by Jenny Brown
It seemed that ‘Three Sisters Planting’ was a big ‘buzz word’ in the gardening world this past couple years. From gardening magazines and blogs to the front page of a local community paper that has very little to do with gardening. It appeared everyone was suddenly an expert on this historical family trio.
I decided to look into this threesome a little more and see what the big fuss was about.
If you managed to miss the headlines, Three Sister’s Planting is rooted in ancient Mesoamerican methods of planting corn, beans, and squash which was passed down to Native American societies such as the Iroquois. Not only does this planting combination provide long-term soil-enriching benefits but it comes with a rich history that piqued my interest. We decided to give it a whirl in our own garden this year.
Since so much has been written already about the great benefits of this planting combination, I won’t delve too deep into explaining it, instead I’ll share with you what we tried and most important, what we learned NOT to repeat in the following years. I think I’ve mentioned that animals don’t read the books…well humans don’t always follow them!
The main idea in Three Sister’s Planting is that when corn and beans are planted together, the beans have something to climb, this in turn stabilizes the corn, making it withstand stronger winds, and the nitrogen that is sucked out of the soil by the corn is replaced by the beans. A genius idea! It get’s even better…the squash, which has shallow roots, acts as a living mulch, preventing weeds from taking over and helping the soil retain moisture by shading the base of the plants.
My kids were on board with this idea; if it did what it said it would do, their job of weeding the corn patch would be greatly reduced. I was excited about the natural nitrogen replacement which is usually a two season process (or two plant growth cycles) if using crop rotation. I also liked the thought of not having to worry about providing a contraption for my pole beans to climb!
The most common pattern I found is to plant 4 corn and 4 bean plants together in one mound, and rotate with mounds planted with 3 squash plants. These individual mounds are to be approximately 18″ across the top and require a minimum of 5 feet between each mound on any side. Yes, I said 5 feet. Unless you have a fairly large garden area designated just for corn, beans, and squash, or you are not planting for food storage, that’s a lot of ground.
I have learned in earlier years that because of our particular soil conditions, there is no benefit for us in mounding our soil or forming raised beds. I originally thought that was the thing to do and it would be a benefit in any garden, but our soil is chock full of small rocks which heat up in the day and hold in the heat at night. Our soil also percolates (drains) incredibly well (which is another reason for the mounding). If one of my boys accidentally leaves the hose running in the trough and forms a small lake, it’s soaked up in a short period of time. Mounding up our soil has only benefited us in one way, extra exercise.
Here is a drawing of the most common planting pattern…
Since we had a large square area to plant the sisters in, we lessened the amount of corn and bean plants per mound and only one squash plant was planted between each corn and bean mound. This reduction was made up for in the space that was saved by reducing the distance between groupings. We could get away with it, or so we thought, because the depth would provide stronger wind protection.
That was big mistake #1
The more condensed spacing lessened the amount of light reaching the plants. The green beans suffered. The outer south facing row did well but by the third row in, beans were sparse. So much for my plans of canning green beans this year.
Big mistake #2:
I planted two varieties of squash, sweetmeat and butternut. This was the most heartbreaking. I love butternut but I didn’t get much from my garden this year. The plants were loaded with blossoms but due to the lack of light, they never produced fruit. It was a hard year for butternut as it was…they love heat and we had precious little of it this summer. Planting it under the shade of the corn didn’t help matters. Since butternut is such a sun-lover, I would not use it again in this planting situation, even on a good year.
The sweetmeat, on the other hand, took off and took over! We got a fair amount of fruit but it was more the vines that flourished. A couple of the vines stretched the entire patch resembling a vegetative beast from Little Shop of Horrors.
So, what was gained from this experience? (I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t squash or beans.)
1. Adequate space is absolutely necessary to allow enough light to reach the beans and squash plants. Overall this method requires more space than planting each plant type separately, at least up in the north where you need all the heat and sun you can get.
2. Choose your squash varieties very carefully. I wouldn’t recommend any squash such as summer varieties (like zucchini) or butternut which demands full sun for production.
3. Consider your location. The Mesoamerican region was Central America. In hotter regions, some shade may be desirable and work well for certain plants but up here, shade is something to avoid. Not to say it can’t be done, obviously it has. The Iroquois (New York) are known for using this method of planting, I’m just not convinced it’s the best method for my area, even without all my rule-breaking this year.
4. I am fairly convinced that whoever wrote the front page community paper article I read on Three Sisters Planting has never actually tried this.
I still love the idea of the bean and corn combination for both the nitrogen replacement in the soil and the naturally occurring climbing apparatus for my beans (one of my two favorite combinations: natural and easy!)
So, I might try that combo again but I would have to be sure my groupings were staggered and further apart next time to allow enough light to reach the beans. Or, I may do my corn in rows of only four wide (the minimum requirement for pollination) and have a couple groupings staggered in the garden rather than one big corn patch. It really depends on how much room I have. As far as my squash, I won’t risk that one again – that sister can be by herself.
Some sisters just don’t get along very well. Overall, the experience was like having three teenage girls trying to share one bathroom…instead of the mirror, they were fighting over the light!