Planting A Three Sisters Garden: The Ancient Secret to Growing More Food


Did you know that growing corn, beans, and squash together is called The Three Sisters? It is an ancient method of companion planting used by Native American tribes who found that, when grown together, these three crops thrive and increase harvests.

Three Sisters vegetables

Interested in growing The Three Sisters in your home garden? We will discuss the best options for crops, how they play their part in the trio, and go over some general tips for planting a Three Sisters garden.

Who are the Three Sisters?

The Three Sisters have been planted together in gardens for generations. This grouping of plants is primarily made up of corn, some variety of beans, and squash or pumpkins. Certain varieties tend to work better than others.

Corn, the "older sister"

Let's start with the corn. Many different types of corn can be used, such as sweet corn or popcorn.

Corn the Older Sister

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).

Beans the Giving Sister

The vines of pole beans need something to climb up, thus the sturdy corn stalks work well for this role. The beans don't just use the corn stalks and not give back to the system - most beans have a hidden benefit to this companion planting.

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 of 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.

Squash the Protecting Sister

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. Think of it as a living mulch.

The leaves of the squash also offer protection to the other plants 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:

  1. Three Sisters Gardening technique is done in mounds. The mounds should be a pretty good size, about 12 to 18 inches tall.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Water your garden in similar fashion to all vegetables. About one inch per week. For more on watering, check out our post about watering.
  5. 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.

Happy Planting!

Written by Teresa Chandler

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