Four String Farm to Appear in Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibit

Kayla with BD Watermelon

Friends, you have seen a lot of information on this site about the Three Sisters, the ancient Native American technique for inter-planting corn, beans, and squash. We have explored the benefits of this method, its sustainability, and its rich history. Here is something about the future of the Three Sisters.

Beginning this month, we will appear in a Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibit called “H2O Today”. “H2O Today” explores the beauty, the diversity, and the great challenges of global water resources in the 21st Century.

I am thrilled to announce that Four String Farm will be featured in this exhibit. We appear in the section devoted to agriculture, in a case study about the irrigation techniques of the Zapotec Indians a thousand years ago.  An image from Four String Farm is used to illustrate the components of the Three Sisters technique. Our modern thriving farm in Rockport is contrasted with the Zapotec civilaztion at Monte Albán, in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The Smithsonian featured our farm because it is a working example of sustainable agriculture using traditional methods. Visitors to the interactive exhibit can click on our website to find a wealth of information about the Three Sisters freely available to the public. These water-saving techniques point to the future of agriculture in a water-dwindling world.

What’s more, the “H2O Today” exhibit will travel to more than thirty cites across America from 2016 all the way to 2020. The educational opportunities of this exhibit will reach tens of thousands of people in every corner of this great nation. (I will post more about the exhibit once it is completed and on display.)

I have visited farms all over the world, in jungles, mountains, deserts, and rich fertile plains, but I have never seen the Three Sisters used anywhere in agriculture. I discovered this method in history books, and taught myself the technique through trial and error while building a pioneer farm out of a wilderness. And now our modest gardens will appear in the Smithsonian.

I have long said that the Three Sisters is the best-kept gardening secret in America. But now, with the power and scope of the Smithsonian, I don’t think the Three Sisters will be a secret for long.

A Special Note for Shannon at the Smithsonian:

Shannon, you made our day/month/year when you contacted us. I never imagined that in this career, I would one day sign a contract with the Smithsonian!

I know it took work for you to find us, to wade through all the information out there and drill down to this site, not to mention the thousands of sites and materials you covered in your research. Then, to take all that information and bring it to life, is just remarkable. The Smithsonian is the best institution of its kind in the world because of people like you.

Please know how thrilled our family has been to be part of this process. Thank you for finding us and making us a part of this living history you are presenting to the world.

(The image in the Smithsonian is reserved for their exclusive use–here are other images from our Three Sisters gardens!)

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

Three Sisters Garden

Three Sisters Garden

52 days after planting


Hopi Indian Corn on Left, Melons and Squash, Sunflower Hedgerow in Back

Hopi Indian Corn on Left, Melons and Squash, Sunflower Hedgerow in Back

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.


The Three Sisters at the First Thanksgiving

Pilgrims Landing on the Beach (picture courtesy Fine Art America)

Pilgrims Landing on the Beach (picture courtesy Fine Art America)

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.

Spring (Break) Planting

Green Beans

Green Beans

Our little one planted a lot of bean and squash seeds over spring break. 

I led with the corn, placing the seeds twelve inches apart down each row, and she dropped a bean seed next to each one.  We alternated on the squash seeds, twenty-four inches apart down the long rows, first her, then me, dropping the seeds.

As we planted, I wondered if she contemplated the lush garden this would become, or only the mechanics of pushing seeds into the soil.  But then one morning, as she took handfuls of rattlesnake beans out of her coat pockets, she said, “Daddy, is this the one that goes like this?” and her finger spiraled into the air, like a bean vine winding up a corn stalk trellis.

“Yes!  Very good,” I said.

Later, as we walked down the rows, she showed me her handful of blue seeds, and said, “Is this the one that goes like this?” and her hand trailed in big sweeps along the ground, toward the lake, tracing future watermelon vines.

“No, the seeds look the similar, but these are the ones that grow like this,” I said, and formed a big bush.  “This one makes the little yellow squash with the crooked necks.  Do you remember those?” 

She looked at the seeds and nodded.

It should not surprise me that she remembers her plantings.  At age four, when I asked her one evening what she wanted for dinner, she said she couldn’t remember what it was called, but she could show me.  She took me all the way out to a garden, and pointed to collard greens.  She had planted those very collard seeds in that very garden.

“Are you sure you want these for supper?” I said.  She said definitely yes.  We brought them in and Kayla cooked them with her wonderful collard recipe, and the little one ate all the collards we gave her.

Kayla started teaching her to bake bread at age three.  Now, with minimal coaching, and a little help kneading, she can make a pretty decent loaf of bread.  She is getting close to really good pancakes–although very choclate-chip-rich if left to herself.  

She is five.  Our planting days were long.  It was cold in the morning, and hot by the afternoon.  We ate picnic lunches out by the gardens, and gave the left-over peanut butter and banana sandwiches to Bando.  The work never felt like drudgery; only joy.

When she would get tired, she would sit on her blanket and practice spelling, or color pictures for Kayla, or play with Bando.  Bando never leaves her side.  He stays close, wherever she goes, to keep her safe. 

I wonder if she will remember these days, what we planted.  I hope she remembers.

Nati Ready to Plant

Nati beside Mustard Flowers

Bag of Beans

A Beautiful Day of Work

Nati Hugging Bando

Rattlesnake Beans

Rattlesnake Beans

Nati and Kayla Planting Down RowNati Holding Bag for Kayla

One Bean Seed on Each Corn Seed

I love this picture

Nati and Dad with Bag of Seeds

Corn/Bean 12" spacing, melon seeds 24" between Corn/Bean

A Champion Farm Dog

Finished for the Day!

Finished for the Day!

Notes on Three Sisters Gardening

Moore than Feed Sign 3-23-13Following are the notes  from our class on Three Sisters Companion Gardening.  These notes are a detailed guide to the basic planting system we used to pioneer our farm. 

This gardening method was invented by Native American Indians more than 1,000 years ago.  It was innovated and improved in American soil over many centuries.  Indians and rugged pioneer farmers used this method to sustain their families as they settled a great wilderness.  We hope these notes help you pioneer your own space and grow your own beautiful garden.

Thank you so much to everyone who joined us on Saturday.  Mr. Moore counted 89 folks in attendance!  Thank you, friends, for your engagement, your enthusiasm, and the many great questions.  Kayla and I had a lot fun sharing a wonderful morning of gardening with you!

Take Before/After Pictures of your Garden

Moore than Feed Outdoor Classroom

Moore than Feed Outdoor Classroom

We encourage you to take a picture of your space before you begin planting, and another picture when your garden is full and lush.  I will gladly post your pictures this summer to celebrate our gardens.  I believe that seeing your successful harvest will inspire many other folks to begin their own gardens.

Please Submit Your Questions on this Post

I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback.   Please submit questions or thoughts on the “comments” section of this post.  That way, we can all track questions and answers in a common place.

Happy gardening to you!     

Three Sisters Class Notes, February 23, 2013 

Goal: To grow prolific, delicious, healthy summer vegetables and herbs with the least amount of work, money, and time.

  • Prolific: measurable, quantifiable; metrics to be determined by space, health of soil, and skill level of gardener (see “Harvesting” below for standards)
  • Variety:  a wide range of vegetables and herbs with many flavors and nutrients
  • Delicious: sweet, intense flavor that is unique to the garden; the “taste” of the garden
  • Healthy: peak of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and protein; no synthetic chemicals; grown in as closed a system as possible (closed system means few or no inputs from outside of the farm)
Beans on Corn Stalk Trellis

Three Sisters: Harvesting beans from a corn stalk trellis.

