When I started vegetable gardening seriously, I looked closer at others’ gardens. Perhaps, I was comparing to see if I were completely incompetent, learning, or just curious, but I looked and I asked questions.
“Why do you plant those marigolds in your vegetable garden?”
“Why are you letting those beans take over the corn?”
Answers ranged from, “That’s the way my momma did it.” to “Keeps the bugs away.” Curious as I am, I wanted to see if the marigolds in the tomatoes was truth or old wives tale. And in this search, I found The Three Sisters. Again, whether science has actually proved the beneficial nature of companion planting, I’m not sure, but years and years of documented gardener’s proof and the sacred legends and methods of the Native Americans are enough for me.
The legend of “Three Sisters” originated when a woman of medicine who could no longer bear the fighting among her three daughters asked the Creator to help her find a way to get them to stop. That night she had a dream, and in it each sister was a different seed. In her dream, she planted them in one mound in just the way they would have lived at home and told them that in order to grow and thrive, they would need to be different but dependent upon each other. They needed to see that each was special and each had great things to offer on her own and with the others. The next morning while cooking breakfast, she cooked each daughter an egg, but each was different: one hard-boiled, one scrambled, and one over-easy. She told her daughters of her dream and said to them, “You are like these eggs. Each is still an egg but with different textures and flavors. Each of you has a special place in the world and in my heart.” The daughters started to cry and hugged each other, because now they would celebrate their differences and love one another more because of them. From that day on, Native people have planted the three crops together—Three Sisters helping and loving each other. – by Sheila Wilson in Tar Heel Junior Historian 45:1 (Fall 2005)
This version of the legend is one of many and the methodology bears the same diversity. Regardless of the story or the practicalities, The Three Sisters combination makes perfect sense. Look at the pictures of the individuals of the three sisters. The squash (summer squash in this case) has huge shade producing and weed blocking leaves and is a typical feeder type plant. The corn is a definite feeder plant, has very shallow roots that either need shade or hilling, and it grows tall and straight. The beans are a natural source of food for plants with their nitrogen fixation capabilities and they send out runners seeking a place to climb. What a lovely combination! Each plant perfectly gives what the others lack making planting together a wonderful way to increase production and reduce work.
Buffalo Bird Woman relates, in *Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, the Hidatsa methods of planting The Three Sisters. Their method maintains rows as illustrated by this image. They also add sunflowers to the edge of the garden.
Others plant the sisters in one hill which, to me, takes advantage of all the companion properties of each plant. Your garden won’t look completely neat and tidy though. However you decide to plant The Three Sisters you do need to keep in mind the legendary order of planting.
According to Buffalo Bird Woman and my trial and error corn is the older sister and should go into the ground first. Once the corn is up to about knee high, plant your squash followed quickly by your beans. Logically speaking this makes perfect sense if you are following the one hill plan. The corn needs the sun and rain to get a good start. Once the corn starts showing roots it needs the shade of the large leaved squash plant. Beans are a fast germinator and grower so if the corn is to be the pole (so you won’t have to cut and stick), it needs a head start.
Whether you alternate rows, plant in single hills, or create a method of your own, The Three Sisters has a long history of boosting production, banishing weeds, and inhibiting bugs.
Give it a try!
For further information try these books or websites:
*Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, Gilbert L. Wilson. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. 1987
The Bean Harvest Cookbook, Ashley Miller. The Taunton Press. Newtown, CT. 1997
The North Carolina Museum of History
Bird Clan of East Central Alabama
New York State Museum