The “Three Sisters” and how you can use them today

The “Three Sisters” or milpa are an agricultural system with origins dating back to Mesoamerica. Native Americans developed this method using mostly corn, beans, and squash. Through a very symbiotic relationship(companion planting) all three of these crops flourish creating a natural biodiversity that can improve soil quality. Using the more advanced farming techniques a surplus of crops was produced, this allowed for a rapid population explosion along the entire Mississippi River, as a result the Mississippian and Mvskoke cultures were born .


History

The “Three Sisters” or milpa got the name from the way that these three plants live harmoniously together and thrive off of one another, much in the way the Native Americans saw the bond and connection between Sisters.

The Corn or Eldest Sister offers the younger sisters support as they grow and usually do in a family. The pole beans or Giving Sister pulls nitrogen from the air and places it into the soil for the benefit of all. Giving the corn much needed nutrients. The squash fills an important role using its large leaves as ground cover and prickly vines as protection from bugs. The ground cover creates a micro climate in which the plants thrive. The three sisters live together by supporting each other.

A bigger role to fill

The Iroquois started using the Three Sisters method c. 1300 ad. The “Three Sisters” filled a nutritional and spiritual role for the Native Americans. The three vegetables provided a balanced diet while also being a gift from the gods. Always to be grown, eaten, and celebrated together to honor the offering.

One of the steps to crops you see today

The modern day plants you see today are not the same ones used to develop the beginnings of this method, in order to talk about that we need to go back to 11,000 – 4,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. Around 11,000 years ago a sudden climate shift changed current day Mexico from a cold/dry place to a hot/wet environment. This change kick started the domestication of some of the earliest plants, squash being the first to be “gardened” around 10,000 years ago. After squash by about 3,000 years maize was cultivated. The viability for corn to replace foraging wasn’t possible until around 2,600 years ago thanks to the size of the harvest increasing. This is much like beans, the bean size increased very quickly once humans learned to cultivate this crop around 5,000 years ago.

The knowledge of these crop cultivation and farming techniques would continue to travel up north into present day Texas, Mississippi, and New Mexico to various Native American Tribes. Similar farming techniques can be seen throughout most of the tribes with differing climates accounting for the difference in crop selections. An additional two sisters were added in the Southwest regions of the United States to account for the harsh summer sun. Those sisters are Sunflowers and Amaranth. The sunflowers provide shade while the amaranth provides flowers for pollinators and additional climbing posts for the beans.


Construction, Layout, and Planning

A “Three Sisters” garden is not limited to one or two layouts. The three plants can be placed in any fashion while following these rules, the beans need something to climb(the corn). Also the squash needs room to sprawl out(18″-24″ apart). Not accounting for how the plants will look in the future months may spell out disaster.

A method for a three sisters garden is constructing a flat-top mound that is 10″-14″ high by 18″-24″ wide. Plant your corn and beans in the center alternating so each Corn has 1 or 2 bean plants. Your squash will be planted along the outside edge at 24″ wide you would have ~3 squash plants per mound. Here is a layout and picture of this type of garden.

The mound plays a major role in the moist months of the year. By allowing for additional air flow and better drainage it helps prevent root rot or the water logging of your plants.

Basic Three Sisters Layout
Basic Three Sisters Garden Layout

B = Beans C = Corn S = Squash


Other Layouts with the Three Sisters in mind

Keep in mind the spacing required for all of your plants while planning. Proper planning can save you loads of time in the future and give you the chance to reap the fruits or vegetables of your labor.


Things to consider when planning
  • Closely planted plants require a large amount of water in order to survive, if you live in a drier climate I recommend checking for shorter growth time plants as well as spacing your sisters apart more. The Navajo Nation in the Southwest would space plants further apart in order to conserve water during the hot summer months.
  • Ensure you get a climbing bean and not a bushing bean. Using a bushing bean will cause a competition to occur between the squash and beans.
  • Tall corn is a necessity for this same reason. If you use a shorter corn the beans may overtake it and possibly prevent and harvest.