Principles of our System

  • We employ a system of growing food, based on:  soil health, successive intensive companion planting, natural pest control, mulching, smart irrigation, composting, and fertilizing
  • If you remove one element from the system, the entire program breaks down; likewise, employing only one element of this system into a different program may not show the same results
  • The system is based on inter-connected relationships:  seed to soil, plants to animals, pest to predator, gardener to the garden
  • When the gardener achieves balance in the system, she grows the greatest amount of healthiest produce with the very least work; when harmony of the system is disturbed, the gardener’s job is simply to bring it back to balance (ex, infestation of pests)
  • No synthetic chemicals: Round-Up (glyphosate), Ortho, Sevin, or Scotts Miracle-Gro products.   We have nothing against these chemicals, and I fully understand the role of chemicals in large-scale agriculture.  However, these chemicals were designed for big industrial farms, NOT backyard gardens.  These chemicals are extremely inefficient and expensive in a backyard garden, and generally do more harm than good.  There are more effective heritage methods that require less time, money, labor, and also produce healthier and better-tasting food.

(Covered a Brief History of Three Sisters Companion Planting)

Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash

Growing Three Sisters

  • Once you understand the principles of the Three Sisters, you will be able to adapt this method to your own garden space.  The beauty of this system is how easy it is to plant, and how effectively it grows all on its own.
  • Corn serves as a trellis.  The pole beans grow up the corn stalk trellis.  The beans fertilize the soil through nitrogen fixation, taking nitrogen molecules from the air and attaching them to microbes in the soil.  The squash covers the soil all around the planting as a living mulch, to shade the soil, preserve moisture, and prevent weeds.  This dense garden is a sanctuary for beneficial predators.
  • Corn pollination:  To make this garden work, the corn must be densely planted.  Corn is self-pollinated (also called wind-pollinated).  The corn plant possesses both the male and female parts.  The corn tassel is the male part, and the pollen falls down to the corn silk growing from the cob.  As soon as the pollen touches the silk, a tube develops down the silk to the kernel, pollinating and setting the kernel.  There are between 700 and 1,000 potential kernels on each cob, and you want as many kernels pollinated as possible.  Densely planted corn assures maximum pollination.  If the corn plants are spaced too far apart, they may not achieve good pollination.  Drought, heat stress, bug damage, and uneven watering can inhibit pollination.
  • Also, you should only plant one variety of corn in each mound, or section of garden.  You want the same variety of corn, to make sure the pollen matches the silk.   
  • Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

    Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

    Beans:  Pole beans, or vining beans, grow up the corn stalk.  You do not need to help this, it happens all on its own.  We use pole beans to expose more of the bean vines to the sun, rather than bush beans, that could be shaded out by the corn and squash.  The bean vines help anchor the squash into the soil.

  • Summer and Winter Squash:  There are several differences between summer and winter squash.  All are grown in the summer, and all squash will freeze or die in a hard frost.   
    • Summer squash matures more quickly, usually in 50 to 80 days.  Winter squash matures more slowly, usually 80 to 100 days.
    • Summer squash have thin, edible skins, and are eaten when they are less mature, even with the flower still on them.  The seeds are found throughout the flesh.  Summer squash do not store well, and should be eaten at the peak of ripeness.  Zucchini, yellow crook-neck and straight-neck, and scallopini, are examples.
    • Winter squash have thicker skins, which are sometimes tough or inedible (butternut is a good exception).  The seeds are stored in hollow cavities in the center of the vegetable.  The tough skins allow winter squash to be stored for a long time.  In olden days, they were kept in root cellars, and eaten late into the winter, which is why they are called “winter” squash.  Butternut, acorn squash, and spaghetti squash, are examples.
    • Summer squash grow as a “bush” variety, while winter squash is typically “vining”.  Both varieties can be grown interchangeably in Three Sisters plantings.
    • Cucurbit Family:  All types of squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and melons.  All can be used in the Three Sisters garden. 
    • Pumpkins:  Pumpkins are the traditional vining gourd planted in Three Sisters gardens.  However, Indian pumpkins hardly resemble what we call a pumpkin today; they were much smaller and all parts were eaten, and they stored extremely well.  Also, they could get many more pumpkins per plant than our modern huge “jack-o-lantern” type pumpkins.
      • We don’t particularly recommend pumpkins for Three Sisters gardens, only because they produce a huge vine presence for only a few, or even one, full-sized modern pumpkins. 
      • Also, pumpkins can take 16 weeks to mature, long after the corn and beans have finished.  New gardeners should be prepared for this long time to harvest, and the relatively lighter harvest, compared to a zucchini or butternut squash.


      • Cucumbers:  Cucumbers are vining plants that work very well in this garden.  More seeds should be planted, as each seed will turn out about 8 to 10 medium sized cucumbers, and you will need more plants to create the vine density required to provide good living mulch.  You can always thin plants if they are too crowded, more easily than you can plant new ones half-way through the growing season.    
      • Cantaloupes and Watermelons:  Like pumpkins, watermelons take the longest time to mature in the garden, and you will only achieve a few mature melons per plant.  Also, vine growth of watermelons is extremely thick and dense.  Canteloupes are easier to grow and are not as “wild” and thick as melons can become. 
      • Aromatic Herbs:  Dill and basil are particularly effective companions with Three Sisters.  Let them flower and go to seed.  They will grow spindly and bushy, but you can still harvest from the leaves, flowers, and even the seeds.  These herbs help repel and confuse pests, and help attract beneficial predators to the garden, and are delicious. 
      • Wildflowers:  Nasturtiums are excellent in this garden.  Plant them as thickly as you like.  Nasturtiums help repel squash beetles and attract beneficial predators.  Feel free to inter-plant any type of native wildflowers into this garden.  The more flowers in the garden, the more bees and beneficial predators.   
Three Sisters 30 Days After Planting

Three Sisters 30 Days After Planting

Healthy Soil

  • The Three Sisters garden MUST HAVE 8 hours of full sun.
  • The first and continuous focus of the gardener should be on creating healthy soil. With good soil, gardening is easy and a lot of fun; with poor soil, it is extremely hard, or impossible to grow food. The gardener must grow her own soil: this takes time, and is worth it. (Show samples, native sand, and Four String garden soil)
  • Healthy soil has the optimum amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrition for the plant, in the ideal availability for the plant to absorb it; efficient feeding.
  • Healthy soil requires less water; watering can be cut by up to 80%. Healthy soil “holds” the water better in a form easiest for the plants to uptake the water.
  • The best pesticide is healthy soil. Why? Because healthy plants are very resistant to disease and bug damage. Weak soil -> weak plants-> most bugs. Healthy soil is also the best fertilizer. 90% of the beneficial bacteria and micro-organisms, the “life” of the soil, is found in the top 4 inches. This top layer MUST be protected at all times through mulch and intensive plantings; it dries out the fastest and receives the most abuse. Plant roots take nutrients from deep in the soil to the top.
  • When Thomas Jefferson’s daughter wrote him a letter complaining that bugs were eating their crops, he said the problem was the weakened state of their soil, and they needed to get cover crops and manure on the gardens, and the bugs would go away.
Turkeys Eating Blue Hopi Indian Corn

