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Companion Planting: The Three Sisters

Updated on February 23, 2013
Photograph of a diorama in the NY State Museum that depicts an Iroquois family tending their three sisters garden of beans, corn and squash.
Photograph of a diorama in the NY State Museum that depicts an Iroquois family tending their three sisters garden of beans, corn and squash. | Source

For generations, Native Americans successfully fed their populations through the "three sisters" method of interplanting corn, pole beans & squash, a practice that European settlers in the New World adopted.

Today, because it's such an effective way to grow the three vegetables, many practical gardeners still plant the "three sisters."

THE THREE SISTERS

Corn, pole beans & squash

Companion planting is the practice of interplanting different plant species to improve plant growth and productivity, and reduce pest damage.

Companion planting was practiced by many Native American tribes, several of whom interplanted corn, pole beans and squash, referring to them as "the three sisters."

Typically, three sisters gardens are planted in circles or hills.

First, the corn is planted. Then, when corn plants are a few inches high, the beans and squash are sown. The squash will be the last vegetable harvested from a three sisters garden in the fall.

Like bean blossoms, the male and female blossoms of squash plants attract pollinators.
Like bean blossoms, the male and female blossoms of squash plants attract pollinators. | Source

Corn

With their tall, straight stalks, corn plants provide a support for pole beans, which are natural climbers.

Corn plants also cool the climbing pole beans in hot weather. During transpiration, the thick green leaves of corn plants lose water, releasing it into the air and cooling the beans when temperatures rise.

Beans

In turn, pole bean plants (like other legumes) "fix" the nitrogen in the soil, converting nitrogen gas to ammonium and making it accessible to themselves as well as the corn and the squash. (Plants need lots of nitrogen for optimal growth!)

The blossoms of bean plants also attract many pollinators, as do the blossoms of squash plants.

Pole beans also tend to produce more yields over a longer period of time than bush beans. Many gardeners prefer the flavor and texture of flat-pod Roman green snap pole beans, which are also available in bush varieties.

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Squash

In addition to attracting pollinators with their blossoms, squash plants also serve as living mulch, suppressing weeds and helping the soil retain moisture as their broad leaves shade the ground from the hot summer sun.

The prickly, pungent leaves of squash plants also deter some pests.

THE THREE SISTERS

Beans, corn & squash: A nutritional powerhouse

Squash is packed with vitamins & minerals! Pictured: Baked butternut squash.
Squash is packed with vitamins & minerals! Pictured: Baked butternut squash. | Source

Not only do corn, beans and squash grow well together, but they also complement each other nutritionally, making a healthy meal when eaten together.

Corn provides carbohydrates. Beans contain protein, and squash is filled with vitamins. Squash seeds also contain nutrient-rich oil.

Combined, beans, corn and squash are a nutritional powerhouse!


Squash leaves are broad, providing shade for  beans and corn and conserving moisture.
Squash leaves are broad, providing shade for beans and corn and conserving moisture. | Source
Source

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.

She first began gardening as a child alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm. Together, they would plant acres of vegetable gardens, setting tomato, eggplant and bell pepper plants; sowing row after row of beans and corn, and mounds of white squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe and potatoes.

Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.

Copyright © 2013 by The Dirt Farmer. All rights reserved.

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      Anita Hasch 15 months ago

      Very interesting and useful hub. I did not know that squash plants deter some garden pests. Good to know as I have a few plants that are doing very well. Must admit I did not plant them, they just came up in the garden. Very welcome though. I only plant fruit trees and flowers. However, maybe I will give vegetables a try.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks, Glimmer Twin Fan. Some unsung hero's genius idea, huh? Nice to hear from you, Jill

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 5 years ago

      I'd never hear of vegetable companion planting, only flowers that keep critters away from veggies. Really interesting hub.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks so much, Eddy. Hope you have a beautiful day!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      So interesting and needless to say useful.

      I vote up,across and share all around.

      Eddy.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      You're welcome, purl3agony! Thanks for reading.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 5 years ago from USA

      Great hub, as always :) Thanks!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hi Deb! I noticed while researching that some people grow sunflowers instead of corn. Wouldn't that be pretty?

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks for telling me about this, as I never realized that these veggies should be grown together. I'm sure they do a lot better, too, especially since you outlined the reasons for keeping them together.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hi Jackie. You're right, it is a space saver, although squash plants tend to be fairly large, bushy plants. Good luck with your garden!

      Hey, Donna. I'd like to try more companion planting, too. It's not only trendy right now, but, as you note, it naturally lends itself to organic gardening. Thanks for commenting! --Jill

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      I am always interested in companion planting, as I like to garden organically and this method helps. This is a great, classic idea.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Very interesting, may put it to the test real soon, seems good for limited space too, which I have. Thank you.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hey, Radcliff! You're welcome! The three sisters is a fun garden to grow with children, although it does take a bit of room. Take it easy! Jill

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Very interesting. I knew about the three sisters but I didn't know the details as to why they work so well together. Thanks for educating me, as usual!

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