Permaculture is rediscovering the "3 Sisters" garden that fed North America for hundreds and probably thousands of years. Native peoples in several regions grew all of their own staple foods using hand tools and home garden techniques. The 3 sisters work in home gardens now for the same reasons they worked then: 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.

Native American gardening was less work than current methods. It was based on plants native to the Americas and easy to grow here--corn, beans, and squash. These were the Three Sisters. Like sisters, they did not grow in isolation, but together. Each gave something to create the best conditions for all to thrive. Because the sister crops were the staff of life, they were the focus of legends, songs, and ceremony.

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 right, and zinnias grow among the squash to attract pollinators.
What makes a "three sisters garden" different is the way that they are grown as companions, forming a little ecosystem. The corn makes a 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 for growing.

The microorganisms in the bean roots use that energy to pull nitrogen out of the air and fertilize the soil. The squash is a living mulch that keeps the ground moist. The low-growing blanket of squash makes a sunny clearing that smothers weeds while allowing the corn and beans to get the sun they need.

Thumb polycultureSunflowers and amaranth can replace the corn, as at left. They still provide a tall trellis for beans, produce plant sugars during the hot days,  shade the beans just a little, and benefit from the nitrogen from the beans and the moist soil under the squash. Corn, amaranth, and sunflowers are all what scientists call C-4 photosynthesizers. Their metabolisms can use sun too strong for other plants, and produce plant sugars during hot days.

We have also used the shade among the squash plants to shelter brassicas like kale and collards from the heat when they are young transplants. Their strong smell confuses pests, and they go on to make a winter crop once the squash has finished. The key is to use plants that prefer the conditions created by the other plants, and give some benefit to the others.

In short-season areas, or places with cool summers, follow the modifications in the article below.

To see a How-To version of this article, with planting directions, spacing, and varieties to use, click HERE.

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