Turkeys Eating Blue Hopi Indian Corn

Preparing the Soil to Plant a Three Sisters Garden

  • We use animals cycling on mature gardens to prepare soil.
  • Our goal is to translate our program to a backyard garden. Animals = manure, urea, micronutrients, pest control. Urea (or urine) is extremely high in nitrogen; 2/3rds of the nitrogen and 4/5ths of the phosphorus expelled from an animal is in the urine. Also, urine is highly soluble, the form easiest for soil and plants to utilize. (For this reason, we recommend only pastured poultry manure for backyard garden, where the urine is in the manure, rather than cow or horse manure–also commercial cow manure usually comes from feed lots, and you DO NOT want that in your garden.) Further, when animals are on our gardens, they are feeding on mature crops, the green material and left-over produce; so, they are recycling extremely healthy and chemical-free feed into extremely high-quality fertilizer.
  • Chickens till top 2” to 4″ of soil, the pigs 10″ to 12” deep. This thorough tilling is extremely important to aerate the soil. You cannot get same effect with a commercial tiller in your backyard garden–you have to dig up the soil, as explained in “Bio-Intensive Dig” in the next section. Pigs also eat out the root system and turn the roots into pure fertilizer. Even when placing pigs on a bare garden, they begin to feed on roots and it smells like a freshly mown lawn for about a week. As much green material as was growing on top of the garden, there is that much in roots beneath the soil. Chickens eat the green material on the surface and clean up a lot of pest insects. We spray molasses tea on garden after removing animals to breakdown manure, then let it sit 2 wks, then plant next garden.
  • 90% of nutrition and beneficial bacteria are in the top 4″. This top living layer of soil must be protected.
  • Our garden soil is entirely made up of our native soil improved with: 1) oak leaves broken down into the soil, 2) animal manure, and 3) the trampled green material from plants. You can make your own soil in the same way; however, instead of putting animals on your garden, pull up all your green material and compost it with oak leaves, and when the compost is ready put it back on the garden. It will take you a little longer, but you will eventually build extremely rich soil that is completely unique to your garden.

The Bio-Intensive Dig Method

Bio-Intensive Dig Method, First Trench

Bio-Intensive Dig Method, First Trench

Second Trench, Throw dirt into First Trench, and so on

Second Trench, Throw dirt into First Trench, and so on

  • If you can’t have animals prepare your soil, we recommend the BIO-Intensive Dig Method. This method breaks up all weeds from the surface and small roots and clumps from the soil. It allows compost to be mixed deeply into soil. It tills the soil. It aerates the soil. Any new garden bed that can’t be prepared with animals, should be prepared with this method:
    • 1) clear the row as much as possible of brush, grass and debris. No herbicide is necessary, as the weeds will be dug up.
    • 2) apply ½” layer of compost (Ladybug Revitalizer); apply a thin ¼ inch layer of “Texas Greensand” by Gardenville
    • 3) Dig first trench and fill buckets. The folks at Bio-Intensive highly recommend you stand on a board or plywood sheet while working to keep from stepping on soil–that shows how sensitive the soil is. (Note: the dirt in the buckets will be left over at the end. Put this dirt in a pile of oak leaves to start your compost pile. Then put all your organic household waste in the compost, along with all left-over green material in your garden at the end of the season.)
    • 4) Dig next trench and throw dirt into first trench, then third trench fills second, and so on, to end of garden row
    • 5) DO NOT walk on row after digging. The soil will be “fluffy” and highly aerated; stepping on it will hurt the structure.
    • 6) Add another ½” layer, or more, Ladybug compost, and another thin layer of Texas Greensand.
    • You can’t add too much compost, but a half-inch or inch over the finished row is plenty. The next time you need compost after this planting, you will have made your own!
    • The row is ready for planting.
    • The BIO-Intensive Dig Method only needs to be done on the first new garden, and then maybe every 3 or so years after the first planting. The second dig will be very easy and fascinating, as you see the difference in the soil you created.

Planting the Three Sisters Seeds

Handful of Tres Hermanas seeds

Basic Three Sisters Garden (9 square feet)

  1. Prepare the soil for a 3X3 foot garden (compost and greensand on top, Bio-Intensive dig, more compost and greensand, crushed oyster shells, live oak tree wood ash).
  2. Plant 1 corn seed at each corner of a 12” square.  Plant the seed 1” deep (or lay all seeds then cover with 1” of compost).
  3. Plant 1 pole bean seed next to each corn seed.  Plant the seed 1” deep (or lay all seeds then cover with 1” of compost).
  4. Plant squash of your choice 6” outside the straight line of the square.  Plant the seed 1” deep (or lay all seeds then cover with 1” of compost, plus small amount of greensand, crushed oyster shells, and live oak wood ash.).
  5. Plant aromatic herbs and wildflowers 12” outside each corner of the square.  They will be close to the far corners of your 3’X3′ space.  This is to give the herbs and flowers time to start growing before the squash vines begin to cover them.
  6. Place irrigation line down center of square.
  7. As soon as shoots of plants come up, add oak leaf mulch around the plants.  Continue to add mulch as plants grow, up to 10 inches deep.
  8. Harvest as vegetables ripen.
  9. Around 30 days after corn is finished, and once all vegetables are spent, place the plants in the compost pile.  Leave oak leaf mulch on garden, so it is ready to plant for a Winter garden.

100 square feet Three Sisters Garden (the Ideal Planting)

  1. Stake out three 10’ long rows, each 5’ apart on center of row.  Each row should be prepared 3’ wide, as described above with the Bio-Intensive dig.  (Note, you can space the rows 4’ apart on center, but it will be a little harder to get into the garden to harvest, due to the density of plants on the ground.)
  2. Make a 1” trench down the center of each row.
  3. Drop corn seed 12” apart down the trench in the center of each row.
  4. In the same row, drop one bean seed about 1” from each corn seed.
  5. In the same row, drop 3 squash seeds 24” apart, in between every other corn/bean seed. 
  6. In the same row, plant aromatic herbs and wildflower seeds 6” off the center of each row, intermittently down the row.  (For best results, try using transplants for herbs and wildflowers, for your first Three Sisters garden.)  
  7. Now, cover the row with 1” compost, plus small amount of greensand, crushed oyster shells, and live oak wood ash.
  8. Repeat this process with the other two rows.
  9. Place drip line irrigation over center of each row.
  10. Cover all the garden with oak leaf mulch, leaving the centers of the rows uncovered until the seeds sprout, then mulch around the plants as they grow. 
  11. Around 30 days after corn is finished, and once all vegetables are spent, place the plants in the compost pile.  Leave oak leaf mulch on garden, so it is ready to plant for a Winter garden.

Single Row of Three Sisters (in a flower bed against a fence or house)

  1. Make sure the space receives AT LEAST 8 hours full direct sun.  An east/west line with fence or house on north side, for example, may get enough sun.
  2. Prepare the soil for a 3’ wide garden bed.
  3. Make 2 parallel trenches, 12” apart, down the length of the row.
  4. Drop corn and bean seeds down each row, 12” apart. 
  5. Plant 3 squash seeds 24” apart ONLY in the row of corn/beans away from the fence or house.  This will allow the squash to fill out the garden bed as living mulch, and then grow out away from the fence.
  6. Thickly plant aromatic herbs and wildflowers in spaces between where squash was planted.
  7. Now, cover the garden bed with 1” compost, plus small amount of greensand, crushed oyster shells, and live oak wood ash.
  8. Place drip line irrigation over center of row.
  9. Cover the bed with oak leaf mulch after plants fully sprout, then mulch around the plants as they grow. 
  10. Around 30 days after corn is finished, and once all vegetables are spent, place the plants in the compost pile.  Leave oak leaf mulch on garden, so it is ready to plant for a Winter garden.

