The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

Three Sisters 1
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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!

3sisters.jpg
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!

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Reader Comments

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The Three Sisters and Nutrition

One important fact about nutrition was left out of your article. It's always been my understanding that when eaten together, corn and beans create an near perfect protein. Us Indians gave you succotash!

"Three Sisters" Garden

Sunflowers were sometimes added to this arrangement as well. They were either planted in mounds along the northern border of the garden, or planted in the center of the "corn circle" mound with the "three sisters". There is a good, informative book titled, "Native American Gardening" written by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac that describes two different versions of the "Three Sisters Garden",(Wampanoag and Hidatsa), as well as other interesting information. It's published by Fulcrum Publishing.

"Native American Gardening"

Thanks for the name of the gardening book; my comment: Sweet fresh corn (uncooked in salads); is a high source of Lutein and Lycopene; tow essential nutrients for better vision"; Squash has Beta-carotene; found in Carrots also; I will plant the three sisters this week; thanks!;;

Japanese beetles on sweet corn

what can I use to get rid of Japanese beetles? can I use something on the corn?

Can the squash be small pie pumpkins?

I love the idea of growing the ancient three sisters. I wonder if it can be done with pumpkins. I also wonder if the corn can be sweet corn. Also, is it possible to grow two species of corn together? Sweet corn and popping corn. If you could answer I question posted this late it would be much appreciated.

three sisters, two cousins

You should be ok with pumpkins. However, it is not advisable to plant sweet and popping corn together; they are genetically different and their presence together will result in a starchy, not sweet, kernels. The best corns are dent, flint, and flour corn; popcorn, which does not get tall, is likely to get overwhelmed by beans and pumpkins.

tomatoes/corn

I've read that tomatoes and corn don't make good companions because they attract the same pests. Is there more to it than that? Also, my garden is 16 ft x 20 ft. I am designate a 10x10 ft portion to a 3-sisters garden next year. How far away should I plan on planting the tomatoes?

Tomatoes and Corn

As far as I know, the two vegetable plants are not recommended to be planted together mainly because both attract the corn earworm, also called the tomato fruitworm. The adult moths of this pest can fly long distances, so it sounds like no matter how far away you plant the tomatoes from the corn in your plot, they’d still be susceptible to the moths laying eggs. However, once the eggs hatch, the larvae essentially stay on that one plant. So, if you’d like to have both corn and tomatoes, you might try about a 5 foot separation between the corn and tomatoes and then monitor closely for moths, eggs, and larvae. On corn, the worms like to feed on the silks and then move into the ears from the tip. On tomatoes, they can eat the fruit (burrowing inside), buds, or leaves. Eggs are about the size of a pinhead and are creamy white – look for them on corn silks and on tomato leaves and buds. Encourage beneficial parasitic wasps by planting dill, parsley, and similar nearby. Till soil in early spring to destroy overwintering pupae. Hope this helps!

corn earworm /tomato fruitworm

In my central Alberta, Canada garden, I have always grown corn and tomatoes next to each other (many varieties of tomato ripen; corn, only short-season cultivars), but never have seen these pests, nor the tomato worm. I have heard that around Taber in the SW, where sweet corn is a commercial product, there is concern about introducing the corn earworm (corn borer?) even in water-ground meal. What is the present northern limit of these pests? Are they occurring farther north as the climate changes?

Rotating Crops

Do the three sisters needed to be relocated each year, or can they go back into the same soil. Does it help to plant a winter cover crop to refresh the soil for the next year?

crop rotation

It is always wise to move your plants around, Linda. So, yes, we recommend relocating the three sisters each year.

Planting a cover crop helps/improves the soil but it does not serve the same purpose as planting the three sisters elsewhere. And plant other crops in their place.

crop rotation following 3 sisters

What are good crops to plant for crop rotation following 3 sisters?

Sweet corn for 3 sisters?

I keep reading how sweet corn won't work for 3 sisters. This article doesn't mention that. Anybody have any hope for my dreams of corn on the cob?

You can try planting sweet

You can try planting sweet corn elsewhere in your garden, but it is not meant to be used for the Three Sisters–the corn was grown to be dried for grinding into cornmeal

Sweet Sister

The method seems to work just fine with sweet corn. I did a "Two Sister" method a couple of years ago, using just sweet corn and beans -- and I planted them in rows, rather than hills. Both plants thrived and the vegetables were good.

The science behind the method is the same for any corn (and peas are very similar to beans in this regard). Sweet corn, like any other corn, has an upright growth habit to support climbing plants (the beans or peas). Any corn (including sweet) benefits greatly from higher levels of nitrogen provided by beans or peas. The squash is there for ground cover for the other plants and also benefits from the extra nitrogen from the beans/peas.

