How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden
I believe in taking a practical approach to gardening that will reward my hard work with a bountiful crop at the end of the season. That’s why I focus my summer garden on growing vegetables that I know will do well in my climate (zone 8b). There’s no sense in spending all that time starting seeds and weeding and watering the garden all summer only to have crops fail to produce because the growing season isn’t usually long enough here for crops that require long hot summers. There are several beautiful fruits and vegetables that I’ve just about given up trying to grow. Plants that require a long growing season such as melons and achieving one of those beautiful arch trellises covered with exotic looking gourds and luffa vines always seem to be out of reach for me due to our moderate growing season.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t experiment with new things every once in a while just for the fun of it. A few years ago I was looking for a way to add some vertical interest to my garden as well as more color to my harvest. That’s what led me to try growing the beautiful heritage corn and bean varieties that I had been swooning over after seeing them popularized in my social media feed. I was also interested in trying the traditional method of growing these crops with the three sisters method used in Native American agriculture. The "three sisters" is a companion planting consisting of corn, beans, and squash, with each plant supporting and complementing the others. I was delighted with the beautiful focal point the three sisters planting made in my garden, as well as the harvest, and now I grow a small three sisters garden every year.
The Three Sisters
There are many corn, bean and squash varieties that can be used in a three sisters planting, so you can select the varieties that suit your preference and your available space. For the corn, you can grow a sweet corn for eating fresh as corn on the cob, or you can grow one of the beautifully colored heirloom types of corn that are used as popcorn, for grinding into corn meal or flour, or simply for decoration. For the bean, you will need to use a pole bean variety so that the vines will grow up the corn stalks. You can grow a green or snap bean variety which are eaten fresh, pod and all, or you can grow a shelling type bean, which are eaten either fresh or dried. Don’t use a bush bean variety because not only will it not grow up the corn, it will be so short that it will be shaded out by the corn and won’t produce well. There are almost endless varieties of beautiful heirloom pole beans that you can use in your three sisters garden. As for the squash, if you have plenty of room to let it sprawl, you can plant any type of winter squash. If you have a more limited space, select one of the mounding or smaller varieties of summer squash.
Here are the varieties that I plant in my three sisters garden.
Glass Gem Popcorn
Glass gem corn produces an amazing array of kernel colors in every color of the rainbow. You won’t believe your eyes when you peel back the husks on the first ears that you harvest. You may even let out a squeal of excitement, I know I did! This type of corn is intended for drying and popping. It doesn't have the high sugar content of a sweet corn, so don't try eating it fresh - you will be disappointed, but I guarantee you will enjoy it as popcorn or simply as a beautiful decoration. The plants are usually six to eight feet in height, with each stalk producing two or three ears of corn. The ears are smaller and narrower than those of sweet corn and are usually five to eight inches in length. I typically harvest a couple dozen ears of corn from my small three sisters garden.
Good Mother Stallard Bean
Good Mother Stallard bean is an attractive maroon and white speckled bean (the pod is green). It is a shelling type bean which is eaten after the beans are dried. They are great in soups, where they keep some of their speckled beauty, and they have a nice creamy texture. I typically harvest a few cups of beans each year. It’s not a lot, but it’s fun and I enjoy having them for a few special meals.
I grow my three sisters garden in a fairly small area. It is a circular planting that is about 10 feet in diameter, so I typically use the smaller mounding types of summer squash around the edge. I plant zucchini and crookneck squash since they tend to stay in their allotted space better than some of the more vigorously growing squash varieties. Sometimes I will also plant a smaller pumpkin such as the warty Galeux D'Eysines around the very edge, to add a bit more visual interest.
The three sisters are warm season plants, so wait to start the seeds until soil temperatures are warming in the late spring and plant in full sun. Plant the corn first, spacing them between 6 and 12 inches apart. Wait to plant the beans until the corn is several inches high so that it will be strong enough to support the faster growing beans. Interplant the beans approximately 3 inches from the corn. The bean vines tend to grow quite tall so I give them supplemental supports. I use cut branches or bamboo poles placed in a triangle and tied together at the top. Plant the squash along the outer edge of the corn and beans, and the large squash leaves will shade the ground to conserve moisture and prevent weeds.
If you are growing popcorn or one of the heirloom types of flint or flour corn you can let the corn ears mature and dry on the plant. Wait to harvest the ears until the husks are dry and brown. If you are growing a sweet corn, you’ll want to pick the corn earlier in the season while the kernels are still tender and sweet. If you are growing a type of bean that is eaten dried, you’ll leave the bean pods on the plant until the bean pods turn brown and harvest them when the pods are dry. If you are growing a bean that is eaten fresh such as green bean or a snap bean, you’ll obviously want to harvest them earlier when they are at their peak of freshness. Summer squash can be harvested as they are ready of course. If you are growing a winter squash, wait to harvest until they are fully mature and have a hard rind and the stem is brown and dry.
I hope you will give the three sisters garden a try and enjoy growing some of the beautiful varieties of heritage corn and beans for enjoying through the winter!