Harvesting Three Sisters

Havest 6-27-12

  • Corn:  Harvest when kernels are full, round, and plump, all the way to end of the cob.  When you pinch a kernel, the juice should be half-way between milky and clear.  You can pull the green sheath carefully back to check the cob, but make sure to fully replace it, to protect the kernels.
  • Beans:  Harvest when the pods are around finger length.  When the beans get too long, they become tough very quickly.  Also, pulling beans when they are around finger length stimulates growth and helps produce more beans.  Don’t leave the beans on the plant, as that may stop production.
  • Squash:  Harvest zucchini when they are 8” to 10” long, even with the flowers on them.  Keep an eye on zucchini, as they grow extremely quickly, and you will quickly have a 10lb zucchini.  Yellow squash when small and tender.  Butternut when fully formed.  You can let butternut get very large, but letting too many get too big will slow production.
  • Harvest metrics:  From a good garden with healthy soil and moderate skill level of gardener, you can expect the following harvest from a 100 square feet Three Sisters garden:
    • Corn, 60 ears, or about 35 to 50 pounds shelled wet corn (assuming 2 well pollinated ears per plant)
    • Beans, 30 pounds or more (assuming half-pound production per plant)
    • Squash, about 150+ pounds mixed squash if summer and winter squash equally planted.  If you plant only zucchini, this excellent producer can generate 300 pounds of squash in this garden.
    • Note:  a 9 square feet garden will not produce 10% of the 100 square feet garden.    The 100 square feet garden is the optimum size, maximizing pollination, beneficial predators, living mulch, and all other factors, much better than a smaller garden.

 Troubleshooting a Three Sisters Garden

Potential Problems with Corn, Beans, and Squash

  • Corn is wind-pollinated.  The ears are pollinated by the tops of the corn plants, which is blown down from the wind.  That is why corn must be densely planted, to increase the opportunity for the pollen to reach the ears.
    • If a cob forms with a lot of missing corn kernels, it was not sufficiently pollinated.
    • You do not need to shake plants or do anything to help them pollinate, except make sure they are closely spaced, as described in this method.
    Corn Stalks 30 Days after Harvest, Ready for Compost or Animals

    Corn Stalks 30 Days after Harvest, Ready for Compost or Animals

    • Corn Ear Worm:  this is the biggest problem with corn in our area.  It is a caterpillar that borrows into the ear and eats the corn, and turns the kernels to mush.
      • The commonly recommended solution is to apply a drop of mineral oil to the tip of the corn ear, to “smother” the corn worms.  This has never worked for me, because 1) we have too much corn for this time-consuming method to be feasible, and 2) the mineral oil application only seems to work on about half the ears of corn.
      • Our solution:  as soon as you see the ear worms develop, spray Bt that very night on all the ears.  Spray Bt again in three nights.  You might need one more spray for a bad infestation.  You have to spray as soon as you see the ear worms start working, before they bore into the ear. 
      • The other solution is to use the “pinch method” with a headlamp at night, as soon as you see the worms become active.  This method is more time-consuming than Bt, but is nearly 100% effective.
      • Bean vines that grow and flower, but do not produce beans:
        • Beans are a nitrogen-fixer, which means they take nitrogen from the air and attach or “fix” the nitrogen molecules to bacteria in the soil.  Sometimes the first planting of beans in a new area will not bear fruit, because the “inoculant” is not present in the soil (especially our poor soil in Rockport).  However, simply by growing the beans, you are adding the inoculant, along with wonderful nitrogen, to your soil.  After the first season, you will enjoy many beans and other vegetables from this space.
        • Squash
          • Squash bugs and squash beetles.  Beneficial predators will get most of them.  Pinching under a headlamp at night is effective; they are nearly impossible to pinch in the day, and they hide well.  Plant a dill, Queen Anne’s lace, and a lot of nasturtiums throughout the squash or Three Sisters garden.  These plants repel squash bugs and beetles very well.
          • Caterpillars.  Beneficial predators and pinching under a headlamp at night will take care of these.  If caterpillars are very bad, in addition to pinching, spray Bt at night on the plants.  Drench the leaves, and spray underneath the leaves very well.  The caterpillar must eat the active Bt for it to kill the caterpillars.
          • Powdery mildew and other fungal diseases.  Powdery mildew can in some cases seriously impact yield.  A simple solution once the mildew is present is to mix 4 tablespoon of baking soda with 8 teaspoons of vegetable oil into a gallon of water.  Spray the leaves until they are drenched with this solution every week or so.  A good prevention to fungal diseases is a bi-weekly spray of Garrett Juice, which strengthens the plants and helps them fight off diseases. 

            Melon Vines Grow Dense and Thick

            Melon Vines Grow Dense and Thick

          • Melons, Pumpkins, Cantaloupes
            • Sometimes these vigorous growers can overwhelm the corn, and pull the corn stalks down.  Try to remember to plant the vigorous vining plants on the end rows, or at least to train the vines to grow out away from the corn stalks.  We plant all our melons on the outside rows of the gardens to prevent deer and raccoons from getting into the garden—this works really well.  However, overdoing the melons can cause the some of the corn to come down.

              Kayla with Irrigation Lines

              Kayla with Irrigation Lines

Watering the Garden

Drip irrigation beneath a mulch bed is the ideal watering method. (show sample)

  • You can order the product from 1-800-SAY-RAIN. This is commercial drip line, NOT soaker hoses. The drip irrigation line goes under the mulch exactly where you want the water, down the center of the Three Sisters row.
  • Water plants infrequently and deep (lower than the lowest level of root). Wait until the soil is almost dry, but not completely dried out, to water again. This allows the roots to “reach” down into the soil to find water, which causes the plant to grow.
  • The soil will dry from the top down, especially in the relentless wind of Rockport. With correct mulching and intensive planting, you will typically water 1 time per week in April/May, 2 times per week in June/July, August may require 3 times per week. NOTE: after first planting the seeds, you may have to water more frequently, until the plants are established, because the roots are in the shallow soil that dries out faster.

    Three Sisters Garden

    Three Sisters Garden

  • A “sunflower hedge row” or some other type of wind break may be helpful for the garden, to keep it from drying out so quickly, but only if it does not shade the garden.
  • Water in the evening, or at night. Plants dedicate more energy into growing in the morning, and up-taking water in the evening. Watering in the evening allows for maximum water absorption, minimizes loss of water through evaporation, and helps cool the soil for the important night-time soil temperature. You should only have to water with the drip irrigation for a few hours to achieve maximum effectiveness, then you are probably wasting water.
  • How to water without drip irrigation:  After drip irrigation, the next most effective method to water is with the “rain” function on a garden hose.  Water the plants about 2 to 3 times per week, as needed, in the evening or at night.  Water more deeply than the roots.  As a general rule, you can water sufficiently by holding the hose over planting for about 8 to 10 minutes.  It is very hard to say how much water your plants need in terms of gallons, as it depends on health of soil, daytime tempurature, amount of mulch, and several factors.  The garden will not always need the same amount of water.  Make sure to water deeply, and as infrequently as possible.
  • As your soil health improves, you will see a corresponding decrease in water needs in the garden. In year five of your garden, you will be stunned at how little water you need.
  • To know when to water, find a place in the row, and dig your finger down about 6″ to 8″ into the soil, and check soil moisture. If soil is wet or soggy, let it dry out more. If the soil is dry, water the garden.
  • Also, you can let the plants tell you when to water. Watch the leaves–when they begin to sag, water the garden. Don’t let the plants wilt, just notice the leaves. You will be able to tell pretty quickly what sagging leaves look like. Within 20 minutes of watering, the leaves will begin to perk up and turn a darker shade of green. Check the soil with your finger when the leaves sag, and you will quickly be able to figure out the relationship between soil moisture and the plants in your garden. Letting the garden tell you when to water is a wonderful part of your relationship to the garden, and your role in maintaining balance.