What type of plants do I need

When choosing your varieties ensure that they all have around the same light and water requirements, attempting to plant something that requires very little water next to a water reliant corn stalk may cause issues when either a) your cornstalk dries out or b) the beans or squash get waterlogged. Covering each crop individually will help in the selection process with recommended varieties for each type.

Corn

Sweet Corn, Dent Corn, and Popcorn are all good choices.

The corn needs to be a taller growing variety with a stronger stalk to support the added weight of the beanstalks. Sweet Corn, dent corn, and popcorn are all good choices. If you are living in a warmer climate it is recommended that you plant no later than April 15th in order to allow for your corn to pollinate prior to becoming sterile in the hot summer months. If this is not feasible then recommend planting a corn that harvests in around 60 days.

Corn Seeds

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Beans

Common pole beans such as Scarlet Runner or Italian Snap should work. The ‘Ohio Pole Bean’ is our favorite.If you’d like to try native varieties, look for Four Corners Gold Beans or Hopi Light Yellow.

Farmers Almanac

You need a pole bean, not a bushing bean. Also when selecting your bean ensure it is not too vigorous of a climber as it will pull your cornstalk down before it is established. The Farmer’s Almanac covers beans pretty well in this article on the Three Sisters.

Searching on True Leaf Market or Eden Brothers for the right type of bean seed can be like picking out a new car. Go look for yourself at the amount of varieties.

Squash
You will want a summer (zucchini) or winter (hubbard) squash. On another note pumpkins may appear to fit into this category however, the pumpkins themselves are too heavy for a three sisters garden and would do better in a separate field.
Squash Seeds

Squash (Winter) Seeds – Hubbard Blue, Vege…

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How to Plant

Planting your three sisters in the correct order is almost completely necessary. Corn, Beans, Squash that is the order. The time frames are laid out down below. The key things to look out for is the corn needs to be sturdy enough by the time the beans decide to crawl all over it. If your corn isn’t strong enough the stalk will snap. Planting your squash too early can prevent your other plants from getting the sunlight they require. Squash leaves are large and can take over an area fairly quick.

Check with your local extension office for more region specifics on how and when to plant.

All of these plants are best directly sown into your garden as it will help the root structures establish themselves from the get go.

Planting Steps
  1. Plant your corn once the danger of frost has passed, usually it is safe to plant by Mother’s Day. Check your local agricultural extension office for exact dates. If you live in a warmer region it is recommended you plant your corn prior to April 15th, this will allow enough time for the corn to pollinate before becoming sterile in the hot and dry summer months.
  2. After 2-3 weeks have passed or your corn is 6″ or taller then plant your beans. The corn needs to be able to support them as soon as they vine.
  3. After another week and the beans have emerged plant your squash. It is important that squash is last or it can block sunlight from your other plants.
Pollination

Each of these crops pollinates in a different way. Depending on how many plants are available the corn can self pollinate. If this is the method you are going for it is recommended to have at least 10 – 20 corn plants. Beans are self-pollinators except they will produce with just one plant. Squash uses more natural means of insects and other pollinators to get the job done. One thing you can do to ensure you have a good squash harvest is to plant vibrant flowers around your garden to attract as many pollinators as possible.

Honey Bee – A busy insect with a lot to offer

Honey bees, are what I believe to be a very important insect to the plant and animal kingdoms, definitely including humans. Around 1/3 of the food Americans eat is pollinated by honey bees. Keep reading to dive into almost everything related to honey bees and amaze your friends with a compendium of knowledge at your…

Keep reading
Rewarding and Fun

Growing a “Three Sisters” garden can be fun and fruitful if done right. Proper planning when it comes to location, seed type, and goals can lead to a successful first harvest. While researching for this article I have learned a tremendous amount about the history and origins of these sisters. During one rabbit hole I found myself reading about indigenous tribes in Africa using the same type of methods with different crops. Remembering the past is important, learning from it and using it are life.

I am an affiliate and links located throughout the article will provide me with a commission on any purchases made.

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Myers Greens LLC

Myers Greens is a nursery located in southwest Iowa. With the main goal of providing top quality microgreens and fresh herbs. Follow the blog to keep up to date on what we are growing.

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