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In vegetable gardening, the term “Three Sisters” refers to a type of companion planting practiced by early Native American societies.
When you’re laying out your garden, consider the idea that some plants tend to grow well together, acting as “companions” in the planting bed. Sometimes this is because the actions or products of one plant reinforce, protect or nourish another plant. In some cases both plants seem to help each other and both thrive, even if the causes aren’t always evident to scientists or farmers.
In Three Sisters planting, you grow a grain, usually corn, with bean vines supported by the tall stalk. Beans, peas and other legumes possess an ability to accrete and fix nitrogen into the soil by the action of Mycorrhiza fungus with their roots. Because corn uses a lot of nitrogen, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The corn stalks provide support for the bean vines and get them off the ground for better ventilation and exposure to the sunlight. The beans provide the high amounts of nitrogen used by the corn.
The most commonly-seen variation of Three Sisters planting makes use of hills with the following plants:
- Corn – Flour corns and popcorns were the most common corn varieties seen among the native peoples.
- Beans – Pole beans and runner beans have a vine-type growing habit to take advantage of the corn stalk, as opposed to bush beans.
- Squash – Squash cool the ground with large leaves to protect roots, inhibit weeds and preserve water. The hairy main vines deter pests as well.
In addition to these plants, sometimes there are other, less-often seen Sisters.
- Amaranth, Sorghum, Orach, Bee Flower or Sunflowers also provide tall stalks for support.
- Shelling Peas, Teparies and Snap Peas can stand in for Beans to climb the stalks and provide nitrogen, especially in cooler climates.
- Melons, Gourds and Luffa also work ina place of Squash to spread out and cool the earth with large leaves and sprawling habits.
The 2009 Sacajawea Coin features a depiction of a Three Sisters garden on its reverse.
The traditional Native American way of planting was to pile up rich soil with high organic content like mulch and compost into a hill. Usually some type of additional nutrients were added about 6 inches to a foot deep before planting. A fish or animal manures were often placed at the bottom of a hole and covered about three inches in soil.
Each hill is generally around a foot tall with a flat top and two or three feet in diameter. A hill or mound will warm faster in the sun in the early part of the season.
Three to five corn seeds are planted to a depth of about two or three inches. Once the corn grows 6-12 inches tall, it’s time to plant the beans, four inches apart in a circle around the bottom of the corn, and squash, generally three or four seeds about a foot apart and 6 inches from the base of the corn. When using amaranth instead of corn, it’s best to wait until the plants are two feet tall before planting her companions.
An added benefit of the traditional Three Sisters is that Squash, Corn and Beans taken together provide a fairly complete diet, with all nine essential amino acids and several essential fats as well as many important vitamins and carotenes. Adding Sunflowers increases protein levels and adds more oils.
Three Sisters Varieties at Painted Desert Seed Company