Looking for Squash Blossoms

Looking for Squash Blossoms


  • Garrett Juice:  A homemade fertilizer = liquid seaweed + fish emulsion + molasses.  We use one teaspoon of each per gallon of water.  Spray the plants just until the leaves are drenched and dripping.  Spray every couple weeks for best results to plants.
  • Howard Garrett has numerous excellent recipes for homemade plant treatments on his web site The Dirt Doctor
    • We used “pepper and garlic tea” along with citrus oil extensively early in our farming, with somewhat limited success.  The bugs in Rockport eat habanero peppers for dessert.   
  • “Compost tea” is very good preventative treatment.  To make, simply fill a 5-gallon bucket a quarter full with good compost.  Fill the bucket up with water, put on the lid, and leave in sun for a couple weeks.  This is your concentrate.  Strain this mixture into another bucket at one part concentrate plus four parts water.  Spray this compost tea every couple weeks during the summer season to keep plants robust and help them fight insect and disease problems.      
  • You can also use commercial Lady Bug fertilizer, spray leaves until dripping, every two weeks.  Or you can buy commercial Garrett Juice, and spray until leaves are dripping, every two weeks or as needed.
  • Pastured poultry manure is the best bagged manure.  Lightly side dress each plant with about 2 handfuls of pastured poultry manure, around 30 days after planting. 
  • We do not recommend horse or cow manure, because usually this manure lacks sufficient urea, which chickens produce in their manure.  Also, consider the diet and living conditions of the animals that produce commercial cow manure—you do not want this in your garden.  
picture from class--Eggplant Companions in 3' Wide Row

picture from class–Eggplant Companions in 3′ Wide Row

Companion Planting Eggplant, Peppers, and Herbs

  • Prepare the soil as in “Notes on Growing Tomatoes”
  • In three to four feet wide row, follow 2-1-2 pattern with eggplant.  In each gap on the sides of the “1”, and in between the “2”, densely plant basil and dill, with marigolds all around the eggplant.  Alternate the herbs and flowers down the row, so there is a diverse and changing dynamic of flowering plants down the row.  The poly-culture of flowers will confuse and misdirect pests, and often will repel them altogether.  (see illustration)
  • For peppers, try a 4-2-4 planting with dill and Queen Anne’s Lace flowers all around the peppers. 
  • Fertilize two weeks after trans-planting with a side dressing of pastured poultry manure, about two handfuls per plant.  As necessary, every couple weeks or so, or if the plant looks bug damaged or stressed, spray the leaves until they are dripping with Garrett Juice or Lady Bug fertilizer.
Leaffooted Bugs Mating--NOT a Pleasant Sight

Leaffooted Bugs Mating–NOT a Pleasant Sight

Natural Pest Control

  • Most of our pest control comes from beneficial predators.
  • They are: birds, wasps, dragonflies, lacewings, ladybugs, lizards, frogs, toads, giant wheel bugs, assassin bugs, etc. If you attract these predators to your garden, you’ll have to treat minimally for pests.
  • To attract them, start a “beneficial predator garden” close to your vegetable garden. This could just be a corner of the lawn you don’t mow, or a beautiful hummingbird garden.  The key is to have a dense “jungle” for the predators to hide in, when your garden is bare. When the garden becomes lush, and the pests arrive, simply stop watering the predator garden. The beneficial predators will go to the food source, and solve all your pest problems.
  • If you spend a little time and energy making a sanctuary for beneficial predators, you will find they do an enormous amount of work for you, and save you a lot of time, money, and vegetables. An investment into beneficial predators yields an enormous pay-off. And if you are trying to get your children interested in gardening, this is the best way to do it. Kids love watching the natural interaction at work in the garden, especially when a wasp comes down, stings a caterpillar, then flies the caterpillar back to the wasp nest. This fascination with nature builds the child’s relationship to the garden, and gets them more interested in science and nature.
  • Birds:  Place a bird feeder in the closest tree to your garden to attract birds year-round to this area.  In our area, nearly all of our smaller native birds eat both seeds and bugs.  Cardinals are wonderful predators, and like most other birds prefer insects over forage, due to the higher protein content.  Once the birds discover your garden pests, they will make quick work of them.
    • A great way to get birds into your garden is to place bird fountain close to the garden.  In our desert climate, especially in our prolonged drought, birds and other beneficial predators continually look for water.  A bird bath or, even better, a fountain, works as well or better than a feeder to continually attract birds to the garden. 
    • A trick we use to get birds into our large Three Sisters gardens is a common aerial water sprayer mounted on an 8-foot t-post in the middle of the garden.  We tie the water sprayer to the top of the post, and turn it on for about an hour early in the mornings, when the pests (caterpillars, grasshoppers, leaf-footed bugs) are still active.  The garden fills with birds who are attracted to the water.  When the pests become wet, they have trouble moving.  Caterpillars and grasshoppers become immobile for a short time, on the tops of leaves and vegetables.  The birds can nearly wipe out a population of pests in a short time as they hop around the garden enjoying these easy meals.
    • Example:  One morning, I noticed my spaghetti squash were being devastated by little green caterpillars, a terrible infestation.  I turned on the aerial water sprayer, and went to the house to get a drink; I expected a long morning of pinching caterpillars.  By the time I got back to the garden, the birds were already active in the dense foliage of vegetables.  While I watched, a flock of cardinals flitted all around the squash eating the caterpillars.  I could hardly find a caterpillar after about an hour, when I turned off the water sprayer.  At that point, there were wasps buzzing all around the squash, picking off the last remaining little green caterpillars.  I did not have to pinch bugs that day, and went on with my chores. 
Four String Wasp: Paralyzing Caterpillar before Taking to Nest

Four String Wasp: Paralyzing Caterpillar before Taking to Nest

  • Wasps:  Wasps are extremely beneficial in the garden.  The only way to encourage wasps is to not destroy their nests.  Unfortunately, so many people are so uninformed about wasps, and have an irrational fear of being stung, that wasps nests are usually destroyed as fast as they are built.
    • Wasps do not kill caterpillars, but go into the garden and sting them to paralyze them.  Then, the wasp flies the caterpillar back to their nest and stuffs the caterpillar into one of the holes in the nest.  The wasp then lays her eggs in the caterpillar, and the babies eat their way out.  The babies go across the network of the nest eating caterpillars.  I have seen this phenomenon many times in the garden, and have followed wasps back their nests and watched them work.   Wasps cleanse the garden of more pests than you realize; a single wasp nest can hold a lot of caterpillars. 
    • Wasps prefer to make their nests in the lower branches of trees, or in the eaves of houses and barns (mostly because their habitat has been destroyed).  I recently had a great learning about wasps:  a field of live oak trees was “manicured” by cutting the lower branches and making the trees look nice.  Removing the lower branches of oak trees is very popular in our area, as it makes for a neat yard.  As we picked up the branches to remove them from the field, I counted 4 wasp’s nests on the branches in one pile.  I went through the cuttings and counted wasps nests, and could not believe how many I found, always on the largest branches.  Then I went back and looked up in the trees, and only saw a couple of nests in the upper branches.   Wasps like the lower branches for their nests, probably because they are more wind protected.  By trimming the lower branches of our trees, we have removed a lot of good habitat for wasps, and then, when they make nests on the eaves of houses, we spray them.  Reversing this trend would do wonders to keep down garden pests.  On our farm, we say that we love the “wild” look, which saves me the work of trimming branches, and saves Kayla and me endless hours of pinching caterpillars, thanks to the wasps.
    • Caterpillars reproduce much faster, and in greater numbers, than wasps.  Destroying one wasp’s nest allows thousands of caterpillars to breed out of control.  The destruction of wasp’s nests is the single greatest reason we have such a terrible infestation of web worms every year in Rockport.  You can protect wasps in your yard simply by not destroying their nests.  Over time, your garden will become a wasp friendly zone, and your garden pests should beware.  I have worked for years with hundreds of wasps surrounding me all day, and have only been stung one time, and that was on the hand, when I grabbed a radish flower with a wasp on it.  It stung for about 5 minutes, then completely went away.  Wasp stings are highly over-rated.  Please do not ever kill a wasp, or destroy a wasp’s nest.
  • Mud Daubers:   Mud daubers mainly eat spiders; some mud dauber species eat only a specific spider, like the brown recluse or black widow. 
    • The mud duaber stings and paralyzes the spider, then flies (or drags!) the spider back to the nest.  The mud dauber’s nest looks like “organ pipes” on the inside.  The dauber fills each organ pipe with living spiders.  When the mud dauber eggs hatch, the babies eat the legs off of each spider in the nest, to keep the spiders alive longer, then go back and eat the spider heads and bodies. 
    • Please NEVER destroy a mud duaber nest, because you can’t possibly spray enough poison to control spiders in your yard as well as mud daubers can.  Rather, wait till the holes open on the mud duaber nest, which means all the babies have left the nest.  You can now safely remove the nest, because mud daubers do not re-use old nests. 
Ladybugs Go Where They are Needed

