Growing a 3 Sisters Garden
Originally developed in the New York region by the Iroquois Indians, 3 Sisters is a traditional companion planting method using corn, beans and squash. Planted together, they each benefit the other plants. The corn provides support for the beans, the beans provide nitrogen for the corn and squash and the squash spreads out to protect and cool the soil and suppress weeds for the beans and corn. All three eaten together provide a highly nutritious diet.
Other crops such as sunflowers, amaranth and tobacco were considered to be “sisters” as well and were inter-planted with the beans and corn. Vining crops like watermelon, melons and gourds can be substituted for the squash.
When to plant
Corn, beans and squash are all warm season annuals. Corn is planted after all danger of frost has passed in the spring. Pole (climbing) beans are planted next when the corn is between 4 and 6 inches tall. Plant the squash about 1 week after the beans have sprouted.
How to plant
Make sure you select a planting area that gets full sun.
Amend the soil with good quality compost.
Direct sow the seed for best results.
Plant all seeds 1-inch deep.
Plant in Mounds or Blocks
Plant 4 corn seeds 6-12 inches apart in the middle.
Once the corn is 4 inches tall, plant a bean seed 3 inches from each of the stalks.
One week after the beans sprout, plant 2 squash seeds 24 inches from the center on two sides of the mound or 1 seed on each of the four sides. (Some gardeners plant extra seed to ensure good germination.)
The centers of additional mounds should be approximately 5 feet apart, leaving just enough space between mounds so you can harvest corn and beans from any side.
Plant corn 6-12 inches apart in an area no less than 4 square feet. Corn is wind pollinated. Therefore, the block planting ensures better transfer of pollen between plants than if corn is planted in a long single row.
Plant bean seeds around the perimeter of the corn close enough so the vines can reach the corn and climb.
Plant squash seeds on the sunniest side of the block 3 feet away from the beans, at least 1 week after the beans have sprouted.
Our CSE Garden
Every year for the last 10 years, we have planted corn, beans and squash in our seed garden. We grow only dry corn that can be used for grinding into flour or making into masa. We grow both fresh and dried beans; the dry beans are used for soups and stews. And we grow both summer and winter squash; the winter squash has a hard shell that helps it store well into winter. These crops represent a significant amount of the seeds that we offer our community. They are the core of our garden, or our anchor tenants if you will, and they make themselves available year after year to provide us nourishment.
We don’t plant the 3 Sisters in traditional mounds or blocks in our garden, but we plant them close enough to each other so they can see each other and hear the same bees and feel the same human touch as we work in the garden. There is a reciprocity, an intertwining, a coexistence at work here, as there has been for millennia before us. We care for them; they care for us. Our hope is to continue this cycle uninterrupted.
All of these plants provide sustenance for us on many levels — physical, emotional and spiritual. Plant them now and delve into the world of the 3 Sisters.
Saving 3 Sisters Seed
To complete the cycle of your 3 Sisters planting, learn why and how to save seed from each crop.
Click here to download a PDF of all the information you need to save your 3 Sisters seed.