I would go ahead and try it. I am doing it again this year with Country Gentleman corn, some beans, some peas, and am getting ready to sow some pumpkin (since we very rarely eat squash).

companion planting

I've been thinking to try companion planting and "the three sisters" could be a good start for me. My siter will be very glad to read your post too. Thank you for sharing this nice information!

Sunflower, Mammoth produces a

Sunflower, Mammoth produces a plethora of edible & viable seeds, Pumpkin Pie plants needs plenty of space to spread, beautiful flowers, arugula is easy to grow outside, cooler months after the frost

three sisters gardening

Doing research on the beans used by SW native americans, including mesoamericans pre-conquest, the bean used is called a tepary bean and is one of the most drought tolerant legumes known. It is a small bean, but is heat tolerant as well. The gourds were probably a winter type that resists rot and can serve as a container when seeds were removed. The corn was a flint type that is multi-colored and has a strong and tall stalk.

three sisters garden

I have a couple questions regarding the type of corn, squash and beans used. First, these plants you mention seem kind of unusual, are they even available to purchase? Second, what does "flint" corn taste like? And third, is there a squash that would taste good that would be recommended?

Thank you!
Lydia Saunders

Three Sisters Garden

I just came across this post. I know it was posted a year ago and no one will probably see this, but just in case I hope this helps someone. The squash that works well for me is butternut squash. It's not a favorite of the squash vine borer pest and it's very versatile to cook with. The beans I would recommend are pole beans, they climb well and will give you the "look" of the three sisters garden. Lastly, for the corn, do your research, look at the average last frost date of your area. Corn will not typically germinate when the soil temp is lower than 60 degrees. Some varieties will adapt to cooler weather. There are treated seeds. Popcorn would be fun but if you are not able to dry it out properly it will be a total waste. Sweet corn is popular, tasty, and unless you have a mill, is probably you're best option over all other types of corn. Look up Johnny Seeds in Maine for seeds. If you want all of your seeds to sprout, check them out.

three sisters

can you recommend some types of corn, beans and squash for this.

Three sisters planting

I live in Southern California zone 10. Is it possible to start a three sisters planting in the fall instead of spring?

three sisters in SoCal

You can certainly start them and see how they go. These are summer-loving plants, meaning they like summer temps. It would be an interesting experiment.

Seems to be good advice. The

Seems to be good advice. The help provided by this site is outstanding, as well as the manners. If I were to have more than one mound, lets assume many, how far apart would be good to distance the mounds from one another? I'm unfamiliar with squash/pumpkins and their spread. Thank you in advance :)

We'd suggest allowing between

We'd suggest allowing between 5 and 8 feet, from the center of one hill to the center of the next. If you are using a pumpkin/squash variety that sprawls considerably, select the wider spacing; for compact squash or pumpkins, you might try the smaller spacing. You want the squash/pumpkins to sprawl on the ground, covering the surface to act as a living mulch, shading the soil and helping it to retain moisture and block weeds from emerging. If you plant the mounds too far apart, the vines may not cover the whole area (closer plantings may also help with corn pollination). Some pumpkin vines can sprawl more than 20 feet (but it is best to trim them for fruit production). Vines of bush types of squash/pumpkin plants may grow only 3 to 4 feet long. Unless you have a large area to grow your garden, you might select semi-bush, bush, or miniature squash/pumpkin varieties.

I read that harvesting the

I read that harvesting the beans using this method is very difficult. I would love to try it, but could see how that could happen. Does anyone have any suggestions or comments?

Stepping Stones

Try stepping stones (either big, natural ones or large cast ones from your friendly landscaping supplier). I place them at convenient spaces between every other row in my ground-level garden. This allows access to every row, either on my right or my left, as I walk across the stones. It does require regular pushing aside of vigorous growers, but the stones, themselves, offer some discouragement to the plants' trying to take root in the walking path. I like them big enough to do the job, but not so big as to make moving or removing them too difficult. Next year's garden always gets different spacing (and sometimes row orientation), as I rotate crops. Also, I do till the soil occasionally (which some argue is unnecessary and even counterproductive in well-maintained soil), so the stones need to get out of the way for that.

I'm using the Garden Planner

I'm using the Garden Planner - is there a way to represent the plants in the Three Sisters layout using this tool? Thanks!

You can represent your Three

You can represent your Three Sisters planting by either placing each plant individually, or by editing the spacings for each plant to take into account the wider spacings used in intercropping, and dragging out a row or block. You can edit spacings in the following way:
1. Add a row of plants to your plan and double-click on it.
2. Click on the + and then select your variety or add a new variety.
3. Click Edit
4. Check the 'Use Custom Plant Spacings' box and edit the values for the 'Spacing between plants in rows' and 'Spacing between rows'  fields, or 'Spacing between plants' if you're planting in blocks.
5. Click Save and then click Done.
We hope that helps!

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