Ladybugs Go Where They are Needed

  • Ladybugs:  Ladybugs are among the sweetest, most beautiful, and most deadly (if you are an aphid) beneficial predators in the garden. 
    • You may need to order ladybugs from the nursury, and “seed” them continually into your garden, until a population establishes itself.  If there is not cover, or sanctuary, for your ladybugs, and if there is no food source, they will fly away.  It took us a couple of years to create a really good native population of ladybugs.
    • Ladybugs are like homing pigeons:  if the ladybug grower shipped your ladybugs from California, and you don’t have a good sanctuary and food source in your garden, the ladybugs will fly en masse due West, until they find a welcome home.
    • However, once your ladybugs become native, and as long as you have a good beneficial predator garden, you will have an abundance of these wonderful predators in your garden.
Lacewing hunting

Lacewing hunting

  • Lacewings:  It takes several “seedings” of lacewings to establish a native population.  However, once you get these ravenous predators established, they will cleanse the gardens of pests many times over for you.  You can order lacewings from Kunafin.
    • Put out the lacewings at dusk.  Prior to putting out the lacewings, spray your garden with molasses tea.  Molasses tea is great to spray for ladybug seeding as well. 
Dragonfly Hunting in Garden, a Voracious Beneficial Predator

Dragonfly Hunting in Garden, a Voracious Beneficial Predator

  • Dragonflies:  Dragonflies are one of the most ferocious and ravenous beneficial predators in the garden.  Dragonflies consume incredible amounts of mosquitos.  During the summer, dragonflies hunt in waves through our gardens.  I have seen them pick up caterpillars, fly them into a tree, eat then, and drop into the garden for more.  A bird bath close to the garden will also help attract dragonflies.
  • Giant Wheel Bugs:  When you find giant wheel bugs in your garden, you know you are on the right track with beneficial predators.  These excellent predators look scary, but like the vast majority of the bugs in your garden, they are good guys, and they only hurt the pests. 
  • Assassin Bugs:  Like giant wheel bugs, these friends of the garden let you know your predator gardens are working.      
  • Lizards:  Lizards simply need sanctuary in your garden, and they will make themselves at home.  A pan of water beneath the plants will help attract lizards.  Lizards are the easiest beneficial predator to keep in our gardens, and they consume an enormous amount of insects.  They kill pests from the ground up to the top of the plant, and they work steadily day and night, even on the hottest days of the year, in the shade of the garden, eliminating pests.   
Frog Nest in Garden under a Squash Leaf

Frog Nest in Garden under a Squash Leaf

  • Toads and frogs:  A toad can eat over 10,000 insects in three months.  If you can draw a good population of toads into your garden, can you imagine how many pests they are cleansing from your plants, while you sleep?  Frogs eat even more than toads!
    • Toads stay mostly on the ground.  They will climb a plant for food up to a foot or so, but they don’t like to get too high.  However, toads love to hang out at the base of vegetable plants and eat the bugs that crawl from the mulch up to the plant, and then back down in the morning.  I have seen up to three or four toads on one spinach or lettuce, eating caterpillars as fast as they could.  Toads and frogs need good cover in the garden, which you achieve with intensive successive companions.  Frogs, especially smaller green frogs, tend to climb all over the plant, and like lizards, can work high up the plants at night. 
    • Also, toads love water.  Leave pans full of water generously spaced throughout the garden, beneath the thick green canopy of squash leaves.  The water will draw the toads into the garden, and they will appreciate the drink and cooling liquid during their hunts.  Pans of water can vastly increase the number of toads, frogs, lizards, and birds in the garden. 
  • BT is an organic caterpillar spray that should be sprayed only at night, and on the underside of leaves, to kill caterpillars.
  • The most effective pesticide, after healthy soil, is a headlamp [show example]. The headlamp is a vital tool in understanding what is happening in your garden, in building your relationship with the garden. All garden pests are active in your garden at night. Some pests feed only at night. If you have never tried this, exploring your garden at night with a headlamp will be like seeing the garden for the first time. Most caterpillars, grasshoppers, and many other pests hide in the dirt during the day, and the underside of leaves. But they are all out at night, and they are attracted to the light of your headlamp. As you walk through the garden, the pests will come to the tops of plants, and struggle to get into the light for you to see them. In the past, you may have had trouble knowing what is destroying the garden. However, you will immediately know everything going on in your garden with a headlamp at night.
  • With a headlamp, you can use the “pinch method” (which means pinching the bugs with your thumb and index finger) to eliminate a lot of pests, quickly and easily. Doing this at night saves a great deal of time, energy, labor, and gives you insights into what is attacking the garden. During the day, it is nearly impossible to pinch grasshoppers, caterpillars and leaf-footed bugs. At night, however, you can pinch more pests in 20 minutes than you could during 8 hours of daylight. The pests will literally come to you. (Give example of leaf-footed bugs.) They sting the tomato and it gets a sun-burned, dry appearance. Leaf-footed bugs have a bacteria on their proboscis that causes the tomato to have spots. Many predators don’t like them and others can’t catch them because they can fly. To my knowledge, its only enemy is the banana spider. So, the only safe, effective way to remove them is to pinch them. We began to notice that leaf-footed bugs were evading us to avoid being squashed during the day. They will crawl to the other side of the plant, or fly to an entirely different row. However, with a head lamp, you can kill nearly all the leaf-footed bugs in 30 minutes a night for one or two nights.
  • When your program is in balance (healthy soil, intensive successive companion plants, mulch, beneficial predators), you will not spend very much time pinching bugs. (I have only pinched bugs on 2 nights, 20 minutes each, in the last 4 months; in summer, maybe 20/30 minutes every two weeks) You will still have pests in the garden; however, the beneficial predators will take care of most of them, so your vegetables don’t suffer. Your job as a gardener will be to bring balance during the first part of the infestation, until the predators catch up.
  • In nature, there is always a steep increase in the population of pests, then a steep increase in predators, then pest population declines. In the garden: fast population rise in pests>garden damage>rise in population of predators>balance. Your role is to be present in the garden during the short time between the rise in pests and the rise in predators. In our garden, this is usually about 15-30 mins per night for 2 nights, for each infestation. Check on the 3rd night and you should see plenty of frogs, toads, and lizards, and during the day there will be wasps, birds, dragonflies, lacewings, and etc., and you won’t have to pinch (I leave the pests for the predators to enjoy). You only need to protect your garden from the pest infestation for two nights as the predator population catches up to the pests to restore balance. If you get a really bad infestation, you may have to do more pinching; however, in a healthy garden, predators will be standing in line to eat pests.
Bando:  Highly Effective Gopher Control

Bando: Highly Effective Gopher Control

  • Gophers = a good dog, a good cat, traps, or gopher snakes. Squirrels=squirrel stew, pellet gun. Cut ants=molasses tea or turpentine in a funnel down the hole; NO chemicals eliminate cut ants, you can only move their mound, so do not leave poison in the ground for years.

