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Corn, Beans, and Squash: How to Plant the Iconic Three Sisters

The “Three Sisters” companion planting technique leverages a special symbiotic relationship between corn, beans, and squash to produce abundant harvests. This traditional Native American growing method intercrops the three crops together so they can benefit and assist each other.

When planted in the right way, the Three Sisters approach helps the crops thrive in a small space through:

  • Corn providing a strong trellis for bean vines to climb
  • Beans supplying nitrogen to feed all three plants
  • Squash covering and enriching the soil that the crops share

The technique gets its name from the Iroquois origin myth where corn, beans, and squash were respected as three inseparable sisters who rely on one another. By harnessing this natural symbiotic alliance, you can save effort while producing bountiful harvests.

A Brief History of the Three Sisters Companion Planting Technique

The Three Sisters technique has its roots in the agricultural tradition of Native American groups like the Iroquois, Cherokee, and Hopi. The interplanting practice provided the nutritional foundation enabling the establishment of permanent settlements across parts of North America centuries ago.

The special bond between the crops is encapsulated in this Iroquois creation myth passed down over generations:

The Earth began when Sky Woman who lived in the upper world peered through a hole in the sky and fell through to an endless sea. The animals saw her coming, so they took the soil from the bottom of the sea and spread it onto the back of a giant turtle to provide a safe place for her to land. This “Turtle Island” is now what we call North America.

Sky woman had become pregnant before she fell. When she landed, she gave birth to a daughter. When the daughter grew into a young woman, she also became pregnant (by the West wind). She died while giving birth to twin boys. Sky Woman buried her daughter in the “new earth.” From her grave grew three sacred plants—corn, beans, and squash. These plants provided food for her twin grandsons, and later, for all of humanity. These special gifts ensured the survival of the Iroquois people.

So the legend highlights the interlinked nature of the three crops as “sisters” who can thrive together, which laid the agricultural foundation for many tribes.

Some key reasons why corn, beans and squash make ideal companion plants:

  • Structural support: Sturdy corn stalks provide a natural trellis for bean vines to climb up
  • Nitrogen fixation: Bean roots host Rhizobium bacteria that take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form plants can use, benefiting all three crops
  • Weed suppression and moisture conservation: Large squash leaves shade the soil surface, blocking weeds and preventing moisture loss via evaporation

The symbiotic mechanism makes the technique very productive even when space is limited.

Three Sisters Companion Planting

How to Grow the Three Sisters

While the native tribes often grew a variety of bean and squash crops together, a classic pairing today includes:

  • Pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris)
  • Flint, flour or sweet corn (Zea mays)
  • Winter squash (Cucurbita maximaCucurbita mixtaCucurbita moschata)

But you can customize based on what you want to grow and eat!

When and Where to Plant Your Three Sisters Garden

Season: The technique works for both spring and fall growing depending on your climate:

  • Spring: suitable for hot climates like the US south
  • Fall: better for northern zones with cold winters

Location:

Choose a sunny, warm spot with fertile soil. Key factors:

  • Full sunlight (minimum 6-8 hours)
  • Good drainage and protection from wind
  • Avoid recent legume growth (depletes nitrogen for current crops)
  • Near a reliable water source for irrigation

Space Requirements:

  • 4 ft. diameter for each crop mound
  • About 2 ft. spacing between mounds
  • Plant 2-5 mounds for adequate harvests

Tips and Direct Seed Planting Instructions

1. Building the mounds: Add compost and loosen soil if needed first. Mound up the soil into 6-8 inch tall circular mounds around 4 feet wide. Create multiple mounds with 2 ft. gaps between them.

2. Planting order and layout: Sow seeds in this order:

  1. Corn: Plant 4-6 corn seeds evenly spaced around the mound to form the outer circle about 6 inches from edge
  2. Beans: Add 4-6 bean seeds in a ring in the center of the mound
  3. Squash: Place 4-6 squash seeds evenly between both circles

3. Timing: Plant crops when soil reaches at least 60°F. Ideal schedule:

  • Corn: 1-2 weeks before beans and squash
  • Beans and squash: After final spring frost risk

Staggering gives corn’s roots firmer establishment so they can support beans climbing it later.

4. Fertilizer and soil Prep soil with compost, worm castings or organic granular fertilizer by mixing into mound top few inches where seeds/roots develop. Side dress monthly.

Maintaining Your Three Sisters Garden

Watering

Ensure consistent water especially during:

  • Germination and establishment: Sprinkle gently daily
  • Flowering and fruiting: 1-2 inches per week either via rain or manual effort

Weeding

Mulch thickly with leaves/straw after sprouting to suppress weeds. Hand pull any that get through. Avoid tilling or hoeing so bean plant roots aren’t disturbed.

Crop supports

Pole beans will start climbing up corn. Gently guide stray vines back onto corn stalks if needed. Temporary trellises can supplement corn structural support.

Signs of symbiotic growth

  • Corn stays upright and anchored thanks to beans twining around stalks
  • Bean vines show vigorous, prolific leaf and pod growth
  • Squash leaves expand widely shading most of mound area
  • All plants look productive without signs of pest damage

This demonstrates the intercropping synergy is working!

How to Harvest Your Corn, Beans, and Squash

Harvest times vary, though poles beans and squash will likely mature first:

  • Beans – 2 months: Pick continually as pods reach desired size
  • Squash – 3 months: Harvest as they meet preferred color/size
  • Corn – 4 months: When silks turn brown and kernels fill cob

Gently handling intertwined bean vines, rotate picking from plant to plant preventing overburdening one. After frost kills vines, collect any remaining squash and beans, then cut corn stalks leaving roots to replenish the soil.

Dried beans and corn keep for months stored properly indoors after threshing/shelling. Cure squash 2 weeks then store in cool (50-60°) space for 2-6 months. Enjoy the sisters’ produce fresh or preserved via canning, freezing or fermenting!

Why Use the Three Sisters Technique?

Beyond getting higher yields from less space, key advantages include:

Saves effort: No need to fertilize excessively, weed heavily or amend poor soil if the symbiosis works effectively. Building mounds takes some initial effort.

Promotes soil health: Minimal soil disturbance preserves beneficial fungi networks supporting plants. Bean nitrogen feeds this web of life.

Provides staple crops: The corn, bean and squash mix gives a solid nutritional base supplementable by other garden vegetables.

Adaptable and customizable: Choice of various corn, bean and squash varieties means you can tweak to preferences.

So by leveraging this traditional native approach, you reduce maintenance needs while producing a bounty of essential crops! Recreate a small part of the rotating forest garden ecosystems that once sustained tribes sustainably.

Conclusion

The Three Sisters companion planting practice offers an agroecological solution perfected over centuries of indigenous experience. This iconic intercropping technique beautifully links essential food crops via symbiotic mechanisms for mutual abundance even on limited land. By mimicking natural systems, impacts like pests and erosion are minimized while nutrition is maximized.

Give this traditional method a try this season whether on a small urban plot or rural acreage to enjoy its gifts sustainably! What will you grow next using the wisdom of the Three Sisters?

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