Three Sisters: A System and a Story

The three sisters are a relatively famous combination of plants: beans, corn, and squash. Tradition has it that these plants were grown in combination by native Americans: the corn grew as a support for the beans, the beans being a legume help to fix nitrogen, and the squash fills out to shade the ground beneath, helping to exclude weeds and with prickly leaves, also rodents to some extent. Sunflowers or Rocky Mountain bee weed might be added to attract bees as a ‘fourth sister’.
Past Native Americans viewed this synergy with religious reverence, and if the internet is any judge, that mysticism continues today. And, although I am often disgusted by the more theistic mystics out there, I have always been attracted by the, more naturalistic side of mystics. A garden with a story, is after all, more interesting than a garden without.
I was a bit obsessed with this when I was younger, growing it in many of my early gardens. And, after an interlude, I tried it again this year:

Pole beans hang, growing on the tops of corn

Hey look, pictures, it works! Something more interesting in the daily life of vegetable gardening.
Some tips which I have observed for growing the tree sisters:

  • Plant the beans a week or two after the corn, or else the beans will wander aimlessly for a while.
  • If you plant the corn too closely, there won’t be room for squash. So either plant the corn much more widely apart than you are used to, or plant the corn closely together and just place the squash more in a surrounding perimeter.
  • Don’t forget you will have to walk in and pick the beans…. Which means don’t make your planting too dense, or you will never emerge from the tangled vines again…


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