Three Sisters Garden is an ancient method of gardening using an intercropping system which grows corn, beans, and squash crops simultaneously in the same growing area that is typically a rounded mound of soil, often called a hill.
It is a wonderful model of cooperation and mutual support to share with your students.
Corn is the oldest sister. She stands tall in the center.
Squash is the next sister. She grows over the mound, protecting her sisters from weeds and shades the soil from the sun with her leaves, keeping it cool and moist.
Beans are the third sister. She climbs through squash and then up corn to bind all together as she reaches for the sun. Beans help keep the soil fertile by coverting the sun’s energy into nitrogen filled nodules that grow on its roots. As beans grow they use the stored nitrogen as food.
How do I grow a Three Sisters Garden?
In mid-Spring clear a sunny garden area of grasses, weeds, and large stones. The area should be roundish in shape and at least eight feet across. Cover the area with a few inches of compost
In late-Spring, once soils have warmed plant the corn in the several rings in the center of the patch with about 10inch spacing. Water the growing mound well. The corn will sprout and begin to grow in about two weeks.
After the corn has grown to about ten inches high, using a hoe or hand trowel, pull up some soil from the growing mound around the base of the corn stalks. The corn should not be buried entirely, it’s upper half should be above the soil that has been mounded around it’s stems. The corn will send roots into the mounded soil to hold it steady and upright in the wind.
After mounding soil around the base of the corn stalks sow about a pole beans or 1/2 runner bean seeds in a ring pattern six inches outside the corn stalks . Push the bean seeds about an inch under the soil and firm the ground above them by patting it down with your hand. Water the growing mound well. The beans will usually begin to sprout in about 7-14 days.
About a week after the beans sprout, sow six or seven squash seeds in a ring about 12-15″ outside the beans.You can grow any winter squash or pumkin. plant on 3 foot spacing Push the squash seeds about an inch under the soil and firm the ground above them by patting it down with your hand. The squash seeds will sprout in about a week.
As the corn grows the beans will begin to climb, you can help them early on by wrapping the bean vines around the corn stalks. The squash will begin to grow it’s vines and the large squash leaves will soon cover the growing mound and shade its soil. On occasion help the squash continue to cover the mound by turning the ends of it’s vines towards the center of the mound. Water the mound well during weeks where there has been little or no rain.
What varieties to grow?
Traditionally a flour corn is grown not a sweet eating corn. The West County Seed Exchange has two varieties of flour acorn -Blue Zapatista corn grown originally in this county at SunRidge School Garden, an Oaxacan Dent corn which was traditionally grown in 3 Sister Gardens The West County Seed Exchange also has lots of shelling beans that would work great. Scarlet Runner beans are wonderful as the hummingbirds love their nectar. I have heard some folks have more success with 1/2 runners. Some of my favorite 1/2 runners are Rio de Zappe and Tiger Eye both available free at Seed Exchange which is open the last Saturday of the month in the morning.
When can we harvest our Three Sister’s Garden?
Corn may be harvested while in it’s green corn stage, but tradtionally it is left to ripen and is harvested in Autumn.
Beans may be eaten fresh or allowed to mature and dry on the vine. Fresh beans can be harvested when the pods are firm and crisp, but before the seeds within the pods have begun to swell. P
Squash should be picked only after its skin has hardened thoroughly.