Planting the Three Sisters

Kayla with Harvest in a Three Sisters Garden

Kayla with Harvest in a Three Sisters Garden

If you are ready to start your own garden, but aren’t sure where to begin, you might consider the Three Sisters method of planting.  Now is the perfect time.

The Three Sisters is the Native American technique of inter-planting corn, beans, and squash.  This method is an easy and sustainable way to grow a great deal of food on a very small space with minimal work or expense.

In a Three Sisters garden, the corn grows thick and tall.  The bean vines climb the corn stalks as a trellis.  Squash plants cover the soil as living green mulch.  The plants don’t crowd one other.  They actually grow better when planted together, than when planted separately.

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

Native American Indians grew a tremendous amount of food in these gardens without the use of a plow, and without any chemicals whatsoever.  They used the same tools as a modern backyard gardener.

The Aztecs fed a crowded city of 200,000 people from their Three Sisters gardens.  Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was an island city on a lake when Cortez discovered the Aztec Empire in 1519.  Between 60,000 and 100,000 people shopped the downtown farmers’ markets each week, with the vegetables carted down from thousands of small Three Sisters gardens ringing the city.  Tenochtitlan was possibly the largest, most complex, and best-fed city in the world, rivaled only by Paris, when the Spaniards seized possession of it.

Pocahontas saved the colony at Jamestown by sending them corn, beans, and squash.  When Captain Smith left the colony, she taught the technique to her new husband, John Rolfe, and he became the first great plantation owner in America.  Pocahontas taught John Rolfe the secrets of Three Sisters agriculture, and also showed him how to grow and cure tobacco.  Tobacco became the chief cash crop from the New World to the Old, and Three Sisters gardens fed the army of workers required to produce it.

Squanto taught this method to the Pilgrims.  Three Sisters agriculture helped establish the colony at Plymouth Rock.  In fact, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated with corn, beans, and squash.  Following that first Thanksgiving, Governor Bradford gave each family their own plot of land, rather than all families cultivating a communal plot, as in Europe.  Each family was free to grow their own Three Sisters gardens and to sell or trade their surplus.

The Mayflower Compact is considered to be the origins of democracy in America, and this act to privatize farming in Plymouth Rock is the birthplace of American capitalism.  For the next 50 years, corn, beans, and squash constituted up to 70% or more of Pilgrims’ diet, and the trade of surplus produce allowed them build their practical wealth in the New World.  Plymouth Rock, in a sense, was built on Three Sisters gardens.

Even a tiny three foot by three foot garden will produce with this method.   Plant the corn and beans seeds on the corners of a 12 inch square, and plant the squash seeds along each straight line.  This is a perfect starter garden for children.

To plant a one hundred square foot garden, prepare three garden rows, each ten feet long.  Plant the corn and bean seeds together down each row, 12 inches apart.  Plant the squash seeds in between these pairs, 24 inches apart.  This little garden can produce 60 ears of sweet corn, 30 pounds of beans, and over 150 pounds of summer and winter squash.  You can even grow melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, herbs and flowers in this garden.

Black Diamond Watermelons at Edge of a Three Sisters Garden; Bean Vines on Corn Stalk on Left

Black Diamond Watermelons at Edge of a Three Sisters Garden; Bean Vines on Corn Stalk on Left

The Three Sisters were cultivated extensively across America until the early 1900’s, when industrial farm equipment replaced small-scale farmers.  Vast chemical monocultures soon dominated the landscape, and the old ways of farming were forgotten.

The Three Sisters method is possibly the best-kept gardening secret in America, but you can use this method to pioneer your own space.  The Three Sisters will happily make themselves at home in your garden.


6 responses

  1. Preaching to the Choir
    Those of you who follow Justin on Facebook, through his Four String Farm blog or by listening to Your Wholesome Heritage Garden on KEDT may be gardeners yourselves, or at least are savvy enough to realize every garden needs the basics of sun, soil and water. Here in the Coastal Bend we are blessed with plenty of sunshine, but those other two ingredients are often lacking in quality or quantity. An upcoming event will help you remedy both those issues in your own garden or home landscape – for FREE!
    The City’s Water Conservation team is partnering with the Solid Waste Department to bring MULCH MADNESS to Corpus Christi. On Saturday, March 15 from 10 AM to 2 PM, staff members will be at the Citizens Collection Center located at J.C. Elliott Transfer Station, 7001 Ayers where you can shovel your own FREE mulch! You’ll learn lots of handy tips on how mulch improves your landscaping while conserving water. Bring your own shovel, gloves and containers, and if you’re filling a pick-up bed or trailer, remember a tarp to cover your load.
    Elliott Station is also a drop-off location for household hazardous waste and recycling, so do a little spring cleaning before heading out. Can’t make it on the 15th? Mulch is usually available and always free at J.C. Elliott and it’s open Monday through Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. And for those who aren’t able or who don’t care to shovel their own mulch, both Gills Landscape Nursery and Turners Gardenland will be offering discounts on bagged and bulk mulch throughout the weekend.
    Join in the madness – MULCH MADNESS – your plants and your water bill will thank you.

    • Hello Lori! I hope the Mulch Madness event was a great success! I look forward to visiting with you about your program, and learning more about what you guys are doing! Thank you so much for your work! You are truly recycling, the oldest form of recycling! Have a wonderful day! Justin

  2. Thanks so much. I’m hoping to get my garden going next week and appreciate the recommendations! I can get lost in so much reading, thinking and planning. I think I’m going to just go with this plan and the tomato plan you suggested earlier and get it going once and for all.

  3. Great information. We tried the Three Sisters method here a few years ago and although production was OK we found it difficult to harvest. Because we had plenty of space to grow them separately we didn’t use the method the next year. But I have to say that this excellent posts tempts me to give it another try.

    • Hello Bill! How big of a space did you use to grow your Three Sisters? If you grow them again, I would love for you to send a picture when the garden is at its most lush, and how you get in and out of the garden.

      One of the strength’s of the Three Sisters garden is the density of plants. This density works as a mulch to protect the soil, hold in moisture, prevent weeds, and to invite beneficial predators to the garden. But this strength of the garden, this density, can make it more difficult to get in there to harvest. The organization of the garden that is most beneficial to plants–the arrangement that plants most want to be in–is not always what is most convenient for us human harvesters! So we have to find a balance that works for the plants and for us.

      We plant the Three Sisters in fairly closely spaced rows. As the squash plants mature and cover the ground, we make footsteps in the squash vines down the rows so we can walk in and out the garden to harvest. We step on the leaves where necessary; it doesn’t hurt the plants very much. When harvesting, I wear a large bag at my side and go down the row picking whatever is ready, and at the end of the row I place the produce into a small wagon and move the wagon to the next row. At the end of each garden, I load the produce from the wagon to the tractor, and in this way we get the produce from the garden to the house to enjoy or to deliver.

      The gardens are pretty durable, so we don’t worry so much if we our footsteps down the rows land on squash or melon leaves–the plants seem to recover well. Would harvesting in that way make this garden easier for you to manage? Were you having other problems with this garden? I would love to know your experience with your garden! Thank you so much Bill for your comment! Please enjoy this beautiful day!

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