The Three Sisters kept Native Americans of several different communities alive for thousands of years. Easily planted together, corn, beans, and squash work off of one another to create a new life and wonderfully easy-to-grow plants that will keep your tummy full. Let’s dive right in.
What You’ll Need
I’ll be assuming that you’re using a raised bed in this case. If you don’t have one, most of the advice given in this article will be easy enough to translate into in-ground planting (or, well, some of you are wild enough to use containers for this; more power to you!). Just a heads up that when I say raised bed, I’m talking about any and all planting areas.
Personally, I do recommend a raised bed just so you can really give the corn a little extra nitrogen vs having to turn over and till old plots and hope everything goes well. A fresh raised bed is a little more heavily managed.
In any case, you’ll need a good corn seed. I like Silver Queen corn, personally, but get a good sweet corn seed because you’re likely not going to be drying this. You want pole beans and any variety works (we use Rattlesnake beans a lot). And go ahead and grab whatever sort of squash you want to grow; any of them will work so long as the leaves of the plant are large and able to shade the roots of the other two Sisters.
General gardening soil and typical fertilizer are enough for these plants. You can’t really easily scorch any of them but try not to be too heavy-handed.
Timing Is Everything
To start with, plant your corn just after your last frost. When your corn has grown to around 6-8 inches off the ground and the root bulb stalk is getting tough, you can go ahead and plant a few bean plants around it. Ideally, these are in seed form. If you get started with plants from your local nursery, let your corn get up to a foot tall before you put the bean plants in.
As your beans start to shoot up and send out runners (usually about a week), gently help tie them or place them on the corn. They’ll use the corn plant as a bean pole and be far more comfortable doing that than strangling off the zucchini.
A week after your beans send out their first runners, plant your squash. Once you have your first true leaves on your squash, you’ll only need to water and fertilize the base of all three plants now and then. Without knowing how your soil drains and what your weather is like, I can’t tell you if that will be every other day or every week.
How You’ll Mess It Up Your First Year
And now we get into how you’ll mess it up. You’ll overwater. Expect it. You’ll likely over-fertilize, too. Try to keep in mind that the corn is using the nitrogen from the beans to grow and you really don’t need to pour the ground full of nitrogen for that nitrogen-hungry corn to eat up.
You may also accidentally grab a fertilizer that’s great for squash but not fantastic for beans. These are rare and are typically high in sulfur. They’ll make your beans tangier than they need to be. Skip it. Use a general fertilizer that’s good for your area and your soil for vegetables.
How You’ll Do Better Next Year
You’ll find it easier to maintain your plants and understand what they’re doing after a year of confusion. More than likely, if you’ve done gardening before, you’ll actually have a pretty easy time of it. Few people lose all of the production of a Three Sisters garden unless they get hit with a lot of insects or terrible storms or just really awful luck.
Even better, you’ll keep trying. You’ll come back for more and you’ll understand the point of why you help the beans up the corn stalk and so on and so forth once you actually see it in action. No matter what you read or what you watch, actually getting out there and getting your hands dirty is the best way to learn.
Why These Three Plants?
Balance. Everything in the natural world comes back to balance.
Sister one is the corn. The corn grows tall, offering sister two (the beans) somewhere to cling and grow upon. Sister three (the squash) shades the root area so the harsh sun overhead doesn’t dry the ground too much.
It gets even more complicated when you realize that these three plants are rarely predated upon by the same insects. In fact, most squash bugs hate the smell of growing corn and beans.
Like true siblings, the Three Sisters have grown together for eternity because they work well together. Even better than that, they grow easily together and encourage beginners to try something other than upside-down tomato plants and tiny herb gardens. Growing these foundation plants of our civilization is usually an encouraging gateway for more complex gardening down the road.
True Generational Gardening
If staggered correctly, most of your product will come into season at about the same time. Which is rather neat when you look at all the different growth times of these particular plants. That said, don’t be too surprised if your corn begins to wilt and your beans are still producing. Don’t be shocked if your Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins are round and orange and your corn isn’t quite ready for harvest yet. Things can be thrown off a little when you’re a beginner, but you’ll get the hang of it very soon.
Anything else you’d like to know about the Three Sisters? Post a comment down below or send us a message. We always love to talk about this long-lived, traditional way to grow these centerpiece foods that keep the world from being hungry. As always, Happy Gardening!
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