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How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden

Updated on September 14, 2014

Plant a Three Sisters Garden

The Three Sisters
The Three Sisters | Source

Companion Planting with The Three Sisters - Corn, Squash and Beans

According to many Native American legends the three sisters are corn, squash and beans who can only grow and thrive if they are planted together.

The technique of planting these three different plant seeds together is one that has been used by Native Americans long before the Europeans arrived. It is interesting to see how the wisdom of the Native Americans can now be explained by science of intercropping.

Planting the three plants together allows the corn, beans and squash to work together in a process called companion planting. Each plant helps the others to grow, creating a beneficial relationship, hence the stories of the three sisters working together.

The tall corn provides a natural trellis that the beans can climb up on. The beans provide nitrogen in the soil to help the corn grow. The low-growing squash grows along the ground, protecting the roots, suppresses the weeds and helps to conserves water.

In addition when corn and beans consumed together or within a few hours of each other, they make made a complete protein, or you get all of the amino acids that you need for the day. By eating complete proteins Native Americans (and others who eat grains and beans) are less dependent on animal sources of protein.

You may want to pick up a copy of The Resilient Gardener to learn more about how potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs can be grown in the home and help you be more self-reliant on your own food sources.

Three Sisters Print available on Amazon

Native American Three Sisters Garden Seeds

Native American Three Sisters Garden
Native American Three Sisters Garden

Contains multi-colored Earth Tones Dent Corn, Rattlesnake Beans to twine up the corn stalks and Sugar Pie Pumpkins to cover the ground.

 

Three Sisters Seed Packet

From Renee's Garden shares information about the Three Sisters on the seed packet:

  • According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. This tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations.
  • Growing a Three Sisters Garden is a wonderful way to feel more connected to the history of this land, regardless of our ancestry

The Three Sisters Harvest

Three Sisters Harvest
Three Sisters Harvest | Source

Celebrating the Three Sisters

In late spring, we plant the corn and beans and squash. They're not just plants. We call them the three sisters.

We plant them together, three kinds of seeds in one hole. They want to be together with each other, just as we Indians want to be together with each other.

So long as the three sisters are with us we know we will never starve. The Creator sends them to us each year.

We celebrate them now. We thank Him for the gift He gives us today and every day.

Chief Louis Farmer (Onondaga)

Source: Marykirk Cunningham, David McDavitt, and Beth Romero. Native American Three Sisters Gardens. Webquest. New Mexico State University.

Three Sisters Garden Planting at USDA People's Garden - YouTube

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan officially kicked off an Earth Day celebration at the U.S. Dept of Agriculture's Whitten Building with Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Brings Plenty by planting corn, beans and squash in the traditional Native American way in the People's Garden.

The People's Garden is on a corner of USDA property that has been dug up to bring organic gardening methods to greater awareness. In addition to the 3 Sisters Garden, it includes raised beds, container gardens and other planting demonstrations. The USDA says the food grown there will go to local food banks.

The Resilient Gardener

The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times
The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

In The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times scientist and author Carol Deppe shares how to grow, store and use the five crops central to self-reliance: potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs.

 

Legends of the Three Sisters

When Native people speak of the "Three Sisters," they are referring to corn, beans, and squash.

Known as the "sustainers of life," these are the basic foods of sustenance. They are seen as three beautiful sisters, because they grow in the same mound in a garden.

The corn provides a ladder for the bean vine. The squash vines shade the mound and hold moisture in the soil for the corn and beans. The well-being of each crop planted is said to be protected by another.

Many a legend has been woven around the Three Sisters-sisters who should be planted together, eaten together, and celebrated together.

Shelia Wilson

Source: Wilson S. Legends and Myths: The "Three Sisters." Tar Heel Junior Historian 45:1 (Fall 2005)

The Legend of the Three Sisters - YouTube

This video was created by the 2009 spring plant physiology class at Plymouth State University as part of a video contest. Learn the legend and the science behind this method of planting.

2009 Native American

2009 Native American
2009 Native American | Source

Honoring the Three Sisters - US Mint

The 2009 Native American $1 Coin is based on the theme of agriculture. On the back side it features a Native American woman planting seeds in a field of corn, beans and squash.

The US Mint offered the following additional information about the Three Sisters:

  • Three Sisters symbiotic agriculture-planting corn, climbing beans and squash together in the same plot-also originated in central Mexico and probably spread simultaneously with the corn.
  • In this efficient planting method, corn stalks provided support for the bean vines, which added nitrogen to the soil. Squash provided ground cover, which discouraged weeds.
  • Productivity was much higher (by some estimates as much as 30 percent) for the three grown together than each grown separately.
More at Native American $1 Coin. United States Mint image

Native American Gardening

Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families
Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families

Learn more about seed preservation, planting and maintaining the garden, reaping and cooking the harvest.

