The Three Sisters

Tres Hermanas means “the three sisters”.  The sisters are corn, beans, and squash.

Three sisters gardening is a method of companion planting developed by Native American Indians more than 1,000 years ago.  The method was once, and is now again, a secret.  But the secret should be told, because the sisters are a beautiful gift.

Three Sisters in the Garden:

Three Sisters, early growth

Long ago, Indians learned to clear a patch of ground and mound the dirt into rows.  They planted seeds of corn, beans, and squash in the center of each mound.

As they grew, the beans climbed up the corn stalk while the squash covered the soil as living green mulch.   The beauty of the garden is the simplicity, the density, the ease of maintenance.  Primitive farmers must have such a garden.

Three Sisters as an Organic Method:

Tres Hermanas is an ingenious method of planting.  Beans are a nitrogen fixer; they convert CO2 to nitrogen in the soil.  Simply by growing, the beans fertilize the corn and squash.  The corn provides a trellis for the beans and the squash prevents weeds and regulates soil temperature and moisture.

The root structures do not compete and the plants do not crowd one other.  They strengthen and support each other.

Their compatibility maximizes the impact of organic farming methods.  Native Americans grew a tremendous amount of food on these small patches of ground without any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for more than 1,000 years.  The Indians survived on these gardens.

Three Sisters in the Body:

Corn is rich in carbohydrates; beans are packed with protein; squash contains large doses of vitamin A and other nutrients.  The three together provide a balanced and nutritious meal.

What’s more, corn, beans, and squash are intended by nature to be eaten together.  Certain vitamin, mineral, and amino compounds in these vegetables are unlocked or enhanced only when eaten together.  The sisters continue to give their gifts, even in the body.

Three Sisters in American History:

Native Americans invented, or innovated, this method of companion planting while Europeans were still in the Dark Age.  Much Indian lore and mythology rose around the sisters.  But I am not so interested in lore.  I care about growing delicious food.

The European settlers in early America cared a great deal about growing food.  The autumn harvest could offer another season of life; or a slow painful death of starvation in the wilds.

Each Thanksgiving, we celebrate the story of Indians providing food to the Pilgrims to nourish them through the winter.  The food the Indians gave was corn, beans, and squash.

However, the real gift, the profound life-saving gift, that Indians shared with the settlers was the secret of the three sisters.  Companion planting enabled pioneer settlements, from Jamestown to Plymouth Rock, to vastly increase their food production.  Tres Hermanas is the untold story of Thanksgiving.

Three Sisters Lost in America:

Four String Wasp, killing caterpillar

Pioneers brought companion planting west (where it had actually existed for a millennium) as they settled the land.  Tres Hermanas was cultivated in America well into the 1900’s.  However, we lost the three sisters when agriculture became ‘agribusiness’.

Why did we lose it?  Machine harvesting is impossible with companion planting.  No combine was ever invented that can separate the sisters.  Also, the sisters ripen over a long period.  While this deliberate ripening process was essential to the survival of Indians and pioneers, it is a cardinal sin in modern agriculture.  In agribusiness, a crop must be efficiently reaped in hours, or minutes.

Further, the sisters must be planted among trees.  Grasshoppers and caterpillars can quickly devastate the harvest.  The birds and wasps that naturally control these pests must have a sanctuary of trees from which to hunt.  Try to find a tree on a conventional farm.

Your Four String farmer has more than 30 popular books on organic farming stacked on the bookshelf.  However, not one book provides any of the details around Tres Hermanas companion planting that you have just read.  The secret of the sisters has been lost.

Three Sisters in Rockport:

Four String Farm, pick of the day

The three sisters still exist, however, here in town, on a patch of ground cleared among the trees.  The sisters provide nourishment to my family every day.

Tres Hermanas can nourish your family as well.  The gifts of the sisters are meant to be shared.

We deliver farm fresh food to your door in Rockport (minimum $20 order).  Or, look for us at the Rockport Farmer’s Market.  Or come out to the farm and feel the sun and stand in the soil where the sisters offer their gift.

6 responses

  1. Pingback: Fashion Incubator » Blog Archive » Archives 3/25- 3/31 2005-2010

  2. We fixed the squash from your garden tonight and it was superb. We had the grill already going for the meat and just added thick slices of the squash after rubbing with olive oil, salt, and pepper. We grilled it lightly so it still had a lot of texture. It was sweet and squashy! I can’t remember the variety but it was round and green about the size of a baseball. Can’t wait to get some more along with your other ripening produce! Thanks and keep up the good work. Your friend and amateur gardener, Pat.

  3. Pingback: Tres Hermanas: A Gardener’s Guide « Four String Farm

  4. Pingback: Day One at Turner Garden | GreenManProject

  5. I’m working on an exhibition and really enjoyed your post about the ‘three sisters’ crops. Would you be interested in possibly allowing us to use your first photo in our exhibition? I’m happy to tell you more about it via email. Thank you! -Shannon

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