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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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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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

The Editors's picture

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!

I had great success with a

I had great success with a 3sisters this year--lots of food produced easily,even though--i would do somethings different next year... i planted it on a 16x14foot low-profile hugelkulture bed which was marvelously rich with compost and decomposing wood.

i planted sunflowers in the same bed with no ill effects--they were used as a pretty edge, while the inside was filled with corn, scarlet runner beans & delicata squash...I was pretty random with the plantings--didn't mound & didn't follow spacing guidlines, even stuffed a few volunteer squashes into the edges when i found them elsewhere--next time i will make wider paths of at least 2feet between my blocks; i think i planted too much squash which got out of control and pulled down my corn--also i used some saved squash seeds which obviously had been cross pollinated and produced frankensquash--next year only fresh bought seed and if i didn't have so much i think i could have controlled it's direction better... I have been considering using zuchini instead of a trailing squash next year--still thinking on this.

we also were blessed with a long hot summer.you could see pictures of my garden on Sun Lotus Yoga Sanctuary facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/media...

three sisters garden

what kind of corn did you use and were the delicata squash and runner beans tasty? Thank you for your very useful information!

Does anyone know how a three

Does anyone know how a three sisters garden is/was traditionally 'put to bed' in the winter? We have harvested our beans, corn and squash -do we leave the corn stalks over winter? (We are in Minnesota)

Good question! We haven't

The Editors's picture

Good question! We haven't heard how the garden was traditionally put to bed. However, we'd recommend that you remove garden debris before winter, to discourage pests and diseases from overwintering. Some gardeners cut the corn stalks at the base and let the fallen stalks dry for a week or so. They then chop the stalks and leaves into small pieces (by hand, mower, or chipper/shredder) and till the chopped pieces into the soil, or add them to the compost pile.

I am re planting my garden

I am re planting my garden midsummer in va. I was wondering of the sister rule still applies of they are transplants? is it even possible?

Starting a garden late, was

Starting a garden late, was given 24, 4x8 garden boxes and free water... I would like yellow squash, collards, cabbage, okra, sweet corn, sweet peas, green beans, onions, and asscarrots, tomatoes, sweet green yellow and red peppers, and assorted herbs... any suggestions for companions, spacing and number of types and total plants per box?

You might be interested in

The Editors's picture

You might be interested in these articles:
companion plants:
http://www.almanac.com/content...
http://www.almanac.com/content...
http://www.almanac.com/content...
 
For spacing for each plant, see our vegetable and herb articles:
http://www.almanac.com/plants/...
http://www.almanac.com/plants/...
 
You might also be interested in our online Garden Planner, which is a tool to plot your garden (you could set up 24 rows of 4x8 raised beds, for example)--it will automatically give you the spacing for each plant and tell you how many would fit in the area, etc., and the planting/harvesting times will be tailored to your local climate (via zip code). It is a free tool for 30 days. After that, if you find you like it, you can subscribe for $25 per year. It's handy for garden records, and it will tell you next year what plants should not be put in the same plot (crop rotation). See:
http://gardenplanner.almanac.com/

Need gardening help.

Need gardening help.

Do the squash/pumpkins need

Do the squash/pumpkins need to be planted ON the mound? Or are they planted along the perimeter on level ground?

We plant 4 to 5 seeds inside

The Editors's picture

We plant 4 to 5 seeds inside a small mound or hill when we plant pumpkins.  You plant one inch deep on the mound itself.
You can also hill up squash, though this is more useful in northern climates to help warm up the soil.
In fact, in hot southern climates, some gardeners will plant in a depression so they can more easily water.
It would be helpful for you to review our growing pages for pumpkins and for summer squash below:
http://www.almanac.com/plant/p...
http://www.almanac.com/plant/s...
 

Are there other vegetable /

Are there other vegetable / fruit combinations that will thrive using the Three Sisters companion planting method?.

Here is a list of vegetables

The Editors's picture

Here is a list of vegetables that thrive in each other's company (as well as those that do not):
http://www.almanac.com/content...

I have 16 corn plants planted

I have 16 corn plants planted in a square beans around the outside and squash planted at the corners no mound what does the mound do

Good question. Planting in or

The Editors's picture

Good question. Planting in or on mounds keeps water from collecting at the plant's stem and root. That's why squash and melons are also grown this way. It maybe that with good drainage, your crops will be fine without a mound, but making mounds ensures drainage not matter what weather conditions come to pass. Apparently some folks also plant in raised beds as well as on flat ground.
As for mounding the three sisters in particular, one source suggests that Iroquois Native Americans believed that the trio would only survive if planted on a mound.
Hope this helps. Let us know how it goes for you.

Yes, tomatoes are an

Yes, tomatoes are an antagonist to both corn and potatoes. Tomatoes are a heavy feeder, as well as corn. Both should not be planted in the same area where they will rob each other of needed nutrients, thus you will have weak crops from both. Check your local extension office for further information and general families/foes.

According to our companion

The Editors's picture

According to our companion planting chart (http://www.almanac.com/content...), sunflowers are not foes of tomatoes.

The planting chart and James'

The planting chart and James' comment says tomatoes and sunflowers DO NOT get along together, however, last year I had both sunflowers and tomato plants come up in the same bed and those tomato plants out-produced those in other areas of the garden. So, it would seem that there exceptions to the rule?

I'm trying four sisters, but

I'm trying four sisters, but two versions of each. Corn/sunflowers; zucchini/summer squash; peas/beans. I love this concept, plus the fact it has been used successfully for hundreds of years by our native people.

Neither sunflowers nor peas

Neither sunflowers nor peas were raised by Native Americans. Sunflowers were imported from Russia and peas from Europe. I am not sure that corn will do well if panted with sunflowers. Sunflowers have a negative alleopathic effect on many garden plants.

Corn does fine with

Corn does fine with sunflowers, I've been doing it for years with success. They also do well with cucumber. Sunflowers attract birds keep this in mind if you have a crop that birds savor. Sunflowers also attract Aphids .....

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