The piece de resistance of the Children’s Workshop garden is the Three Sisters Garden in the center of the bales. Three Sisters is an ingenious Native American companion planting technique that uses maize/corn, squash and climbing beans.
According to Native American legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. There are numerous variations of the legend, but the overarching theme is that corn must grow in community with other crops rather than on its own – it needs the beneficial company and aide of its companions. This tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is actually a very sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations.
The three types crops help each other grow. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following years corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The corn, beans and squash together provide a well-balanced combination of nutrients and protein, a complete meal: the corn provides the grain carbohydrates, the beans the protein and lots of vitamins, and the squash a host of nutrients as well, including Vitamin C, B vitamins, carotene and potassium. And finally, the large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure.
Last week, a group of 3rd graders from Children’s Workshop came to the garden to learn about Three Sisters gardening and to help plant the garden. A We showed them how to plant seeds, using the stick method, and using gloved fingers. Here’s how we planted the garden:
- We made five mounds of soil and compost, each about 1 ½ to 2 feet across and about a foot high.
- When the temperature at night stays at or above about 55 degrees, plant five corn seeds in each mound and keep watered well.
- A week or two later, when the corn is about 6 inches high, plant 6 pole bean seeds in each mound, in a circle around the corn plants. (NOTE: To get a head start for the class, we had started the corn in small containers and then replanted it into the mounds so it would reach a certain height before we planted the beans and the squash).
- About a week later, plant 3 squash seeds at the edge of the mound, about a foot away from the corn. Be sure to keep the mounds watered.
- As the plants begin to grow well, thin the corn to three of the sturdiest plants, the beans to three plants and the squash to one plant (or two if they are smaller summer squash).
- As the corn and beans grow, make sure the beans wrap around the corn for support and train the squash to crawl around the foot of the corn and beans.
- Some traditions ask that you plant extra for the squirrels and other animals, which is important in New York City or you may not have much left for yourself!
There are many ways to plant a Three Sisters, but all of them group the corn in clusters rather than rows, so that it will more easily pollinate. Many use various formulas for the number of seeds v. the number of plants you keep in, some leave one, some leave three each, some leave five, etc. All methods use climbing or pole beans and most recommend winter squash, though some use summer squash as well. The Children’s Workshop garden has three different varieties of corn: popcorn, yellow corn and a drying Mandan Bride corn. It also has a variety of climbing beans, both green and dried, and though traditionally, Three Sisters uses winter squash, we planted both summer and winter varieties of squash. Here’s the planting plan for our Three Sisters Garden:
Here are photos from fellow Campos gardener, Alexia Weidler, showing a Three Sisters garden she grew a few years back, which will give you an idea of how well these plants thrive together:
The Legend of Three Sisters
The Native American legend of the Three Sisters vary from tribe to tribe. This version below is taken from an oral account by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, compiled by students at Centennial College and found in “Indian Legends of Eastern Canada” and is found on a number of Web sites, including several of those listed in Additional Resources below.
A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face.
The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.
There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.
One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters – a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals – this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad.
Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water’s edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister – the one in the yellow dress – disappeared as well.
Now the Elder Sister was the only one left.
She continued to stand tall in her field. When the Mohawk boy saw that she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together and they became stronger together, again.
Here are a few Web sites with more information and variations on the Three Sisters legend, the history and various techniques of this type of companion planting.