Three Sisters Garden

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.

 

Comments

  1. Thanks Laurel for this great summary of the 3 sisters.
    These crops are the ones we are helping to start and grow with 3 or more High Schools in Sonoma County in the spring 2014. Piner HS ( Santa Rosa – 2nd year) , El Molino ( Forestville), Laguna High School (Sebastopol) and likely 1 -2 more High Schools ( plus Steele Lane elementary )have started their 3 sister gardens.
    The Advantages 1) only part of a garden is needed and the crops works in harmony with each other 2) The crops can be harvested when the students return in the Fall and can be stored until needed.
    3.) Like a safe deposit account ! These 3 seeds in your pocket could help you or anyone start a garden, farm and have nutritious food for your family in times of peril. Early European settlers learned about The Three Sisters from the Native Americans. This combination almost certainly helped them to survive too, providing calories protein and vitamins.
    We use BLUE CORN from the Hopi Indians in New Mexico . This corn is very drought tolerant. The total protein content of blue corn is about 30 percent higher than the total protein content of white and yellow corn. Blue corn also contains more zinc and iron than commercial white and yellow corn varieties. ( http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H233/welcome.html)
    We have some small quantities of NM blue corn to share (email – suekiwoodward@mac.com).
    About GROWING the Blue Corn – I found this great u-tube video from New Mexico State agriculture ( my home state) that is worth seeing and showing the students.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOji_F0Ryvo
    Keep in touch everyone – we will be having a 3 Sisters Celebration on Sept.21st – save the date!
    Sueki

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