Corn, beans, and squash are called the “three sisters.” Native Americans always inter-planted this trio because they thrive together, much like three inseparable sisters.
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 the Native Americans both physically and spiritually. In legend, the plants were a gift from the gods, 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 needed support.
- The 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 raccoons, which don’t like to step on them.
Together, the three sisters provide both sustainable soil fertility as well as a heathly diet. Perfection!
Image: University of Illinois Extension
Tips for Growing The Three Sisters
- To try them in your garden, in spring, prepare the soil by adding fish scraps or wood ash to increase fertility, if desired.
- Make a mound of soil about a foot high and four feet wide.
- When the danger of frost has passed, plant the corn in the mound. Sow six kernels of corn an inch deep and about ten inches apart in a circle of about 2 feet in diameter.
- When the corn is about 5 inches tall, plant four bean seeds, evenly spaced, around each stalk. About a week later, plant six squash seeds, evenly spaced, around the perimeter of the mound.
Read our article on Companion Gardening to learn more about which plants are friends—or, foes!