Companion Planting – The Three Sisters

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Whether you’ve got a sprawling rural ranch or a tiny urban yard, growing your own organic food is definitely worth the work you put in. But, if you can grow your own organic food, and get a higher, healthier yield per foot, that makes the whole process even better. As long as you’ve got 4 feet of available growing space, you can grow these three plants easily. If you haven’t got enough available space, don’t worry – there’s still plenty of things you can grow in all sorts of innovative ways – check out our vertical garden post and get started on your wall of bounty.

The three sisters is an ancient Native American tradition, and despite its mythical background, science shows that planting corn, beans, and squashes all together works exceptionally well. For those with small growing spaces, you can maximize the variety and quantity of food using this method. If you’ve got loads of growing space, there are still some very good reasons to use the Three Sisters as your companion planting staple. According to legend, these three plants were gifts from the deities, to sustain the people spiritually and physically, to be grown, eaten, and celebrated as a trio. Thought to be called the Three Sisters because each plant brings something beneficial to the others, these plants are the perfect example of organic symbiotic agriculture.

Here’s how you do it:

  • When prepping the growing space, make a mound of earth around 4 feet wide and 1-foot high for every six corn plants you plan to grow.
  • Once the danger of frost has passed, place six corn kernels on top of each mound. Space them around 10 inches apart in a circle roughly 2 feet in diameter.
  • Water and care for your seedlings until they are roughly 5 inches tall.
  • Then, plant 4 bean seeds evenly spaced around every corn seedling.
  • Wait a week to 10 days, then plant 6 to 8 squash seeds, preferably a trailing or sprawling variety, equidistantly around the perimeter of the mound.

Here’s why:

Aside from the obvious benefits of getting a huge amount of produce from a small space, and without depleting the nutrients in the soil, there are several other reasons to grow the Three Sisters, and those reasons give this technique its name.

The corn is the “big sister” of the trio. It’s the oldest and tallest and its strong stem provides much-needed support for the pole beans.

The beans are the middle sister, pulling nitrogen from the air into the soil for the use of the other two siblings. And, because they’re climbers, their vines wrap around all three plants, holding them together as a close-knit group.

The squash, the youngest of the three, flourish in the nitrogen-rich soil and uses its large, fast-growing leaves to protect its sisters. The leaves cast shade over the bare earth, keeping it damp and moist. Because the leaves and stems are prickly, it also fends off some insect and mammal pests.

Growing this combination produces large, healthy plants, which immediately puts them at less risk of disease and insect infestation. You can further help deter any potential pests by adding marigolds, nasturtiums, and catnip around the exterior of the mound, as they all repel squash bugs. Marigolds also keep slugs away from your crops, and the bright flowers encourage bees to promote pollination. Nasturtiums also encourage pollination, and their flowers are edible, making a delicious addition to salads.

Choosing Three Sisters Seed Varieties

Ok, given that this technique has been practiced for hundreds of years, it follows that may of the modern varieties aren’t best suited to this method – they’ve been “improved” over the years to bring out certain characteristics and to reduce others. Therefore, when deciding which seeds to use for the Three Sisters, go with heirloom varieties whenever possible – the older the better. Also make sure you’re not getting F1 hybrid seeds. Pay close attention to your plating zone, and choose seeds that will thrive in your climate. You may have to experiment with a few varieties to find the best possible combination. Go for trailing or sprawling squash, rather than bush varieties. Your corn needs to be a tall, hardy variety that produces thick, strong stalks. Your pole beans should not be mammoth beasts. Try to find pole bean seeds that grow slightly higher than your corn. If you’re growing multiple types of corn, remember to plant them far apart, or plant the seeds successionally so that they produce their tassels at different times to avoid cross-pollination.

And that, in a nutshell, is it. Send us your Three Sisters growing pics! And if you’ve got any tips you’d like to share with your fellow organic growers, please share them here.


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Post Author: Katy Willis

Katy is a life-long homesteader and IAHT-certified herbalist. She is passionate about living naturally, green living, growing food, keeping livestock, foraging, and making and using herbal remedies. She's been writing and editing professionally for over a decade, and she's been living green her entire life. She firmly believes that every small green change we make has a huge impact. Making greener choices is better for your bank balance, your health, and the planet. So be the change you wish to see and join Katy on her green journey.

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