Garden Friday – Planting 3 Sisters

Garden Friday is a regularly scheduled feature on Our Mother’s Keeper.  Growing your own food, no matter the scale, helps both the pocketbook and the environment.  We anticipate that this space can be one that provides inspiration and answers questions regarding the planing, harvesting, and consumption of edible gardens.  Because gardening is very dependent upon your climate, please make sure you identify your general region (Wasatch Front, arid SW, Pacific NW, coastal, etc) when asking questions.

The sun appeared ever so briefly on Memorial Day in the Pacific NW.*  Even though it seems crazy to be planting summer/fall crops when we really haven’t even seen spring this year, I took the opportunity to get out and plant my three sisters.  What is three sisters you say?  It is a practice borrowed from Native North Americans – there is evidence of this practice across the entire continent – of inter  or companion planting corn, beans, and squash in one plot.  All three species store well for winter (this was probably the driving factor for Native Americans) and each has specific qualities that helps the others grow and maximize nutrition:

  • Beans, like all legumes, have the ability to ‘fix’ nitrogen from air.  This essentially means that the beans leave the soil more fertilized than it starts.  By planting beans in the mix, you are maintaining soil quality.  Because you want the beans to climb up the corn stalks, you want to purchase pole (NOT bush) bean seeds.
  • Corn, as a grass/grain, grows quickly and the stalks are sturdy.  This provides an area for the beans to climb.  Corn, as a grain, does not provide a complete protein but is much more balanced when eaten with the beans.  Corn is fertilized by wind and normally does best in blocks of at least 4 rows if conventionally planted.  The cluster planting in 3 sisters help address this need.
  • Squash spreads out quickly, shading the ground and providing a living ‘mulch.’  Corn actually needs a surprising amount of moisture – so the squash helps keep watering needs to a minimum in the heat of the summer.  This can work with summer squash, but consider planting a few varieties of winter squash that will keep well in a cool dark closet or under your bed and provide welcome produce and vitamins in the dark days of winter.

Three sisters inter-planting is accomplished by a few unique features:

  • Mounding dirt 6-12 inches high in about a 12 inch diameter and flattened on the top.  Elevating the dirt helps these warm weather plants germinate quicker in the spring.  East coast Native Americans used to bury a fish underneath the mound to decompose over the summer and provide nutrients.  I opt for using at least 1/2 rich compost
  • The main mounds for corn/beans should be 3 to 4 feet apart in full sun.  I set aside a 12×12 ft space in the middle of my back lawn this year.  This equates to 4×4=16 mounds.  If you don’t have that kind of space, consider 3 mounds in an equilateral triangle with 3-4 ft sides.
  • Corn goes in first because it needs a slight head start to grow higher than the beans.  Make 4 holes about 1 inch deep in a square formation on your mound.  The sides of the square should be at least 6 inches apart; 8 inches is better.  Drop 2 kernels in each hole.  Water that day and then just leave it be.  In 2-3 weeks when the corn is about 6-8 inches high, go back and plant beans in between the corn seedlings.  I plant 5… one in the center of the mound and one along each line made by the square of the corn.  If both corn kernels germinated, now would be a good time to cut down the weakling.  (You can improve germination rates by prestarting corn inside if you let it grow no higher than an inch or so as the main root will be nearly 10 inches long about 7-10 days in.  But if you to start them indoors, you can probably get away with planting the corn seedlings and beans seeds on the same day figuring it is the equivalent of a 2 week head start.)
  • Squash can be planted the same day as corn.  Some people just plant squash in the negative space between the corn mounds.  In the NW, we need the warmth and drainage for squash in late spring, so I put in mounds.  This year, with my 4×4 layout, I put 5 squash mounds in between the corn mounds on the diagonals.  If you did the triangle, place the squash mound in the center.  Plant 3 to 4 squash plants per mound.  When they start to spread out, have them spread out in different directions.  (You can prestart squash inside using 3″ or 4″ pots.  Again, you must transplant immediately upon seeing the leaves pop through because the root system becomes quite large quickly and doesn’t take kindly to late transplanting.)


In the beginning, keep the mounds moist.  If you have free ranging chickens and/or a blue jay picking at your corn, reseed corn when first corn plants are 2 inches high so that each mound has at least 3 corn plants.  If it has been a particularly cool, damp spring, you may also need to replant the squash.

