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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