Please leave questions of comments on the “comments” section of this post.  Happy Gardening to you!

Intensive Successive Companions

Kale, Radish, Carrots, Parsnips, Dill, and Cilantro

Kale, Radish, Carrots, Parsnips, Dill, and Cilantro

We use a strategy called “intensive successive companions” to design the plantings in our gardens. 

This method enables the gardener to achieve the maximum production of the widest variety of produce from the smallest possible space, with the least amount of work, and the least amount of inputs to the garden.  Every square inch of three-dimensional garden space is utilized; and not just space, but growing time. 

With “intensive successive companions”, one person, working alone, can grow an astounding volume of vegetables, herbs, and fruit, on a modest space.  And the garden can stay in cultivation throughout the year delivering continual waves of fresh produce.

The Opposite of a Monoculture

“Intensive successive companion planting” is a gardening strategy.  The opposite of this strategy is planting in a monoculture.  In a monoculture, the goal is to sterilize the field, or garden space, and grow only one selected crop in each segregated area.  Generally, monoculture farms and gardens require chemical herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides to make them work.  This unsustainable strategy defines large-scale corporate farming.

Kale, Radish,Cilantro, Collards, Mustard, Cabbage, Lettuces, and Queen Anne's Lace

Kale, Radish,Cilantro, Collards, Mustard, Cabbage, Lettuces, and Queen Anne’s Lace

Intensive successive companion planting harnesses the power of nature and channels it into the garden.  This method continually improves the health and bio-diversity of the soil.  These gardens require less water; over time, the gardener can cut irrigation by fifty to eighty percent.

Beneficial predators love these lush gardens.  They hunt continually among the plants and cleanse the garden of pests.  Intensive successive companion planting is the key reason we never have to use chemical pesticides in our gardens.  Chemicals only hurt a healthy garden.  

Breaking down Each Component

For new gardeners, this method can seem complicated at first.  However, once you break down each component, and see how it works in the garden, the method becomes completely clear.  Here is a broad description of the components, with more to follow in future posts.

Various Lettuces and Spinach, Intensively planted

Various Lettuces and Spinach, Intensively planted

Intensive Planting

Intensive planting is a very close spacing of plants, closer than typically recommended in planting guides.  The leaves of the plants grow together and overlap, which makes a “canopy” over the garden.  This canopy creates a “micro-climate” beneath the foliage, which maximizes irrigation, dew, and natural insulation.  The canopy shades or chokes out weeds and provides protection for beneficial predators, to allow them to hunt continually in the garden, a critically important aspect of chemical-free gardening.

Successive Planting

Successive planting allows for plant production in waves, or stages.  A simple succession is to plant the same vegetable two weeks apart, so that it does not all ripen at once, but over a longer period.  Another aspect of successive planting, also called relay planting, is to plant a seed or transplant where a mature plant was just harvested, so that as space is made in the garden, new plants are introduced, to maintain a continual production.

Successive planting is also accomplished by planting various different plants at the same time in the same space, in such a way that each plant grows at a different rate and height and width.  As one plant matures and is harvested or cut back, the next plant matures, and so on, to maximize the three-dimensional space of the garden.     

Kayla picking beans and sweet corn from a summer garden

Kayla picking beans and sweet corn from a summer garden

Companion Planting

Companion planting is planting two or more plants together, who benefit from the presence of the other.  Every plant—every vegetable, herb, fruit, and flower—grows better when planted in the right combination with other plants.  The combinations serve many functions:  some plants fertilize each other as they grow, some protect others from pests or disease, or provide shade or structure or support.  Companion planting dramatically increases biodiversity in the soil.  Companion planting attracts the widest variety and greatest numbers of beneficial predators to the garden.

The best example of companion planting is “the three sisters“, which is corns, beans, and squash, grown in the Native American method.  Each of these vegetables grows better when planted with the others, rather than segregated.  Not only that, by companion planting these vegetables, gardeners can grow three to five times more produce on the same garden space.  With good companion planting, yields of every single garden crop can be improved.

Hairy Vetch: A Cover Crop

Kayla opening 50lb bag of Hairy Vetch

Kayla opening 50lb bag of Hairy Vetch

Kayla planted this  garden with hairy vetch on New Year’s Day.  It took her about ten minutes to plant this space with a nice cover crop.  Her ten minutes of planting will reap a lot of rewards in this garden.

Hairy vetch is a cover crop.  Cover crops are designed to:

  • improve soil fertility through nitrogen fixation (also called “green manure”)
  • provide a “living mulch” to other plants;
  • control weeds;
  • provide nutritious, protein-rich animal fodder;
  • attract beneficial predators; and
  • increase the bio-diversity of the soil.

    Bando loves to be in the picture

    Bando loves to be in the picture

In Rockport, hairy vetch is best planted between November and February.  Vetch is winter hardy, and a freeze will not kill it.  Up north, they plant vetch in August or September, before the first killing frost, and the vetch winters under a thick blanket of snow, and resumes growing in the spring when the snow is gone. 

It takes about 90 days for vetch to fully mature, and create beautiful purple blooms.  When the vetch is ready, you can cut it down for a garden full of thick mulch, and then plant vegetables in it.  By using vetch, no herbicides, soil preparation, or mulching is needed to plant vegetables.  Or, the vetch can be plowed under.  Or, animals (chickens and pigs especially) can be grazed on the vetch, to eat it to the ground.  Grazing animals on a vetch patch is one of the best things a gardener can do to improve soil health. 

Additionally, other plants can be combined with vetch.  Vetch can be used as a companion planting with tomatoes or a Three Sisters garden.  Gardeners often mix winter rye with vetch, as a premium cover crop that also makes excellent animal fodder.   

Vetch Seeds after 7 Days

Vetch Seeds after 7 Days

Nitrogen Fixation

Vetch takes nitrogen from the atmosphere, carries it down to the plant’s roots, and “fixes” it to bacteria in the soil.  The nitrogen is then available to the next crop planted in that soil.  This is called the “green manure” effect.  I slept through every science class from 1st grade through college, but this dynamic fascinates me.  Vetch adds between 90 and 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre.  That is an enormous amount of fertilizer created simply by growing a plant.

Modern large-scale farms use “chemical nitrogen fixation”, also called “industrial nitrogen fixation”, to add nitrogen.  In other words, they use synthetic chemicals to fix nitrogen.  This is how big corporate farms (and many small-scale farmers and backyard gardeners) fertilize their crops.

Before these chemicals were invented–basically all of human history prior to World War II–farmers used “biological nitrogen fixation”, or cover crops, to fix nitrogen into the soil.  

Thomas Jefferson, in his Farm Book and letters, writes extensively about the benefits of cover crops.  In a letter to George Washington, dated June 19, 1796, Jefferson writes, “…but true winter vetch is what we want extremely…”  Jefferson routinely rotated  vetch or clover in his gardens, plowing them under in the spring, or grazing animals on the mature crop.

Before chemicals, all farmers used cover crops and manure.   Today, it is rare to find a farm that uses cover crops and manure to grow vegetables.        

Other Benefits of Vetch

In addition to its benefits as green manure, vetch also prevents weeds by choking them out and serving as a living mulch.  Because vetch is about 20% protein, which is extremely protein-rich for a plant, it makes excellent animal fodder.  Vetch also makes a good home for beneficial predators, and keeps them patrolling the garden between vegetable plantings.  Bees love the purple blooms.

