Sunday, April 1, 2012

Planting the Three Sisters

An heirloom corn, acrylic painting.  
       I had my garden planned with corn, beans and squash together in nice neat rows. Then I read a sidebar in Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden and discovered this wasn't the way it's done! I should have guessed this as last year I witnessed the results of growing the sisters in rows. It didn't work very well. For one thing, the beans were impossible to harvest. So back to the drawing board.
       According to Hemenway the Indians grew corn in hills, not rows. (I knew that!) The hills should be about three feet apart, twelve inches wide, and about two inches high. Plant three or four corn seeds per hill. I'll use my favorite sweet corn, but the Indians used a shorter, multi-stalked variety. Tall stalks may not support the beans. The Indians are said to have buried a fish in each hill. This option isn't open to most of us today, but I'm not going to suggest using a commercial fertilizer. I'll go with a double handful of compost instead .
       Hemenway says that as the corn starts to grow, mound soil up around the young stalks, leaving the growing tips clear. The warm soil speeds growth. You'll want two or three stalks per hill.
      Two weeks after planting the corn, plant pole beans. Avoid vigorous hybrid beans, which may overpower the slim corn stalks and bring them down. Hemenway suggests choosing heirloom varieties, and names Four Corners Gold and Hopi Light Yellow as examples. He also recommends using a legume inoculant on the beans. Plant two or three bean seeds near the edge of each hill.
       This is also the time to plant squash or pumpkins between the hills. Choose vining varieties that will sprawl, providing a living mulch. Don't plant zucchini. Its stems are too robust for the slender corn stalks.
       I've had problems in recent years with squash borers. Here are some of the options I've found for dealing with them. Cover the vines with dirt at two or three feet intervals so that an infestation won't kill the entire plant. "Trap" the borers by setting out sacrificial squash plants which you'll destroy after the borers hatch, then replace the plants with others you've started indoors. I don't know how setting out plants instead of seeds will affect the timing with regards to growth for the beans and corn.  A third solution is to watch for signs that the buggers have moved in (dropping!) and cut the plant open parallel to the ribbing and remove the creatures.
       Follow the specific planting instructions for each of your "sisters."
       Don't be too zealous about weeding. A lambs quarter or pigweed or other deep-rooted weed per hill will bring up nutrients to help your crops, but I suggest sniping off the tops before seed heads form.
       Hemenway says that Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) was used by the Anasazi as a fourth "sister" and is still used today in the Southwest. Amaranth is another plant that has been used as a fourth sister. (Pigweed is a member of the amaranth family.)
       Have you grown the Three Sisters? In rows or hills? With what results? Please share!
Note: See May 28, 2012, post, Three Sisters - Beans and Borers for additional information.


  1. I think a lot of what is considered common knowledge about Indians and their way of life is mostly wrong. Indians were very diverse people and their cultures varied from region to region. Considering the amount of corn, squash and beans that had to be cultivated, I find it unlikely that so many fish would be available.
    Anyway, I hope yours do well and I will be watching as I have always wanted to try it myself.

  2. I tried that last year, but it was kind of a fail since the squash vine borers got my squashes and the (heirloom) beans I used kind of overwhelmed my corn (which was supposed to be a sturdy variety), but I found it worked quite well with cucumbers climbing corn instead! Watermelon seemed to enjoy growing along the base of corn mounds as well.