Considered gifts to mankind by tribes of the First Nations, corn, beans, and squash have been grown together for centuries in the Americas. Although the grouping is the subject of several legends, it’s also an early and sophisticated variation on sustainable agriculture. The seeds of each type of vegetable, grown in single varieties, are easy to harvest and save from year to year. Corn provides a growing support for the beans, which in turn provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. The squash grow quickly, acting as a mulch against weeds. All three types of plant are heavy feeders, so grow this ancient combination in rich, well-drained soil and add a small handful of complete organic fertilizer beneath each planting site. This Three Sisters Mix Seeds collection contains Golden Bantam corn, Scarlet Runner Beans, and Red Kuri Squash.
Otherwise, start all the seeds indoors 3-4 weeks before planting out, and aim for the same kind of spacing. It may look sparse at first, but these are fast growing plants.
Wait until the soil has warmed up in late spring. The soil should be consistently 18°C (65°F). Start by planting the corn seeds 30cm (12″) apart in as close to a grid shape as possible. Sow the bean seeds outside the perimeter of this grid. Sow the squash seeds at the corners of the grid so they are also 30cm (12″) from the nearest corn seed.
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For some cultures, other crops are also important in traditional agriculture. For example, tobacco is equally sacred as Sisters Corn, Beans, and Squash for many indigenous cultures of the Southwest. Sunflowers and amaranth are considered other Sisters. They and offer shade to the other Sisters during the heat of the afternoon, attract pollinators, and provide additional stalks for beans to climb. The edible seeds and amaranth greens contribute to a nutritionally balanced diet. Because they have a similar growing habitat, other cucurbits like watermelon and gourds can be substituted for the squash. The long, sprawling vines will shade the ground in a similar way to squash. Consider growing some of these other crops in place of or in addition to corn, beans, or squash depending upon what you like to eat and enjoy growing.
Corn provides tall stalks for the beans to climb so that they are not out-competed by sprawling squash vines. Beans provide nitrogen to fertilize the soil while also stabilizing the tall corn during heavy winds. Beans are nitrogen-fixers meaning they host rhizobia on their roots that can take nitrogen, a much needed plant nutrient, from the air and convert it into forms that can be absorbed by plant roots. The large leaves of squash plants shade the ground which helps retain soil moisture and prevent weeds.
These three crops are also at the center of culinary traditions and complement one another as well. A diet of corn, beans, and squash is complete and balanced. Corn provides carbohydrates and the dried beans are rich in protein and have amino acids absent from corn. Squash provides different vitamins and minerals than corn and beans. These three crops are also important because they can all be dried and used for food year round. These traits are less important today, but were important in the past which lead to their significance as the major cultivated foods.
What Varieties to Plant
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For corn, we recommend varieties like Dia de San Juan , an all purpose dent corn, or Flor del Rio , a tall popcorn that produces 2-4 ears per stalk. For beans, climbers like Tohono O’odham Vayos or Four Corners Gold work well. Recommended squash varieties depends upon your space. If you have a lot of space for the plants to sprawl consider winter squash varieties like Magdalena Big Cheese or Tarahumara Pumpkin. If you are planting in a raised bed or other restricted plot consider summer squash varieties like Dark Star Zucchini or Yellow Crookneck squash.
The corn should be a tall variety so the bean plants have plenty of room to climb and do not overcrowd the corn. Many Southwestern varieties of corn, such as Tohono O’odham 60-day and Hopi Sweet, are shorter plants that mature quickly. This is a beneficial trait selected to use less water, but not ideal for beans to climb. The bean variety should not be a bush bean but rather a climbing type also called pole beans. Non-vigorous climbers and bushy-pole types are best so that they do not take over the corn plants. Lima , runner , and common bean types do best. Teparies are not recommended for this type of planting. Corn and squash need more water than varieties of tepary beans so they do not grow well together. Traditional winter squash varieties can grow vines up to 15 feet long and therefore need adequate space to sprawl. Consider growing more compact summer squash varieties if you do not have much space such as a raised bed garden.
How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden
We recommend directly planting all of these types of seeds as they will fare better than transplants. Direct planting of seeds leads to stronger root systems that are more adequately able to take up water and nutrients, resulting in more vigorous and healthy plants.
There are numerous configurations to Three Sisters Gardens. The main consideration is your space constraints. You will want to give individual plants enough space to thrive and have enough of each type of crop to facilitate pollination. Beans are self-pollinating so even only 1 plant will produce beans. They do get crowded growing up corn plants so expect slightly lower yields than if you grew them in their own plot. Squash require insects to pollinate the flowers so having several plants growing at the same time helps attract sufficient pollinators. Corn is wind-pollinated and while capable of self-pollinating you will have more success with more plants. It is best to have at least 10-20 corn plants to provide sufficient pollen availability but plant more if you have the space to increase your success.