 

Three Sisters Companion Planting - Video

Vegetable Gardening - Three Sisters

Companion planting what the Iroquois valued as the sustainers of life: beans, corn, and squash. Watch the video from GardenGirlTV and learn how to plant them in a raised bed.

The Nearly Perfect Protein

The Three Sisters (corn, squash and beans) when eaten together comprise a nearly perfect protein.

How the Three Sisters Work Together

The Park Seeds Company describes how these three sister plants work together to protect each other and to result in a higher crop yield than if either were grown separately.

  1. Corn - the oldest of the three sisters stands tall and strong. She acts as a support for the climbing vines.
  2. Beans - the middle of the three sisters leans on her big sister for support. She helps to bind the three together.
  3. Squash - the youngest of the three sisters crouches at the other sisters' feet. She shades her sisters feet and protect them from pests.

Corn Packets

Corn is the oldest sister of the three who stand tall and acts as a support for the other two.

Bean Packets

Bean is the middle sister who binds the three sisters together, but leans on the others for support.

Tricolor Pole Bean Seeds

Squash Packets

Squash is the youngest sister who crouches beneath the feet of her taller sisters, protecting and shading their feet.

Companion Planting - Corn, Squash and Beans

Park Seed company offers a great tutorial on how to plant your three sisters.

Corn

  • Once the soil has warmed up in May or June plant the corn.
  • Start by making a flat-topped circular mound of soil one foot high by two feet across.
  • Plant a circle of 5 - 6 Corn seeds on the very top of the mound and water well.
  • Space the mounds 3 or 4 feet apart in the garden.

Beans

  • Two weeks later once the corn has reached about 5 or 6 inches high, plant 6 - 8 bean seeds around the edges of the flat top or about halfway down the sloping sides of the circular mound.
  • Be sure to push the seeds down deep into the soil.

Squash

  • One week later plant the squash seeds.
  • Plant 6 - 8 squash seeds around the base of the mound on the flat ground.

For smaller gardens, adjust the size of the mounds, the number of seeds and the spacing of the mounds.

For more information and images, see the tutorial on the Park Seed company website.

How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden - YouTube

The Casual Gardener, Shawna Lee Coronado and her family show how to plant a three sisters garden.

Three Sisters Garden Vegetable Recipes

Three Sisters Summer Vegetables for Cooking

Using Three Sisters Vegetables for Cooking
Using Three Sisters Vegetables for Cooking | Source

Three Sisters Stew

A stew made with the Three Sisters - Corn, Beans and Squash (Butternut)

Adapted from "The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash" from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Soups and Salads.

They recommend, "If time allows, let the stew stand for one to two hours before serving, then heat through again. The stew should be thick and very moist but not soupy. Add additional stock or water if needed."

Cook Time

Prep Time: 20 minute

Total Time: 1 hour +

Serves: 6 (1 cup servings)

Cast your vote for Recipe: Three Sisters Stew

Ingredients

  • 1 large butternut squash (2 pounds. Can use pre-cubed if available)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 chopped medium onion
  • 2 cups diced tomatoes
  • 2 cups cooked pinto beans (about 3/4 cup raw) or 16-ounce can drained and rinsed
  • 2 cups corn kernels (2 large or 3 medium ears frozen or drained from a can)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt to taste
  • Ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Prepare the butternut squash - in the Oven or the Microwave
  2. For the oven preheat to 400 degrees.
  3. Halve the squash and scoop out the seeds and fibers.
  4. Place cut side up in a shallow baking dish and cover tightly with foil.
  5. Bake in the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or in the microwave for ~ 10 minutes, just until done but still firm.
  6. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the pulp, and cut into large dice.
  7. * Set aside squash until needed.
  8. Heat the oil in a soup pot.
  9. Add the onion and cook over medium to low heat until the onion is golden.
  10. Add the butternut squash, tomatoes, beans, corn and water and bring to a simmer.
  11. Simmer gently, covered, until all the vegetables are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.
  12. Season to taste with salt and ground pepper.
  13. Serve in shallow bowls.

Recipe: Three Sisters Corn Casserole

Another recipe that lets you use the three sisters vegetable ingredients. This one works up as a casserole.

Adapted from the "Three Sisters Corn Casserole" from the Cookin' with the Three Sisters.

