The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden

May 14, 2020
Three Sisters 1
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Did you know that corn, beans, and squash are called the “Three Sisters”? A number of Native American tribes interplanted this trio because they thrive together, much like three inseparable sisters. Here’s how to plant your own Three Sisters garden.

What Is a Three Sisters Garden?

The Three Sisters method is companion planting at its best, with three plants growing symbiotically to deter weeds and pests, enrich the soil, and support each other. 

Instead of today’s single rows of a single vegetable, this method of interplanting introduced biodiversity, which does many things—from attracting pollinators to making the land richer instead of stripping it of nutrients. In a sense, we take no more from nature than what we give back.

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 necessary support.
  • The pole 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 and other pests, 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 credit: University of Illinois Extension

Which Seeds to Plant

In modern-day gardens, the Three Sisters consists of these three vegetables:

  1. Pole beans (not bush beans). Common pole beans such as Scarlet Runner or Italian Snap should work. The ‘Ohio Pole Bean’ is our favorite. We’ve also heard that some very vigorous hybrid pole beans clambering up skinny hybrid corn stalks can pull them down. So if you want to be extra cautious, look for less vigorous climbers. If you’d like to try native varieties, look for Four Corners Gold Beans or Hopi Light Yellow.
     
  2. Corn such as sweet corn, dent corn, or popcorn, or a combination. Your favorite sweet corn variety will do, although Native Americanas used a hearier corn with shorter stalks or many-stalked varieties so that the beans didn’t pull down the corn such as pale yellow Tarhumara corn, Hopi White corn, or heritage Black Aztec
     
  3. Small-leafed squash such as summer squash (zucchini) or winter squash (Hubbard). Note: Pumpkins are too vigorous and heavy; plant in a separate bed. Native American squash was different, but a yellow summer crookneck is similar enough. 

If you do wish to investigate pure strains of native seeds, reach out to experts such as Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, or Native American cultural museums.

How to Plant the Three Sisters

There are variations to the Three Sisters method, but the idea is to plant the sisters in clusters on low wide mounds rather than in a single traditional row.

Before planting, choose a sunny location (at least 6 hours of full sun every day). This method of planting isn’t based on rows, so think in terms of a small field. Each hill will be about 4 feet wide and 4 feet apart, with 4 to 6 corn plants per hill. Calculate your space with this in mind.

  1. In the spring, prepare the soil with plenty of organic matter and weed-free compost. Adjust the soil with fish scraps or wood ash if needed.
     
  2. Make a mound of soil about a foot high and 3 to 4 feet wide with a flat top that is about 10 inches across. For multiple mounds, space about four feet apart.
     
  3. Plant corn first once danger of frost has passed and nighttime temperatures reach 55°F. Don’t plant any later than June 1 in most areas, since corn requires a long growing season. See local frost dates
     
  4. Sow six kernels of corn an inch deep in the flat part of the mound, about ten inches apart in a circle of about 2 feet in diameter. 
     
  5. Don’t plant the beans and squash until the corn is about 6 inches to 1 foot tall. This ensures that the corn stalks will be strong enough to support the beans. The beans’ role is to fix nitrogen in the soil, which is needed for strong corn production. You can grow several pole bean varieties without worrying about hybrids, but just plant one variety per hill. (Tip: Another option is to plant corn transplants; in this case, you’d plant them at the same time as the beans.)
     
  6. Once corn is 6 inches to 1 foot tall, plant four bean seeds, evenly spaced, around each stalk. (Tip: If you coat your bean seeds with an innoculant before planting, you will fix nitrogen in the soil and that will benefit all of the plants.)
     
  7. About a week later, plant six squash seeds, evenly spaced, around the perimeter of the mound. See the spacing for squash on your packet; usually this is about 18 inches apart. You may wish to put two seeds in each hole to ensure germination.

Sometimes a fourth sister is included, such as a sunflower or amaranth, which attracts pollinators and lures birds away from the seeds. Sunflowers can be planted at the cross section of the spaces between the corn hills, and harvested for seeds. Amaranth could come up among the squash, and could be harvested both for greens and for seeds.

Watch our video demonstrating how to plant a three sisters garden.

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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3 Sisters bean innoculant?

I thought that beans always fixed nitrogen into the soil. Why is an innoculant recommended in this case?

inoculants

The Editors's picture

Legumes such as clover, peas and beans have root-colonizing rhizobacteria that can increase the availability of nitrogen to the plant by fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere. Each legume has a specific rhizobacteria that works best with that plant. Inoculating the legume seed with the correct bacteria ensures the legume will maximize nitrogen availability if nitrogen in the soil is low This is particularly important if you have not planted the legume species before, because the correct bacteria may not be present in the soil.

Three Sisters

Hi, I've scrolled through the comments, searching for my answer and have not yet seen it. Wondering about the three sisters planting, can I plant peanuts in place of beans, or perhaps some on one side and runner beans on another side of the garden. I've been looking at the diagram, for the four sisters, where pumpkins and melons are used in the outer corners.

Three Sisters Gardening

The Editors's picture

We admit, we’ve never tried peanuts! I suppose they are a legume, so they would offer similar nitrogen-fixing benefits. As long as you don’t think they would be too strong to pull down the corn, it seems worth an experiment. We’d love to hear if it works out!

3 Sisters Planting

Is this planting available in the Garden Planner?

Planting the Three Sisters

The Editors's picture

See Jeremy’s great feedback below. If you watch the video on this page, you’ll see a very nice combination which includes: Scarlet runner beans, oldcrest sweetcorn and the old French heirloom red pumpkin Rouge Vif D’ Etampes. We also added Monarda ( Bee balm) as a fourth Sister.

Planning 3 sisters in the Garden Planner

Jeremy Dore's picture

You can definitely plan a 3-Sisters planting plan in the Garden Planner.  You do that by adding the plants individually in the layout pattern that you want to use.  Once you’ve added your first squash, corn and beans you can then use the Selection tool to select and copy them and then paste that pattern as many times as you need to to cover the area you have.

There are some good examples available here:

A simple traditional layout: https://gardenplanner.almanac.com/garden-plans/692612/

A larger row-based 3 sisters layout (from a community garden in Africa): https://gardenplanner.almanac.com/garden-plans/283710/kabingo-africa/201...

An interesting 4 Sisters layout which adds sunflowers: https://gardenplanner.almanac.com/garden-plans/576922/usa/2015/4-sisters/

Feel free to email our Garden Planner customer support staff if you have further questions here: https://gardenplanner.almanac.com/contact.aspx

3 Sisters

I've seen this in many articles but no one specifies what types of beans and squash - please explain what types are best to grow together with an example- thanks

3 Sisters Planting.

The Editors's picture

See Jeremy’s note below for great feedback. For more ideas: Scarlet runner beans are gorgeous. Also, try oldcrest sweetcorn and the old French heirloom red pumpkin Rouge Vif D’ Etampes. It is this combo that is shown in the video on this page! The red and yellow and scarlet flowers of the beans are a showstopper.

Varieties of Beans, Squash and Corn to use for 3 Sisters

Jeremy Dore's picture

You’ll find a very informative article with details of varieties to use written by Barbara Pleasant here on our Garden Planner site:

https://gardenplanner.almanac.com/guides/companion-planting-three-sister...

There are quite a few options that work well (including sweet corn) - just remember that choosing a larger squash variety will take up considerably more space.

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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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

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