Three Sisters Garden
Developed by Native Americans, a Three Sisters Garden of corn, beans and squash is an early example of companion planting, where each plant helps facilitate the growth of the other plants with which it grows. Corn, growing tall and straight, acts as a support on which beans can climb. Beans “fix” nitrogen, making the nitrogen in the soil available to the corn and squash (both heavy feeders). The squash, in turn, adds to the system by stretching out its vines and large leaves, shading the ground underneath, reducing weeds, and maintaining moisture levels of the soil. The prickly stems and leaves of squash family plants also help to protect the other sisters from animals.
Traditionally, these gardens were made up of several mounds of soil two to three feet in diameter. One mound would be planted with a circle of corn in the center surrounded by its sister, beans. Another mound would be planted with the third sister, squash. Often, sunflowers, a fourth sister, would be included with this Native American garden along the northern border.
Phipps planted a Three Sisters Container Garden in the Gallery of the Conservatory for guests to watch grow. This planting was done with seedlings, yet all of these vegetables can also be planted as seeds. To get a head start on growth, corn should be planted first. It is important that the corn develop before the beans so it can act as a support for the beans, rather than be smothered! Wait two weeks, or until the corn is 4 inches tall, before planting the bean seeds. The squash seeds can be planted at the same time as the beans. Water your garden regularly and watch it grow!
Three Sisters Gardens are a great way to introduce children to both gardening and history. Much can be learned about the way that these three plants cooperate and grow together.
Three Sisters Garden Resources
New Mexico State University is a great resource for information about the three sisters. Of interest for parents and school teachers alike is a webquest which leads children through research of Native American Three Sisters Gardens as they become botanists, anthropologists, folklorists, and curators. Visit the website.
Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects and Recipes for Families by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac contains information on two traditional gardens, those planted by the Hidatsa and the Wampanoag peoples. This excellent book also contains many fun stories and activities for children focusing on the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash. Find the book at Amazon.com.
Sharon Lovejoy details another Native American garden, the Zuni Waffle Garden, in her book Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots. Lovejoy provides a simple illustration and instructions on how to create this useful garden. Find the book at Amazon.com.
For more information and detailed layouts of all of these gardens, please check out Ancient Companions, an Appendix to Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources by Mardi Dodson. Beginning on page 6, this article provides illustrations as well as recommendations for planting different varieties of the Three Sisters.