Cook Time

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour +

Serves: 5 (1 cup servings)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound whole kernel corn (fresh canned or frozen)
  • 1/2 pound green beans (fresh canned or frozen)
  • 1/2 pound diced summer squash (2 cups)
  • 1 cup low fat sour cream
  • 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • 2 tablespoons melted margarine
  • 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup diced Jalapeno peppers
  • 1/4 cup reduced fat Montery Jack cheese diced
  • Vegetable oil spray

Instructions

  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix sour cream and beaten egg substitute together.
  2. Add corn, beans, squash and mix well.
  3. Add melted margarine, cornmeal, peppers and cheese mixing all ingredients together.
  4. Coat a baking pan or casserole dish with vegetable oil spray and fill with mixture.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes
  6. Casserole is done with it is a golden brown.

More Recipes for Cooking with the Three Sisters

Various recipes using the Three Sisters - Corn, Squash and Beans

Vegetable Soup - With Squash, Beans and Corn

A Very Veggie Soup featuring Squash, Beans and Corn
A Very Veggie Soup featuring Squash, Beans and Corn | Source

Recipe for the Very Veggie Soup

This vegetable soup features squash, several types of beans and corn.

Had you heard about this Three sisters story?

Will you try it with your garden this year?

© 2010 Kirsti A. Dyer

Comment on the Three Sisters

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    • HealthfulMD profile image
      Author

      Kirsti A. Dyer 3 years ago from Northern California

      @paulahite: Thank you for sharing the lens.

    • paulahite profile image

      Paula Hite 3 years ago from Virginia

      Very informative lens. I've shared it on our G+ page today.

      https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/10593843672309975630...

    • HealthfulMD profile image
      Author

      Kirsti A. Dyer 4 years ago from Northern California

      @Roglovsky: Here's hoping your plants grow this year.

    • HealthfulMD profile image
      Author

      Kirsti A. Dyer 4 years ago from Northern California

      @GramaBarb: Glad I could help you learn something new today.

    • GramaBarb profile image

      GramaBarb 4 years ago from Vancouver

      This is the first time I have heard the Three Sisters story! Love it! Well done!

    • profile image

      Roglovsky 4 years ago

      I have tried this combination last year but it was not successful. It was very dry year without rain for 10 months and I hope this year will be better.

    • HealthfulMD profile image
      Author

      Kirsti A. Dyer 4 years ago from Northern California

      @Wednesday-Elf: Hadn't thought of it as a Thanksgiving story, but you are right it would be a good one.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 4 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      This 'Three Sisters' story is perfect to read this Thanksgiving week. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • GardenIdeasHub LM profile image

      GardenIdeasHub LM 4 years ago

      I really enjoyed your article about three sisters garden and will be back to read more.

    • HealthfulMD profile image
      Author

      Kirsti A. Dyer 4 years ago from Northern California

      @Echo Phoenix: It is a beautiful gardening story.

    • profile image

      Echo Phoenix 4 years ago

      I had not heard this story before... beautiful story, beautiful lens:) thanks, Kirsti!

    • MJ Martin profile image

      MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose 5 years ago from Washington State

      Yes, from some of my medicine wheel studies. This is a great lens. Love the food! So many wonderful sister ideas too. Thanks

    • vegetablegardenh profile image

      vegetablegardenh 5 years ago

      We're about to start our three sisters garden this year. Started corn, beans, and squash from seeds in the greenhouse, and will outplant them in a few weeks.

    • profile image

      grannysage 5 years ago

      It is sad that we have to re-learn things known to indigenous peoples for centuries. I have never heard of the Three Sisters but it is so simple and so beautiful.

    • iijuan12 profile image

      iijuan12 5 years ago from Florida

      We made Three Sisters Soup when studying Native Americans. It was delicious soup! We've planted corn, squash, and green beans but never together. Blessed and liked.

    • sagebrushmama profile image

      sagebrushmama 5 years ago

      I think I will give this a shot next year, as it seems like a great way to get the most out of a plot of ground. My tomatillos like to hide in the shade of the corn stalks!

    • WhiteOak50 profile image

      WhiteOak50 6 years ago

      I am traveling around Squidooville and just stopped by this neighborhood and noticed this fantastic page!! So for this Memorial Day Weekend Road Trip, I wanted to leave you with a Blessing from a SquidAngel Have a safe and beautiful Memorial Day!

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 6 years ago

      This is the first time I have heard & read about the Three sisters. Thanks for sharing.

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 6 years ago from Australia

      I have heard of the three sisters in companion planting but have never tried it in my garden. This lens has been blessed and added to my Growing Vegetables and Herbs lens.