Creating a Three Sisters Garden
Some of us may be familiar with the Native American foodways of hunting game and gathering wild plants, but far fewer are familiar with the agricultural practices of Native North Americans. With more than 550 distinct nations, each with its own horticultural traditions, it’s impossible to capture the complexity of these rich and varied practices in one tip sheet. Hopefully, this will lead you to a deeper study of Native American horticulture, history, and spirituality.
Three sisters gardening—a term coined by the Haudenosawnee (Iroquois) and a widespread practice throughout North America—is an example of companion planting. The traditional native crops of corn, beans, and squash (along with sunflowers) are considered sisters (to each other, as well as to all creation), because each is part of a cooperative, symbiotic plant community. Each crop is part of a circle of interdependence, giving and receiving.
Here’s how it works: Sister Bean “fixes” nitrogen in the soil by absorbing and converting nitrogen from the air, making this vital nutrient available to plants. (To get the maximum benefit from your beans, allow their roots to decompose in the soil over the winter.) Sister Corn’s stalks support the beans’ vines. Sister Squash’s spiny stems deter animal invaders while blanketing the soil with a protective “living mulch.” A fourth sister, Sunflower, supports the beans, lures birds away from the corn with her seeds, and attracts insect pollinators.
For the Algonquian peoples of what is now the northeastern United States, gardening was fundamental to their lives. They and many other native peoples cultivated gardens in mounds rather than straight rows. The planting guide here is based on the traditional Wampanoag method, but feel free to adapt this approach to the space you have available—whether a backyard garden plot, small raised bed, or whiskey barrel container.
Preparing to Plant
Choose a site that receives at least six hours of sunlight per day. Select corn, bean, and squash (as well as sunflower) varieties suited to the length of your growing season; traditional varieties include drying corn (for grinding or popping), shell and dry beans (for soups), and winter squash (enjoyed both for its easily dried flesh and its edible seeds). Soak all your seeds in water for 24 hours before planting.
- Mark the center of each mound site with a stick. If creating more than one three sisters grouping, space the sticks three to four feet apart.
- Sculpting the soil with your hands, build a flat-topped mound around the stick about 1½ feet across and a few inches high (see diagram). If you’d like, create a ridge or narrow berm around the top of the mound to slow water runoff.
- Plant four corn seeds, each about six inches apart, toward the center of the mound. Follow the seed packet instructions for planting depth.
Note: At this time, feel free to add Sister Sunflower to the garden. Along the northern edge of the garden site, make smaller mounds about a foot apart and plant one to three sunflower seeds per mound.
- Water well, especially as young seedlings are getting established.
- When the cornstalks are about six inches tall (roughly two weeks later), plant four bean seeds six inches away from the corn seedlings, on the slope of the mound.
- Now is also the time to plant squash seeds. Around your central mound, create four mounds, each one foot wide. Plant four squash seeds in each of these mounds, about eight inches apart from each other.
- Once the cornstalks are two to three feet tall, build the mound a few inches higher around the stalks with compost or seasoned manure. This provides fertilizer as well as support for the growing corn.
- Consider mulching with straw or chopped leaves between the mounds. This is not traditional but will help keep weeds down and conserve water.
Note: For a whiskey barrel–size container, plant four corn seeds, two to three beans, one dwarf sunflower, and one squash to trail over the edge.
- The Three Sisters: Exploring an Iroquois Garden, Cornell Garden-Based Learning
- The Welikia Project: Beyond Manahatta
- In the Three Sisters Garden, by JoAnne Dennee (Food Works, 1995)
- Native American Gardening, by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac (Fulcrum Publishing, 1996)
- Brother Crow, Sister Corn, by Carol Buchanan (Ten Speed Press, 1997)
- Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, by Gilbert L Wilson (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987 )
- Roots, Shoots, Buckets, and Boots, by Sharon Lovejoy (Workman Publishing, 1999)
- Gardening with Children (Brooklyn Botanic Garden 2007)
Native Heirloom Seed Sources
- Seeds of Change
- Seeds Trust
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Tierra Madre Farm
- Fedco Seeds
- Monticello Catalog
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange