Ladyguide: Three Sisters Gardening Method

You may have heard of the traditional gardening method called the three sister method: planting corn, beans and squash together to form a symbiotic relationship between the three.

The corn forms a trellis for the beans while the beans draw nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form the other plants can feed on, using special bacteria it hosts symbiotically (and it was also recently discovered that these bacteria also feed on sugars that are expelled by the corn’s roots. SCIENCE!). The squash acts as a natural ground cover with its large umbrella like leaves, killing weeds and acting as natural air conditioning for the roots of the other plants. Nature, isn’t she cool? This method is also more efficient (about 20% actually) than others.

There have been other variations in the past with a fourth sister. This fourth plant can be sunflowers, the rocky mountain bee plant, etc. Adding a fourth sister may prove useful, but if you want the basic trio, you’ll do just fine.

We’re going to try this method for the first time this Summer.

Here’s how you do it:

You can begin any time after the nightly temp is 50 degrees and plant all the way until June. The corn is planted first, and needs to be planted in a grid instead of one long row (this helps with its pollination). Make sure you leave space between each corn plant for your squash since planting it all too tightly together won’t allow room to flourish. When the corn is around 4 inches high, it’s time to plant the other sisters. Renee’s garden has a wonderful diagram of how you should plant your three sisters.

This year, I’m very excited about the corn we’re using. It’s from Native Seeds Search, and I had to get on a fucking waiting list to order it. That’s right. A waiting list. For corn. But it’s so, so worth it. It’s called Glass Gem corn, and it’s like eating a tiny stained glass window. LOOK AT IT. JUST LOOK AT IT. I’m going to dry it and use it for popcorn or flour. I haven’t decided yet. Though I also may just wind up staring at jars of it through the sun for a few hours, too.


9 replies on “Ladyguide: Three Sisters Gardening Method”

OK, this post did it. My landlord created a little garden patch when he reinforced the retaining wall at the end of parking lot and told me I could have first crack at it.

So yesterday I placed an order with Heritage Harvest Seeds out of Winnipeg. (Forgive the length)

Heirloom Carrot – Paris Market – A delicious French heirloom from the 1800’s with round dark orange roots and superb sweet taste. The roots average 1-2″ in diameter and do very well in clay or shallow rocky soil-even containers. Paris Market looks similar to the French Forcing carrot pictured above. Great for market gardeners. Tasty! – Will end up in my balcony planters.

Heirloom Tomato – Black Early – A nice large “black” tomato which looks very similar to Black From Tula but is a week or 2 earlier. Indeterminate, regular leaf foliage. (70 days from transplant) – Looks like I’m getting myself a seed dome.

Heirloom Corn – Orchard Baby – This rare variety was bred by a Canadian named Mr. Orchard and was introduced by Oscar H. Will & Company in 1947. A very dwarf variety of sweet corn well adapted to small gardens. The stalks grow to 3-4′ tall and produce golden tasty cobs which are 4-5″ long. An excellent variety of sweet corn for northern gardens! (60 days) EXTREMELY RARE.

Heirloom Squash – Canada Crookneck – A very old heirloom more than likely grown by the Iroquois Indians. It was not introduced commercially until 1834 by Boston seedsman Charles H. Hovey, but certainly grown prior to that time for a number of years. The fruit is up to 12 inches in length and 4-6″ at the base and the skin is a dull yellow that fades in storage. If cured properly, the fruit stores well. The flesh is of excellent quality and a deep gold orange color. This squash is excellent baked but I have also used the very young fruit raw in salads. Very drought tolerant. EXTREMELY RARE. (10 seeds /pkt.)

Heirloom Flower – Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’ – (aka Indian Cress) This old heirloom variety has bluish green leaves with crimson flowers. The plants are dwarf and bushy. Nasturtiums are not only ornamental but also high in Vitamin C. The leaves and flowers add a spicy flavor to sandwiches and the seeds have a peppery taste. The seeds can be pickled and used as a caper substitute. Sunpart shade. Ht: 12-14″

Heirloom Pepper – Black Hungarian – The most dependable hot pepper that I grow. Two summers ago, we not only had a very wet summer, but a very cold summer. This was the only pepper to produce in those conditions. This pepper is not only very early and productive but is also very ornamental. The green foliage has purple veins and beautiful purple flowers. The jalapeno shaped fruit is also a deep purple, almost black, and it ripens to red. An excellent patio plant. The flavor of this pepper outstanding and I use it in salsa or spicy casseroles. This pepper is about as hot as a chili pepper, perhaps slightly milder. Great for short season areas. (70 days) – More planter stuff.

Heirloom Pepper – Doe Hill Pepper – A very rare family heirloom from Doe Hill area of Highland County, Virginia. This is without a doubt one of the very best peppers for short season areas, also one of the tastiest. I am very excited to be able to offer this excellent variety to my customers. The small round lobed peppers are the shape of old fashioned tomato peppers and turn gold at maturity. They are very sweet and productive. Excellent in salads or any dish that requires sweet peppers. These would also make cute little stuffed peppers. EXTREMELY RARE. (60-65 days from transplant)

Heirloom Squash – Sweet Meat – Introduced by the Gill Brothers Seed Company in Portland, Oregon many years ago. The fruit average about 10lbs and the pumpkin shaped fruit are a beautiful slate blue color. The flesh is deep orange, fine grained and very sweet. Perfect for baking or in pies. A favorite of all who try it. 95 days to maturity.

Heirloom Pea – Homesteader – (aka Lincoln) An excellent shelling pea that is ideal for fresh eating or freezing. Very heat tolerant and productive. Has been a family favorite for years. One of the best tasting!

Obviously, I’m not expecting them all to work out. It’s more of an experiment than anything else. But I’ll let you know how it goes. One thing I forgot were the beans (check out the website, there was too much choice, I swear my brain just shut down.) I’ll have to see what people recommend locally.

Yes! I am planting the three-sisters method this year too! About a 4×8 section I think (half of one of my 8×8 raised beds – I know, it may be small for what is recommended, but I’ve only got two beds right now and loves me a variety of veggies). Thanks for the planting diagrams link!!

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