When the Pilgrims reached the shore of America in the winter of 1620, they stepped into a harsh and desolate landscape. The site of their future colony was a rocky windswept beach rising up to a dark and forbidding forest. The Pilgrims knew they must somehow grow crops on this rugged land, and quickly, if they hoped to survive.
The Pilgrims were not experienced farmers, and this was unfamiliar soil and climate. They had no draft animals to pull a plow, and only a few simple tools to break the ground.
However, despite these shortcomings, by the following fall, the Pilgrims had grown enough vegetables to hold a three day feast, the First Thanksgiving, to thank God for their bounty. They had even preserved enough food to last them another six months.
So, how did the Pilgrims accomplish this remarkable feat of agriculture?
The familiar legend tells how the Indian Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant corn with fish buried beneath as fertilizer. However, that is not the complete story. If the Pilgrims had simply planted a straight-row monoculture of corn, the crop very likely would have failed.
What Squanto actually taught the Pilgrims was how to plant corn, beans, and squash together, in a companion planting technique called the Three Sisters. It was Three Sisters gardens that produced such a bounty of vegetables for the Pilgrims.
The Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash planted in intensive companion gardens. The bean vines climb up the corn stalks as a trellis, and the squash and pumpkin plants cover the soil as living green mulch.
Beans are a nitrogen fixer; they fertilize the corn as they grow. The squash leaves choke out weeds, keep the soil cool and moist, and provide a sanctuary for beneficial predators. The gardens are dense and lush, and the plants ripen in continual successive waves.
Of particular importance to Pilgrim and Indian farmers, corn, beans, and squash are highly nutritious. When eaten together, the Three Sisters are a complete and balanced meal, rich in carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals. And these foods store well for long periods of time.
Incidentally, the Pilgrims also planted gardens their first year with seeds they had brought from England: barley, peas, and parsnips. But, according to William Bradford, those Old World crops were a dismal failure.
Following the First Thanksgiving, each Pilgrim family was given their own plot of land to farm, and corn, beans, and, squash constituted up to 70% of the Pilgrim’s diet as the colony grew. Three Sister gardens continued to be planted extensively throughout North America, until the early 20th Century, when industrial farm equipment replaced small-scale farmers, and the old ways of farming were forgotten.
However, we modern gardeners can take a lesson from that First Thanksgiving. Three Sisters gardens work just as well today as they did for the Pilgrims 400 years ago.