger children.)

Where to Plant:
Sun, sun, sun! Find a location with a minimum of 6-8 hours of sunlight throughout the growing season. Remove any weeds and amend the site with plenty of compost/well-rotted manure.

An important note about corn: plant seeds in several rows or “blocks” rather than one long row to ensure adequate pollination. Otherwise, you’ll have sad, kernel-light ears of corn.

How to Plant:
In each row, make a corn/bean mound. The center of each mound should be 5 feet apart from the center of the next.

Plant 4 corn seeds in each mound in a 6 inch square.

When the corn is 4-inches high, plant the beans and squash. Keep an eye on weeds and remove any that cropped up since planting the corn. Then, plant 4 bean seeds in each corn mound, with each seed 3 inches apart from the corn plant.

Build squash mounds in each row between each corn/bean mound. Plant 3 squash seeds 4 inches apart in each mound. When seedlings emerge, thin to 2 plants per mound.

Personally, I’m a visual learner kind of girl, so if I’ve completely confused you–you can find an excellent diagram here that shows how to space your seeds.

As the plants grow, continue to weed the garden. Help train the beans to use the corn as a trellis. (“Up, beans, up you go!”) Watch squash plants for signs of squash vine borer—if your plant suddenly becomes limp but received adequate water, you may have a pest problem.

As the summer progresses, share the story of The Three Sisters with your garden visitors. Or better yet—let your children tell the story!

Harvest:
Harvest time depends on the varieties you select. You’ll find guidelines for “Days to Harvest” on the back of your seed packets.

For our garden:
“Golden Bantam” sweet corn: 79 days to harvest
“Cherokee Trail of Tears” beans: 85 days
Crookneck Yellow Squash: 45 days

Remember, too—these are general guidelines for the first harvest time. With beans, for instance, you’ll produce a strong, ongoing harvest as long as you keep picking the beans!

Enjoy!
Plan your own harvest celebration! Invite your favorite people to a late summer dinner featuring your “Sustainers.” What better way is there to celebrate the hard work you’ve done than to plan and look forward to a harvest feast?

And, of course, don’t forget to thank the Great Spirit for your precious garden gifts.

Good luck! Happy growing!

Julie

Julie is the owner of Garden Delights, an organic heirloom plant nursery specializing in edibles. She writes about growing gardens, growing green, growing locavores, growing kids, and growing one day at a time at Growing Days.

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