Hand Broadcast in Sweeping Motion

Hand Broadcast in Sweeping Motion

How to Plant

Vetch can be hand broadcast, which simply means to throw it across the garden.  Start in one corner and work your way across, evenly spreading the seeds.  You can cover a full acre with about 25 to 35 pounds of vetch seeds.  If you are planting a smaller area, estimate the pounds of seeds you will need for that space.  Place the seeds you will plant in a pot or bag, and carry that with you as you plant the garden.  You can use the declining volume of seeds in your pot to determine how much to cast, and thus make sure you achieve an even and adequate covering.  Save the remaining seeds in a cool place until the next planting.

7 days after planting

7 days after planting

The seeds require good seed-to-soil contact to ensure germination and root development.  Notice the seed in this picture sends a shoot up, and a root into the soil.  You should till up your garden space prior to planting, rather than broadcasting seeds into a field full of weeds or grass.  Water the vetch planting once or twice per week after broadcasting, until the plants are established.  Hairy vetch is drought tolerant, but needs some moisture to get started.   

Three Gardens Behind, Four in Front

Three Gardens Behind Kayla

A Cover Crop View

We had just moved chickens off of this 2,000 square foot garden, before Kayla went out to plant it with vetch.  The chickens had eaten down all the remnants of corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, melons, herbs, and wildflowers, to leave a completely bare space.  Then we quickly formed the rows you see behind Kayla.  We will plant Three Sisters in these rows once the vetch grows thick. 

We will give an update on this garden, and post pictures, to show how the vetch develops, and to see what kind of return we get from Kayla’s ten minutes of planting on New Year’s Day.

Finished Planting in Ten Minutes

Finished Planting in Ten Minutes

The Last Melon of the Year

Last Watermelon of the Year

Last Watermelon of the Year

This is our last watermelon of the year.

The rest of the melons on this garden space are not quite ready, and will be offered to our animals.  Those unripe melons, the remaining squash and bean pods, the blistered corn cobs clinging to their stalks, and the all the green material in this garden, will be enjoyed by our chickens and porkers.

We must now turn our animals into this garden to prepare the soil for a Fall planting.

Companion Planting with Melons

Three Sisters companion plantings traditionally feature corn, beans, and squash; however, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables grow well in this system, even melons.

The Three Sisters garden in these pictures is a first ever planting on this patch of ground.  To develop a new garden, we first prepare the area, as wild and thick as it is, with chickens and pigs.  The animals eat down all the foliage, brush, weeds, and grass, and fertilize and till the soil.

First Melons, back in June

Next, we plant a Three Sisters garden on that space and harvest everything from it we can.  Then we turn the animals back into that area to consume the remaining green material; the stems and leaves of the vegetables and the remaining produce.  The animals compost the foliage, so to speak, in their bellies, and return those nutrients to the soil as powerfully good fertilizer.

We develop extremely rich soil in this process, and the chicken, eggs, and pork sustained by these gardens become quite delicious.  This method of heritage farming is highly efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable.

A Last Taste of Summer

Melons this late in September feel like a present, a gift of goodness among the tangled green vines.  To me, they are all gifts, these black diamond watermelons that sprang from soil I knew to be wild not long ago.

And this one is a last taste of sweetness, to say goodbye to summer.

Tres Hermanas Means Three Sisters Gardening

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 seeds of corn, beans, and squash are planted together in mounds or rows. As they grow, the bean vines climb the corn stalks as a trellis while the squash covers the soil with living green mulch. The gardens are dense, prolific, and beautiful.

Tres Hermanas gardens once grew abundantly across North America. However, the secret of the sisters has been lost to modern gardeners.

Rediscovering Tres Hermanas

There is a resurgence of interest in Tres Hermanas. Companion planting is a highly productive and sustainable way to grow vegetables. Garden space is maximized by multiplying the effect of organic inputs, extending and increasing the harvest, and revitalizing the soil. And Tres Hermanas thrives without the use of chemicals.

Tres Hermanas is part of a dynamic and holistic program on our farm. I do not rely exclusively on companion planting; it is a component of my operation. However, Tres Hermanas serves an important function in my plan due to the efficiency of the garden and the profit generated on that space.

Benefits of Tres Hermanas Companion Planting

1. Higher yields on same square-footage (maximizes space)

2. Greater production, diversity, and density in garden (maximizes inputs)

3. Fast plant growth and quick vegetable production (rapid returns)

4. Longer growing season as each phase matures (maximizes time on space)

5. Easy to maintain (less work)

6. NO chemicals required (better health)

7. Revitalizes the soil (highly sustainable)

8. Beautiful (dual use plants)

The strength of this system is the amazing synergy of these plants with each other and their environment. The plants work together to mulch and feed the soil, and to regulate soil temperature and moisture. Beans are a nitrogen fixer; they fertilize the corn and squash as they grow. Their compatibility allows, almost demands, an organic approach.

In a good garden, the plants cooperate with their environment. Birds, wasps, ladybugs, and frogs hunt in their lush sanctuary of foliage to cleanse the crop of harmful pests. Bees hang continually about the garden as they pollinate. A Tres Hermanas garden is alive and colorful and dynamic and changing.

And the gardens are beautiful. Tiny white bean flowers climb the deep green stalks and burst into long string beans. The vibrant yellow-orange squash blossoms are an edible delicacy that can be harvested without harming the prolific summer and winter squash. Purple corn silk flares from the tight-fisted cobs and fades to brown when the kernels are ready. For a long summer, the corn stalks rustle gently in the wind.

Tres Hermanas in Small Farms and Backyard Gardens

A friend of mine planted Tres Hermanas in an old flower bed next to her house. She wanted to grow vegetables and was inspired to fill that space with the three sisters. Her flower bed became a beautiful little garden, a living history lesson for the kids, and a plentiful source of healthy delicious vegetables.

Many of my friends struggle with backyard gardens that seldom yield a generous harvest, and sometimes fail to produce anything. I recommend to them Tres Hermanas grown in a natural program. This method was perfectly adapted to our own native soil during a thousand-year partnership with the land. Tres Hermanas will happily make itself at home in your backyard garden.

I recently visited a small-scale working farm where a gentleman grew corn in one part of the garden, squash in another, and beans against a trellis fence. He could have planted the same crops in the Tres Hermanas method and more than tripled his production—with less expense and a lot less work.

Any good vegetable garden, anywhere in America, can benefit from this method.

No Thank You to Chemicals

Gardeners who use chemicals benefit chemical companies more than their own gardens.  And, truthfully, who wants to eat vegetables from a garden full of chemicals?

Indians grew Tres Hermanas for centuries without any chemicals whatsoever. Indians and pioneer farmers used methods that worked. If their gardens failed, they starved.

Here is the remarkable truth: A natural garden is less expensive and less work than a chemical garden. Natural gardens are more productive and more resistant to pests and disease, especially in the long run. And the vegetables grown in a natural program are more flavorful and more delicious than what comes out of a garden full of chemicals.

Whether or not you implement Tres Hermanas, please let the message resonate that you can grow a superior garden without the use of chemicals.

The Secret of Tres Hermanas

Before trying something new in the garden, I try to collect and study as much information as possible. It is important to anticipate the challenges of a new approach, predict for the profitability of the harvest, and learn from the success and mistakes of others. Farming is my living–like the Indians, I cannot afford to miss.

However, I could find almost no useful information about Tres Hermanas on the internet, in gardening books, or from gardening experts. The absence of good information about Tres Hermanas is a gap I hope to close with these articles.  Some secrets should be told.

Index of Articles

The following guide offers an overview to Tres Hermanas companion planting from seed to harvest to table. To access the articles, click the category “Tres Hermanas Guide” on the right-hand side of this page. As each article is posted, I will link them below. Good luck and happy gardening!

History of Tres Hermanas

Preparing the Soil

Planting the Seeds

Mulching the Garden

Watering the Garden

Fertilizing Naturally

Fighting Pests

Harvesting the Garden

Recipes for Tres Hermanas

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.

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