As the plants become more established and the squash starts to shade, you can back off the watering.  You might need to help the beans start up the corn.  And, if you only have a couple of corn mounds, when the tassels start to show, shake the corn stalks to imitate the wind for pollination.

Do you use Three Sisters in your garden?  What other things have you been planting this week?

*The biggest timing consideration for 3 sisters is soil that is at least 65 degrees but not so late in the season that you have to water a lot before the squash gets going.  Now would be a good time for Wasatch Front people to think about doing this.  If you are in the desert, it is probably a little late.  I know people in Southern NV that get 2 corn seasons, but a fall crop requires diligent watering at the beginning.  Also keep in mind that you need at least 100 days before the first frost to harvest corn (about 70 days) and winter squash (full 100).


6 responses to “Garden Friday – Planting 3 Sisters

  1. SteveP June 3, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    This is great! I’m going to do it. It’s funny it never occurred to me to do this, even though I’ve been aware of intercropping for a long time because it’s also a way to keep up a good supply of natural enemies to takedown crop pests. Thanks for the reminder. I’m going to do it!!!

  2. Betty Jo June 4, 2011 at 10:05 am

    re: Three Sisters

    1. Soil Temperatures: A good rule of thumb is you know when the soil is warm enough for corn when the dandelions bloom.

    2. Seed protection: I’ve lost so many rows of corn, soy and beans to the birds. They always assign a watcher, who sits on the telephone line marking just exactly where the seed is going in. I hear him relaying the news. “yep, she’s putting in the soy row ’bout 15 feet in from the North edge. Oh look! She even marked it for us. Ok guys, as soon as she leaves, just look for the little wooden market. It’ll say “Soybeans”. Sigh. Now I use Agrifab – a water and light permeable floating row cover fabric. I spread it out over the bean corn and soy seed as soon as I finish planting. It keeps the birds off until the seedlings are big enough. Then I just remove the cloth. It’s light weight enough to allow the plants to get 3 or 4 inches high before you pull it off. I also use this cloth over hoops to cover the greens (lettuce, cabbage, bok choy etc.) It keeps the flea beetles off the leaves so you don’t need pesticide to avoid holey produce. (The weight I use transmits 85% of the light).I fasten this stuff over the top of tomato and pepper cages to keep the hot sun from blistering fruit, and over the early flowering tree peonies early in the spring to protect them from late frosts. It comes in various thicknesses,providing relatively more or less frost protection. The Agrifab lasts at 5 years if you fold it up dry to put away.

    3. Winter Squash. Good suggestion to grow this. We most all get really tired of summer squash even with just a few plants. Whereas, with the winter squash, you have all winter and spring to enjoy it. It’s June 3, and I still have a couple of butternut squash left from last September’s harvest. During the winter, I also cook and strain a lot of it, then put it in the freezer in like 2 cup zip lock bags. For me, straining is a big hassle, and with all that preparation already done, the squash is an easy choice for soups and breads. Some of the squash varieties will just climb up the corn stalks too. I generally put the giant sunflowers on the north side of the corn, and in the midst of the winter squash/pumpkins. They also provide support for a bit of climbing.

  3. Nicole I June 4, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Dandelions blooming does not equal warmth here! Ours have been blooming for at least 6 weeks but I wouldn’t have dared to plant corn or beans 6 weeks ago (actually I tried beans.. .utter failure) because the soil was still way too soggy and the sky way too gray… both keep the soil temps down. But I imagine it would work in most other climates as a good signal.

    Great advice on the row cover to keep the birds out. They are persistent buggers and apparently can see the beans sprouting before I can!

  4. mfranti June 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    More Betty Jo? It warms my heart that you stop my by blog.

    Great advice all around. I’m going to do the 3 sisters. Just as soon as I figure out what’s wrong with my nightshades and peach tree. Yellowing, spots, falling off.

    I just about cried yesterday when I saw the condition they’re in.

  5. Alliegator June 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Rats ate my corn last year, so this year I’m experimenting with planting squash all around the perimeter of my corn and beans. I’m hoping that the pokey vines of the squash will help keep rodents out of the corn.

    I tried a small scale three sisters, and didn’t get much of anything, so now I’m rotating the corn and beans each year, and planting squash around them.

  6. Biobrit September 21, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    I would like to know how this worked out! I’m thinking about trying it next year. Can you do a follow up post?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: