Permaculture is just now rediscovering the style of garden that fed North America for hundreds and probably thousands of years. Native peoples grew all of their own staple foods using hand tools and home garden techniques. Far from being a drudgery, Native American gardening was much less labor-intensive than the type of gardening we know now. It was based on plants that came from the Americas and love to grow here--corn beans, and squash. And the plants were grown in a way that was more self-sustaining than a modern garden--more like a forest. They called their main crops "the three sisters."

From time to time, articles appear about three sisters gardens. But they don't tell how to adapt it to your own climate, or how to adjust for different crops. Here is some hands-on help.

Who Are the Sisters?

Thumb backlit cor3The traditional three sisters are corn, beans, and squash. That's what you see in the picture at left. Often, there is a fourth sister, which varied by region. In fertile areas like the Midwest, it would be the sunflower. In drier areas, local basketry or pollinator crops. Here, a sunflower grows at one edge, and zinnias grow through gaps in the squash. Because the sister crops were the staff of life, they were the focus of legends, songs, and ceremony.

The sisters work in home gardens today for the same reasons they worked for the Indians: They produce big yields without mechanized equipment; they provide a well-balanced diet; they are easy to grow, harvest, and store. They are delicious both fresh and as dry staples. 

Thumb polycultureWhat makes a "three sisters garden" different is the way that they are grown as companions, forming a little ecosystem in the garden. Each plant helps make good conditions for the others to prosper. Other plants can be added to this grouping, as long as they have a different niche--for example, a short plant that loves shade could grow under the squash. We have grown radishes in this way. They loved the cool moist shade. Their contribution was that their smell helped repel squash bugs.

In the photo at left, sunflowers and amaranth replace the corn--still providing a tall trellis for beans, and still benefiting from the nitrogen from the beans and the moist soil under the squash.

How does it work?

Like all gardens, this one needs a good start. The soil should be clear of weeds, and you should work in a layer of compost before planting. Each "hill" or group of plants will need a circle or square about 8 feet across for a traditional planting pattern with squash around each group of corn/beans. If you garden in beds, use the 8' spacing if you plan to plant squash between every clump of corn. If you prefer more corn/beans and less squash, plant the corn clusters 4' apart, with squash at the ends of each bed. If you garden in in rows or blocks, you will need to space the corn twice as wide as usual, to leave room for the beans, and plant the squash only at the edge.  At your last frost date, you can start planting seeds.

Thumb corn cascade ruby goldCorn is the basis--the older sister. You plant the corn first, and it forms a tall trellis for the beans to grow on. It's deep roots break up the soil for the weaker bean roots. And the sugars in the sap of the corn plant leak out anto the soil a little bit, giving other plants--as well as soil microorganisms--energy to grow with.

A traditional pattern was a circle of 7 or 8 corn seeds 6" apart  in a ring 18" across. This will be the center of your growing area.

Traditionally, the corn was a flour corn, (flint corn in the north) and was used all winter as cornbread, or as polenta. It was also used in soups and as a dried snack. Sweet corn was grown by some groups as well. A flour or flint corn is easy to manage in this system, because you harvest all at once at the end. You can also use sweet corn, but be sure to keep clear access to the plants for picking. Sunflowers, grain amaranth, or sorghum can also be the upright sister.

Thumb bean coveloBeans are planted after the corn is a foot high. They climb up the corn, so you can grow high-yielding pole beans without constructing a trellis. First hoe some dirt up to cover the corn plants 4" deep--this extra support will keep them from blowing over. Then, plant 10 or 12 bean seeds in a ring 6" outside the corn.

The beans are able to extract nitrogen from the air to fertilize the soil. They don't need as much sun as the corn and can live in partial shade. They can't take mostly-shade, though: if you plant corn in blocks, you will need to space the plants wider, or only grow beans on the sunny edges. In most traditional Native gardens, the corn was planted in groups of 3 to 6 plants, spaced 4 feet apart.

A true pole bean needs a tall corn to grow on. If you want to grow an earlier, shorter corn, consider using half-runner beans. These are bush beans that are taller and floppier than normal. Pintos are half-runner dry beans. Dragon Tongue is a half-runner snap bean. In the picture at the top, you can see pole beans growing up the corn at left. The corn plants at right had Dragon Tongue beans at their feet.

Thumb squash acorn basketSquash is the final sister, and provides the living mulch that conserves moisture. 

Plant the squash at the same time as the beans. In the traditional pattern, plant a vining squash at each corner or direction--north, south, east, west--of your planting. They should go 18" outside the beans. (If you prefer to use bush squashes, you can plant twice as many, and 24 inches outside the beans. If you are using sweet corn or snap beans that will need to be harvested fresh, leave a large gap for access. As the squash grow, keep them from trying to climb the corn--they are much too heavy.

In short-season areas, or places with cool summers, you can grow the sisters successfully if you use either a tall sweet corn or a short, early flour/flint corn. In very very short-season areas, a short sweet corn would mature fastest, and could be paired with a bush snap bean. In this case, either leave out the squash or plant a bush variety at a good distance to avoid shading.

Suggested varieties:

Traditional pattern:     Hopi Blue Corn, Good Mother Stallard Beans, any winter squash. (Golden Giant Amaranth, Burgundy Amaranth, or Mammoth sunflower by be used instead of some or all of the corn.)

Traditional pattern with fresh varieties:      Anasazi sweet corn, Kentucky Wonder or Rattlesnake pole beans, Tromboncino squash

Shorter storage varieties:   Cascade Ruby-Gold, Painted Mtn, Amish Butter-Flavored Popcorn, or Magic Manna corns; Pinto beans; Acorn squash. ( Fercita Amaranth may be used.)

Shorter fresh varieties:    Golden Bantam Corn, Dragon Tongue bean, any bush summer squash 

Shortest, most compact, earliest:    Little Giant corn, Provider bush bean, Lebanese bush squash

Click here to see all 3 sisters varieties

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This work by Bountiful Gardens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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Creative Commons License
This work by Bountiful Gardens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.