How to Create a “3 Sisters” Garden

By Catherine Winter
One of the most perfect examples of sustainable permaculture gardening is a “three sisters” garden. For centuries, many First Nations groups across North America have cultivated three plants that worked together in perfect symbiosis: corn, beans, and squash (or pumpkin).

These three work together closely—like dear sisters—to create a guild system in which each plant benefits from the others:

  • Corn provides a perfect growing structure for climbing beans.
  • Beans help to tether corn into the soil (as it has shallow roots), and deposit vital nitrogen into the soil.
  • Squash/pumpkin leaves create mulch, keeping the soil moist, and repelling insects.

Isn’t that brilliant?

How to Plant the Three Sisters

corn, three sisters, rainbow corn, three sisters garden, glass gem corn
Glass Gem Corn from Baker Creek

Create a bed that’s North-South oriented, and gets at least 6 hours of direct sunshine per day. All of these plants need a lot of light. Once you’ve prepared your planting bed, you’ll have to stagger plantings.

Pull soil together to create mounds about 20cm high, and at least 1m apart. Soak a few corn seeds overnight, and plant one in the centre of each mound. Water well, and make sure to keep the soil moist.

After a couple of weeks, the corn should have grown to about 10cm. Soak your beans overnight, and then plant six beans around each corn seedling. These should be 15-20cm away from the stalk.

At the same time, plant three or four squash or pumpkin seeds between the mounds, about 40cm away from the beans.

Feeding and Tending

beans, corn beans squash, three sisters, cherokee beans, trail of tears beans
Cherokee “Trail of Tears” Beans from Baker Creek

You’ll have to add some extra fertilizer to the soil when the corn is about 40cm tall. Any high-nitrogen fertilizer works well: just make sure to pour it onto the soil’s surface, not over the plant. It’s a good idea to feed them again when silk starts to appear on the husks.
A few tips:

  • Beans that are having difficulty climbing the corn can be gently helped along. Use small twigs to lead the bean tendrils to the corn stalks.
  • Once several fruits have formed on your squash/pumpkin plants, pinch off any new runners or blooms. This will keep energy in the plant to use towards growing more fruits.
  • Raise developing squashes off the ground with stones or wooden risers. This will keep them from rotting, and make them less attractive to grubs and beetles.

Best Varieties to Choose

kabocha, squash, kabocha squash, three sisters, 3 sisters garden
Kabocha Squash from Baker Creek

You can mix and match all kinds of cultivars and they’ll grow pretty well together. Some say that it’s a good idea to choose varieties that originated in the same area, but I’ve had no problems growing southwestern corn alongside northeastern pumpkins.
Here are some of our favourites:

Corn

Beans

Squash

Pumpkin

Make sure to save seeds and beans from your harvest for next year’s garden, and to share with friends/neighbours!

How to Use Them Together

vegan chili, three sisters chili, three sisters soup, three sisters stew
Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

You can cook these glorious vegetables together in a number of different ways. For example, you can make a stew that uses all of them in equal proportions, or make bean and corn fritters with squash soup on the side.

Black bean and corn salsa is fantastic, especially ladled onto zucchini fritters (which are basically like latkes made with summer squash). My personal favourite is to toss all of these into a rich vegan chili, like this one.

For some additional permaculture ideas, as well as seed-saving, and scrumptious recipes, check out these posts:

Permaculture Principles: Observe Your Land Before You Plant Anything

How to Save Your Seeds

FTW Kitchen: Our Pasta Fazoo (Pasta e Fagioli)

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