Quantcast

Three Sisters Garden — How to Plant Corn, Squash & Beans Together

Food

By Brian Barth

Most folks plant different vegetables in different rows of the garden. Perhaps this tendency is a product of our society's need for order and control. Mother Nature certainly doesn't tend her garden this way, nor have humans for much of history. That's what makes a three sisters garden so special.


Prior to European settlement in North America, many Native American groups grew three of their most important crops—corn, beans, and squash—all in one big jumbled bed. It was an elegant jumble, if not ingenious, as each crop fits together like a puzzle piece with its neighbors. This type of companion planting is now known as a three sisters garden.

How the Three Sisters Garden Works Together

Cornstalks act as a trellis for the beans (the plant's thin tendrils don't get in the way of the growing ears). The beans, like most legumes, have a quasi-magical ability to take nitrogen from the air, where it is abundant, and convert it into a soil-bound form that is useful to other plants. This process, known as nitrogen-fixation, is especially useful to corn, which requires large quantities of the nutrient. Lastly, squash plants grow low and wide around the corn and beans, their huge leaves carpeting the ground and preventing both weed growth and evaporation of soil moisture.

This traditional triad, popularly known as a three sisters planting, was central to the diet of many Native American tribes, who ascribed great cultural, even spiritual, significance to the relationship between the species. Modern-day nutritionists ascribe another significance: eaten together, corn and beans have all the amino acids of a complete protein, making an ideal vegetarian meal. The squash adds extra minerals and vitamins, plus a touch of sweetness.

Choosing the Right Varieties of the Three Sisters

Here are criteria for choosing varieties of each crop that are suitable for a three sisters garden:

Corn: Traditionally, grain corn was used (the kind you would use for cornbread or tortillas), but three sisters planting also works with sweet corn. One caveat: Some modern corn varieties are fairly short, which results in the stalks being overwhelmed by the bean vines, so be sure to pick a variety that matures to at least six feet in height, the taller the better.

Beans: Traditionally, the beans in a three sisters garden were the kind meant to be dried and stored for later use, but green beans for fresh eating are also an option. They must be "pole" beans (vine-type), however, as modern "bush" beans are incapable of climbing cornstalks.

Squash: The only requirement here is that you use a winter squash variety—butternut, acorn, delicata and the like—which grow on vines that spread across the ground (these ripen in autumn, but are called winter squash because their tough outer rind allows them to keep through the winter months). Summer squash varieties (such as crookneck and pattypan varieties) won't work because they grow in single clumps, rather than as a spreading groundcover.

How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden

There is no one right way to do a three sisters planting. Ultimately, you'll probably need a bit of trial and error over several seasons to perfect a process that works in your climate and with the particular varieties you want to use.

The key is coming up with the right spatial configuration and the right timing for sowing each type of seed. The steps below outline the general process and principles. Note that all three crops require warm weather and will shrivel up at the slightest sign of frost. Plant them only once you are certain the weather has warmed up for good.

1. Build a circular mound of soil about 5 feet in diameter, raking the top of it into a flat planting area with tapered sides (the finished bed should be at least 6 inches tall). Mix compost and soil amendments into the soil as needed.

2. Plant the corn first so it gets a head start. Sow the seed eight inches apart in a 3-foot diameter circle on top of the bed.

3. Once the cornstalks are 6 to 8 inches tall, plant the bean and squash seeds. The bean seeds go inside the circle of corn, with one seed planted about 3 inches from each cornstalk. The squash seeds go outside the circle of corn near the edge of the bed; the seeds should be about 12 inches from the closest cornstalks, but space these widely, with about 24 inches between each.

4. As the bean vines grow, direct them toward the nearest cornstalk; you can tie them to the stalk with a piece of twine to ensure they clamber upwards, rather than along the ground.

5. Build as many circular mounds as you like, but leave plenty of space between each one, as the squash will quickly spread beyond its bed to cover an area roughly 10 feet in diameter.

6. Keep the beds watered and weeded as needed.

7. The beans and corn will mature first. Step carefully among the squash vines to harvest them as they ripen.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A vegan diet can improve your health, but experts say it's important to keep track of nutrients and protein. Getty Images

By Dan Gray

  • Research shows that 16 weeks of a vegan diet can boost the gut microbiome, helping with weight loss and overall health.
  • A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome. A plant-based diet is the best way to achieve this.
  • It isn't necessary to opt for a strictly vegan diet, but it's beneficial to limit meat intake.

New research shows that following a vegan diet for about 4 months can boost your gut microbiome. In turn, that can lead to improvements in body weight and blood sugar management.

Read More Show Less
Students gathered at the National Mall in Washington DC, Sept. 20. NRDC

By Jeff Turrentine

Nearly 20 years have passed since the journalist Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term tipping point, in his best-selling book of the same name. The phrase denotes the moment that a certain idea, behavior, or practice catches on exponentially and gains widespread currency throughout a culture. Having transcended its roots in sociological theory, the tipping point is now part of our everyday vernacular. We use it in scientific contexts to describe, for instance, the climatological point of no return that we'll hit if we allow average global temperatures to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But we also use it to describe everything from resistance movements to the disenchantment of hockey fans when their team is on a losing streak.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
samael334 / iStock / Getty Images

By Ruairi Robertson, PhD

Berries are small, soft, round fruit of various colors — mainly blue, red, or purple.

Read More Show Less
A glacier is seen in the Kenai Mountains on Sept. 6, near Primrose, Alaska. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have been studying the glaciers in the area since 1966 and their studies show that the warming climate has resulted in sustained glacial mass loss as melting outpaced the accumulation of new snow and ice. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Mark Mancini

On Aug. 18, Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. The deceased party was Okjökull, a historic body of ice that covered 14.6 square miles (38 square kilometers) in the Icelandic Highlands at the turn of the 20th century. But its glory days are long gone. In 2014, having dwindled to less than 1/15 its former size, Okjökull lost its status as an official glacier.

Read More Show Less
Members of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America table at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18. Alex Schwartz

By Alex Schwartz

Among the many vendors at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18 sat three young people peddling neither organic vegetables, gourmet cheese nor handmade crafts. Instead, they offered liberation from capitalism.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
StephanieFrey / iStock / Getty Images

By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

Muffins are a popular, sweet treat.

Read More Show Less
Hackney primary school students went to the Town Hall on May 24 in London after school to protest about the climate emergency. Jenny Matthews / In Pictures / Getty Images

By Caroline Hickman

Eco-anxiety is likely to affect more and more people as the climate destabilizes. Already, studies have found that 45 percent of children suffer lasting depression after surviving extreme weather and natural disasters. Some of that emotional turmoil must stem from confusion — why aren't adults doing more to stop climate change?

Read More Show Less
Myrtle warbler. Gillfoto / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bird watching in the U.S. may be a lot harder than it once was, since bird populations are dropping off in droves, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less