Three sisters of the garden

As we begin the holiday season, spending time with family is at the top of everyone’s list. Whether they live next door, across town, or on a different coast, family and the holidays go together.

Families come in all forms – those we are given and those we choose because they make us a better version of ourselves. This happens in the garden too. Many plants are related, and of the same species. Others are family because they, too, make each other stronger.

The Three Sisters Garden, a Native American legend, tells the story of three sisters or crops that are healthier because they grow together.

Long before the first Thanksgiving Dinner was celebrated Native Americans were planting and celebrating the Three Sisters – corn, beans, and squash.

When planted together, the sisters create their own eco-system. This is an example of companion planting that makes each plant grow.

Corn, which is planted first and after the last frost, is considered the older sister. It will grow tall and provide support to the others.

Beans, often called the giving sister, add nitrogen to the soil and create a nourishing environment for all, especially the corn. As it grows towards the sun, it will wrap around the corn stalks giving them strength to withstand windy days.

Squash, the youngest sister, grows close to the ground and, with its large leaves, shades the soil, keeping it moist and cool. The scratchy leaves of the squash will also deter critters from the trio.

The Three Sisters Garden is not planted in traditional rows. Try creating mounding hills at least 6 inches high and 3-4 feet apart. This method of planting needs space and sun. Select a location that receives at least 6 hours of sun each day.

When the ground warms, and the threat of frost has passed, place 6 to 8 corn kernels forming a circle on top of the mound. You can use sweet corn or popcorn – if you have never removed popcorn kernels from a corn ear, you are missing a farm tradition – and a delicious treat.

Once the stalks are 6 inches tall, add beans to the mound. Aim for four or so bean seeds around each corn stalk. Be sure to use pole beans and not bush beans for this planting.

Wait about a week after planting the beans, then add the squash around the edges of the mound. Summer or winter squash will grow. Easy-to-grow zucchini and yellow crookneck are good choices.  

Sometimes there is a fourth sister mentioned in the stories. Sunflowers. When planted near the Three Sisters Garden, the sunflowers will attract pollinators and birds, saving the seeds of the garden.

Native Americans celebrated the planting season. They also added a fish for fertilizer to each mound, but that is one tradition I don’t think we need to follow these days. Adding organic matter, such as compost, will keep the soil healthy.

Legends say that each crop is protected by a sister’s spirit. The sister’s seeds should be planted, kept together, and celebrated together. This sure sounds like a family to me.