The Three Sisters Garden
The ‘Three Sisters Garden’ is the tradition of planting of corn, beans and squash together, three plants that prevent weeds and pests, enrich the soil, and support each other.
Treaty 2 Territory – Instead of today’s single rows of a single vegetable, this method of interplanting introduced biodiversity, which does many things—from attracting pollinators to making the land richer instead of stripping it of nutrients. In a sense, we take no more from nature than what we give back.
By the time European settlers arrived in America in the early 1600s, the Iroquois had been growing the “three sisters” for over three centuries. The vegetable trio sustained tribes both physically and spiritually. According to stories told, these plants were a gift from the Creator, always to be grown together, eaten together, and celebrated together.
Each of the sisters contributes something to the planting. Together, the sisters provide a balanced diet from a single planting.
√ As older sisters often do, the corn offers the beans necessary support.
√ The pole beans, the giving sister, pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three.
√ As the beans grow through the tangle of squash vines and wind their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the sisters close together.
√ The large leaves of the sprawling squash protect the threesome by creating living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist and preventing weeds.
√ The prickly squash leaves also keep away pests, which don’t like to step on them.
Corn, beans and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbs, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. And squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthy oils from the seeds.
These three sisters are all native to the Americas and have been cultivated for thousands of years. This trio helped keep soils healthy and it helped keep First Nations healthy. When early settlers landed and pushed west these three crops were quickly adopted into cultivation practices. The bounty of fall harvest included these vegetables and now, hundreds of years later, they are still served on the table as part of many Thanksgiving dinner menus.
How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden
Traditionally, women of the village would mound the soil and plant corn in the center of the hill. Once the corn came up, probably about two weeks, they would then plant the beans around the corn seedlings followed by the squash seeds at the furthest distance from corn seedlings. This form of gardening is easy to plant, maintain and harvest. There are variations to the Three Sisters method, but the idea is to plant the sisters in clusters on low wide mounds rather than in a single traditional row.
Before planting, choose a sunny location (at least 6 hours of full sun every day). This method of planting isn’t based on rows, so think in terms of a small field. Each hill will be about 4 feet wide and 4 feet apart, with 4 to 6 corn plants per hill. Calculate your space with this in mind.
Three Sisters Teaching
Once upon a time very long ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and also in their way of dressing. One of the three was a little sister, so young that she could only crawl at first and she was dressed in green. The second of the three wore a dress of bright yellow and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun was shining, and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the oldest sister, always standing very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to guard them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breezes.
There was only one way in which the three sisters were alike. They loved one another very dearly, and they were never separated. They were sure that they would not be able to live apart.
After a while a stranger came to the field of the three sisters, a little Indian boy. He was as straight as an arrow and as fearless as the eagle that circled the sky above his head. He knew the way of talking to the birds and the small brothers of the earth, the mouse, the chipmunk, and the young foxes. And the three sisters, the one who was just able to crawl, the one in the yellow frock, and the one with the flowing hair, were very much interested in the little Indian boy. They watched him fit his arrow in his bow, saw him carve a bowl with his stone knife, and wondered where he went at night.
Late that summer, one of the three sisters disappeared. This was the youngest sister in green, the sister who could only crawl. She was scarcely able to stand alone in the field unless she had a stick to which she clung. Her sisters mourned for her until the fall, but she did not return.
Once more the Indian boy came to the field of the three sisters. He came to gather reeds at the edge of a stream nearby to make arrow shafts. The two sisters who were left watched him and gazed with wonder at the prints of his moccasins in the earth that marked his trail. That night the second of the sisters left, the one who was dressed in yellow and who always wanted to run away. She left no mark of her going, but it may have been that she set her feet in the moccasin tracks of the little Indian boy.
Now there was but one of the sisters left. Tall and straight she stood in the field not once bowing her head with sorrow, but it seemed to her she could not live there alone. The days grew shorter, and the nights were colder. Her green shawl faded and grew thin and old. Her hair, once long and golden, was tangled by the wind. Day and night, she called for her sisters to return to her, but they did not hear her. Her voice when she tried to call to them was low and sad like the wind.
One day when it was the season of the harvest, the little Indian boy heard the crying of the third sister who had been left to mourn there in the field. He felt sorry for her, and he took her in his arms and carried her to the lodge of his father and mother. Oh, what a surprise awaited her there! Her two lost sisters were there in the lodge of the little Indian boy, safe and very glad to see her. They had been curious about the Indian boy, and they had gone home with him to see how and where he lived. They had liked his warm cave so well that they had decided now that winter was coming on to stay with him. And they were doing all they could to be useful.
The little sister in green, now quite grown up, was helping to keep the dinner pot full. The sister in yellow sat on the shelf drying herself, for she planned to fill the dinner pot later. The third sister joined them, ready to grind meal for the Native boy. And the three were never separated again.
If you decide to plant the 3 sisters, there are many recipes online.
Renée McGurry, Earth Lodge Development Helper
Earth Lodge Website: http://lodge.fnt2t.com
Last modified: May 7, 2021