Sunday, August 26, 2012

Three Sisters - It's a Jungle Out There!

Pumpkin vines crowd space between cornstalks.
      Thinking about planting the Three Sisters yourself? I'm here to offer some, ah, food for thought.
       Way back when, before Europeans discovered the New World, the native American Indians raised corn, beans and pumpkins/squash together as mutually beneficial plants, but what they raised is not what most of us today want to serve at our dinner table.  The corn was dry field corn, what we feed now to livestock, not succulent sweet corn to be picked at just the right moment in its development.  The beans would have been dry beans that could be stored and used during the winter months. Most of us who grow beans in our backyard gardens don't have room for rows of dry beans. When we think "bean," we think "green beans." Beans are a part of this guild to fix nitrogen and twine up cornstalks to help stabilize this tall, shallow-rooted plant, so bush beans don't fully qualify here. Consider what it means to have a vine growing around a cornstalk. That vine can (oh, yes, this happens!) wrap around an ear of corn and snug it to the stalk. To harvest the corn, you have to disturb (cut, untangle, whatever) the vine, which will affect your bean harvest. Meanwhile, the pumpkins and/or squash are spreading through the corn, making walking among them difficult without damaging--something.
Sweet corn grown in hills among the Three Sisters.
       So, no, I don't recommend that the average gardener grow the Three Sisters in her backyard garden. If you want decorative corn or corn to grind for cornmeal, and dry beans like pinto or navy, the Three Sisters is a great idea. I do, however, think that growing sweet corn in hills rather than rows is also a great idea. You may recall from my prior post that hills are spaced three feet apart and planted with three or four seeds each. I planted 110 hills, each with a small spadeful of partially composted manure. From what I heard from other gardeners this year, many gardens failed, due to the strange weather, particularly the water shortage. We harvested nearly 300 beautiful ears (okay, so the coons got a few of those). We left many more to dry on the stalks as the rows became too overgrown to work in.
       If I harvest any beans from my Three Sisters they will be for use as seeds as I cannot reach them to harvest for fresh use. I don't have any idea how the pumpkins and squash in the center of the patch are doing as I don't want to force my way in there to look. I did have borers on one of the pumpkin plants near the edge of the patch. I cut the vine and, I hope, killed the worms, then covered the damaged vine with damp dirt. It hasn't greened up very well, but neither has it died. Not being able to check and treat for borers is a definite handicap!
       So, what do you think: will you try planting the Three Sisters?


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