Local gardening: How to make a Three Sisters vegetable garden

April 11, 2013 

20061018 Corn



How might you and your children garden like a native at school or home? Enlist the Three Sisters, a Native American Indian food management system trio to enliven your summer garden.

Throughout North America Native American Indian diets relied upon three staple crops: corn, beans and squash — the three sisters.

Corn was the tall elder sister with long yellow hair and a green shawl. Her younger sister, who dressed in green, could only crawl and was always clinging to elder sister. The third sister wore yellow and had a habit of running off in every direction. The three sisters loved each other dearly and grew closely together so as to never be separated.

The legend describes two organic methods of gardening introduced by Native Americans: interplanting and companion planting. Interplanting utilizes space efficiently by growing plants closely together. Companion planting clusters plants in harmonious relationships for mutual support.

For Native Americans gardening was a way for people to become an integral part of the Circles of Life. The garden and gardener are affected by the water cycle, nutrient cycle, life cycle, lunar cycle, night and day, seasonal cycles and the cycle of giving and receiving.

Corn, beans and squash need a site with six to eight hours of sunlight per day.

Add a two-inch layer of compost or manure to the soil. In the center of the area build soil into a mound 18 inches in diameter and 6 inches high. Sow 3 or 4 corn seeds on the top of the mound about 6 inches apart. When corn seedlings are 4 inches high, sow 4 pole or runner bean seeds around the slope in the directions of North, South, East, and West. If beans are planted too early, they will overtake young corn and smother them.

Squash, both winter and summer varieties, may be planted at the same time beans are planted. Squash seeds may be planted in four mounds aligned with the compass directions built around the central corn/bean mound. Squash vines will spread across the ground.

Many native gardens were bordered with sunflowers, also an important native food. To avoid blocking sun from reaching the three sisters, plant the sunflower fence on the north border of the garden.

As the plants grow together, they benefit one another. There is less loss of crops due to insect damage. The corn supports the beans and the squash controls weeds and holds moisture in the soil. Beans fix nitrogen in the soil. This is especially important because corn is a high consumer of nitrogen. The planting system packs a nutrient dense and varied diet in a compact space.

Harvest crops as they mature and create native recipes like succotash, sunflower seed balls, corn cakes, squash blossoms, roasted pumpkin and squash seeds, bean or cornbread. Compost garden waste and return it to the earth as Native Americans would do.

Arlene Marturano is an educator, consultant, master gardener, and freelance writer. Read more of Arlene Marturano’s garden writings at suite101.com and www.scgardenlearning.com

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