The Sisterhood Tradition: Three Sisters Companion Planting
A three sisters garden is a way to grow a nutritionally complete meal the way nature intended. It’s a classic component in permaculture homesteads. In fact, it’s been a classic for over seven hundred years.
The three sisters garden was one of the main food production sources for the Iroquois and many other tribes across North America.
The traditional “sisters” are corn, beans, and squash, although there are other plants that work well as additions or substitutions: sunflowers, amaranth, watermelons, or bee balm, to name a few. The three sisters garden is a beautiful example of permaculture principles for two reasons. One, its crops provide a balanced meal with protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. That’s perfect for every homesteader who dreams of being self-sufficient.
The three sisters grow better together than they would alone. “Companion plantings” exemplify permaculture’s goal of mimicking the structure of ecosystems. In nature, plants rarely grow alone like they do in the neat rows of manmade gardens. They intermingle with other plants, often benefiting each other in symbiotic relationships.
In a three sisters garden, the corn becomes the pole for the pole beans. The beans enrich the soil with their nitrogen-fixing ability and help support the corn in the wind. The large leaves of squash or melon shade the soil to keep it cooler and retain more moisture, and their prickles provide a barrier against pests like deer and racoons.
There are many variations on the three sisters garden, but the most traditional layout is something like this: several corn kernels planted in a circle, beans planted close to the corn, and then the squash planted in a wider circle around the inner plantings.
An important caveat: This layout works great for growing dry corn and dry beans. If, however, you’d like to grow sweet corn and snap beans, you should consider an alternative. When growing dry corn and beans, everything is ready for harvest at the same time. But, fresh corn and beans will be ready before squash. You’re probably not going to want to carefully step around your pumpkins or watermelon every time you harvest beans or corn, and the squash leaves probably won’t appreciate being stepped on either.
In this case, an alternate layout is best. Rows of corn with beans planted in between is a great “two sisters” variation, with the option to plant some squash along one side.
This variation has the added benefit of increased pollination for the corn. If you have a good amount of space, beans, corn, and squash can be planted in linear plots and used for crop rotation. From left to right, plant squash, then corn, then beans. Every season, move each crop to the right, so the corn and squash can benefit from the nitrogen-fixed soil the beans grew in.
You can grow a three sisters garden in a wide variety of climates. If you know you can grow corn, beans, and squashes in your climate, then you can grow a three sisters garden. Simply modify the setup to suit your soil and moisture conditions. The Iroquois planted their three sisters gardens in a mound of soil, about four feet across and one foot high. This is good for wetter climates. In drier climates, a small crater can be added to the top of the mound, or even plant the entire garden in a depression.
Consider incorporating the three sisters garden on your homestead this season. It’s a centuries-old tradition of balance and cooperation that has stood the test of time for a reason.