Plants can play mean. They vie for nutrients, water, and sunlight. Plants choke each other out to make sure they have access to the best resources.
Sometimes though, plants play nice. They help protect each other. They work together and share resources.
One of the most defined plant trios known for helping each other in this way is called the Three Sisters.
The Three Sisters: what are they?
The Three Sisters have been planted together through many different groups, gardens, and generations. Native Americans, more specifically the Iroquois1, were the first to make known that these plants thrive together. This grouping of plants is made up of corn, beans, and squash.
Certain varieties tend to work better than others. We will discuss which types of plants are the best options and how they play their part in the trio. We’ll also go over some general tips for planting a Three Sisters garden.
Types & Purpose
Corn, the “older sister”
Let’s start with the corn. Many different types of corn can be used, such as sweet corn or popcorn.
Although different corn can be used, the goal is to find corn with stalks strong enough to support the system. Corn grows straight up and allows the next plant, the beans, to grow up and around the stalk.
That is the reason the corn is referred to as the “older sister” or the supporting sister. She tends to get planted first and is the reason why the structure of this planting method can be so successful.
Beans, the “giving sister”
The next plant involved in this system is beans. The beans needed are pole beans (beans that climb as they grow).
The vines of pole beans need something to climb up, thus the corn stalks. The beans don’t just use the corn stalks and not give back to the system, most beans have a hidden benefit.
Pole beans’ roots have the ability to transform nitrogen in the air into usable nitrogen more readily for all of the sister plants to receive. The ability for these pole beans to fix nitrogen and enrich the soil for the whole system gets them the name the “giving sister.” She is essential for the trio to grow as well as they do together.
Squash, the “protecting sister”
Even though the corn and the pole beans could be good as a pair, they are better with their third sister. This sister is squash or sometimes pumpkin plants. Squash is the better option, and the Waltham Butternut Squash is a great type to accompany sweet corn and pole beans.
As the squash grows, it provides shade to the ground where the seeds are sprouting. This shade keeps the soil from drying out as it gets exposed to sunlight while also helping with weed control.
The leaves on the squash are also a way of protection because they are a bit rough or even pokey. These leaves make the corn and beans less desirable because the pests would have to step on them to get to the vegetables. This defense mechanism is why the third sister is deemed the “protecting sister.”
Having this third sister completes the trio and how they are grown harmoniously.
General tips on growing a Three Sisters garden
There are lots of ways to set up your garden, but if you plan to use the Three Sisters Gardening technique for any or all of your garden, there are a few things to keep in mind.
The list below is not comprehensive, but could be a good starting point when you plan your garden:
- Three Sisters Gardening technique is done in mounds. The mounds should be a pretty good size, about 12 to 18 inches tall.
- Plant the corn first. Usually, about 6 inches apart is the best option for these corn seeds. You’ll want to plant more seeds than you want stalks. Recommended is 6 or 7 seeds because that will leave you with 3 or 4 actual corn stalks.
- After the corn sprouts and has a pretty good start of at least 6 inches, you can plant the pole beans and butternut squash. The placing of the beans is about the same 6 inches from the corn, then the squash can be planted around the base of the mound. Recommended numbers for the pole beans is the same number as the corn, but the squash only needs about 4 seeds. All of these seeds are assumed to be planted in higher numbers than actual plants are expected to grow.
- Water your garden in similar fashion to all vegetables. About one inch per week. For more on watering, check out our post about watering.
- Weed your garden, maintain your garden, help move vines or encourage the pole beans as they start their climb.3 As your plants start to grow, you will get more accustomed to making changes and figuring out what the best options are for your region, your garden, and your plants.
Ready to get started?
Generations have used this planting technique, and it works. We are excited to help you grow a Three Sisters garden at Sow Right Seeds.
We not only have the recommended seeds to start your garden, but we have made it easy for you by adding a collection with all three seeds: Sweet Corn, Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans, and Waltham Butternut Squash.
As you plan your garden, we hope the Three Sisters Gardening method will be at the top of your list.