02 November, 2008

How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden

In the way-back genetic machine, it's a fair estimate that most old American families have a smidgen of Native American (or American Indian) blood. You can see it in our culture, music, food, and in the few rare gems we seem to recall from that aboriginal past.

The Three Sisters Garden, a blend of corn, bean, and pumpkin, is a traditional method of Companion Planting used from time immemorial, now used worldwide by some who aren't even aware of the origins. Just this weekend I spotted Aussie gardening legend, Peter Cundall, informing a TV guest that pumpkin and corn are just obscenely drawn to each other, though he didn't know why.

Traditionally, the story goes thus. Corn is the eldest sister, tall and steady, providing support through the growth of her little sisters. Beans, the middle child, attempts to nurture the family, but clings to her elder sister in admiration and need. Pumpkin, the littlest sister, often overlooked, spreads her love around her sisters, keeping them grounded.

Scientifically, this translates to simple botany. Corn requires nitrogen-rich soil to be at its best, and thus depletes the nitrogen from wherever you plant. Beans, climbers and pole beans to be precise, fertilize the corn with their nitrogen output, removing the need to rotate corn crops each year. At the same time, the tall corn stalks provide a climbing post for the beans. Pumpkin, squash, and relatives such as cucumber, grow thick blankets of leaves which work as a mulch to the sensitive and water-hungry corn plants, and help deter damaging pests.

Enough back story. The gist is, this is an amazing garden to grow if one wants to witness nature in it's simple perfection. This garden teaches science, history, and can be worked in a very small space, even by kids! So, let's give this garden a go.

Supplies and Tools:
1 meter2 of space
Seeds of Corn, Climbing/Pole Beans, and your pick of Squash, Pumpkin, Melons, or Cucumbers.
Fertilizer. We prefer poultry manure.
Lots of dirt

Find your spot. What's needed is some good sun exposure and some wind exposure as well, as corn pollinates on the breeze. Be careful to put several meters distance between differing varieties of corn as they will cross pollinate.

Shovel enough soil to build a flat-top, sloped-side mound 1 meter2 in area, about 8-12 inches high (enjoying my mixed measurements?). Mix in a good deal of organic matter, manure, compost, etc as you construct the mound. Form the flat of the mound into a bit of a tray, so that the outer edges sit slightly higher than the middle, allowing for better water usage by the plants.

In the shape of a cross, or a circle for those unsure any corn will sprout, sow 2-3 corn seeds in each hole, centered in the mound, following seed instructions on depth and distance apart. Water well, and wait for your corn to sprout. This will take a week or two. Once the corn sprouts are about 4-5 inches tall, thin them out to the four strongest plants. Corn grows best in clumps as opposed to rows.

Now that your corn is standing tall, plant the climbing beans, about 6 inches from the corn, in a ring around the edge of the mound. Just use one bean seed per hole, but plant more than you need as you may lose a few to dormant seeds or slug attacks. Again, water well, and wait. Sprouts should appear in a week or so. Thin as needed.

About a week after the beans have poked up their little heads, plant 3 pumpkin seeds in each corner of the mound. Water, water, water...and wait. When the littlest sister sprouts, thin them out to the two strongest plants in each corner, sit back and watch your Three Sisters Garden grow!

What will happen: As time goes by, the corn will grow as much as 2 meters high, the beans will slither toward the stalks but may need your guidance. Gently wrap bean vines around the base of a corn stalk and they will find their way from there. As the pumpkin grows, coax it to spread across the mound to keep the topsoil shaded and moist.

I really hope you give this method of gardening a try. If you've used Three Sisters or similar, please let us all know and share any tips you might have! I'll be adding more images as our sisters grow big and strong.

Update! Be sure to see the November news on how the girls have grown.


Anonymous said...

I love the history behind this garden! I especially like the analogy to sisters...as I am the oldest of three (as you are aware, being my baby)and what you say is true about the symbiotic relationship between human sisters and these sisters of nature. You're so smart!

Kelly the City Mouse said...

All I can really take credit for is remembering the story! Though I definitely do see a similarity between this and your sisterly bunch, ayep. But how does Jimmy fit in? lol

The W.O.W. factor said...

Hi Kelly...I came here via Razor Family and this is a great post!! You know, I've been growing veggies for years...and until about 3 weeks ago, I hadn't heard of this (& I don't know why!) until I saw it on TV on a gardening show in Calif somewhere. I vowed next year to downsize my garden space and plan to implement this 3 Sisters. I'm going to be curious now how yours does!
Keep us all posted!

Kelly the City Mouse said...

w.o.w - Definitely give it a try! I remember learning about these gardens in elementary school, but this was my first chance to ever try one. So far, the first is beautiful, and the second will soon catch up :)