Planting the Three Sisters Way

This first pic is the northside of our Three Sisters patch (2008). Very close to the house. You can see the sunflowers in the back and the corn in the front.

Have you heard of the Three Sisters?

From ( The Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sisters spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko, or “Our Sustainers". The planting season is marked by ceremonies to honor them, and a festival commemorates the first harvest of “green” corn on the cob.

Native American People used corn as the staple in their diet. Parched corn plus prevented starvation for many days. Corn was boiled, roasted and also ground and used as flour for many dishes. Corn was easy to store by braiding the leaves and hanging upside down from rafters. Husks for used as dolls, masks and mats. Corn stalks could be used as fuel. Keep a watch on the corn, and soon after you see the silks and pollen (which gets everywhere!), watch for the cobs. After a while you'll get the hang of seeing the brown silk tassles, and the feel of the cobs, you'll know when to harvest.

Pumpkins (or other winter squash) provide the ground cover. The pumpkins from even a couple of centuries ago weren't our jack-o-lantern but more of a crookneck. Pumpkins could be stewed or dried to use during the coming winter. Not sure if the seeds were roasted, or just kept for planting the next year.

Fresh young beans were cooked in stews, while the dried beans provided meals later - rehydrated for soups and stews, or ground into flour. Great source of protein when meat was scarced. The vines were braided together and also hung from the rafters. Pole beans, chosen appropriately, will use the corn stalks as a trellis without strangling the stalk. Planting the corn with plenty of room in between will help you find the beans. Once they start flowers, keep careful watch. They will quickly become edible size and ready for eating as cooked "green beans". If you plan to dry the beans, leave them alone until harvesting the corn, to dry on the vine. Still, keep a watch on them so that predators don't steal them or they don't split once they've dried.

Sunflowers have recently been found to do excellently in this arena. They break down the earth with their strong roots, and stretch out to provide a living trellis for the beans. The sunflowers are harvested when the back of the heads turn brown and bend from the weight of the seeds. Cut the stalk near the ground, hang upside down, with paper bags around the head to catch the seeds as they dry. Good for snacks, but also good for grinding into flour, and making sunflower seed oil.

Why companions? The squash/pumpkin provides ground cover to keep moisture in, and the prickles of the leaves and vines prevent predators (like raccoons) from getting to the corn. The corn provides stalks for the beans to climb. The beans fix nitrogen into the soil, which the corn needs. Together, this is companion planting at it's best. PLUS, when you mix corn, squash and beans in your diet, they make a complete protein. Also called succotash, which we don't like, but we do make our own various recipes even tastier!

For our 2008 Three Sisters Patch, here's what we did...

CORN: We started the seeds indoors about 2 weeks before we planned to plant them. We used jiffy pellets then placed them inside jiffy pots so that there would be no problem with transplanting (corn doesn't like transplanting). The corn is planted first, giving it time to grow. Space it out well so that they don't crowd each other. Be sure to pick a corn that has hearty stems that will be needed to support the beans. Plant only one corn to avoid cross-pollination (unless that's what you're going for).

MAMMOTH SUNFLOWERS: We sowed these seeds directly into the ground, about a week after the corn. Be sure to get them at the North side of the corn patch because they will get taller than the corn (depending on the variety you choose). Give them a little more room than the corn.

SQUASH: The winter squash comes next. Don't plant summer squash as they don't vine out. These benefit from starting indoors. Choose something leafy and vining, and something that you like to eat. Pumpkins, Mexican X-Top (cushaw), butternut, spaghetti - they all seem to do well. EXCEPT: choose only one to avoid cross pollination (we planted a lot of different kinds last year and goodness... what a mess). Sow one seed per 4 corn seeds. Be careful not to step on the squash vines because they will get on your paths. The light spiney-ness will help keep critters like raccoons off of your corn. They will NOT keep the birds out!

BEANS: Then comes the beans. Choose a good climbing bean that you like to eat, and hopefully one you can harvest, dry and put up for the Winter. Sow directly into the ground, as these seeds sprout pretty quickly. These beans will wind up the cornstalk. Sometimes they are a little hard to see when harvesting but you just have to be patient and diligent.

This picture (from our Three Sisters garden in 2008) is the corn bed I started inside in flats on Memorial Day - "Early and Often" sweet corn, with string beans and various gourds and squashes.

We planted them outside in these two raised beds (2'x4') on June 08 2008 - plus extra seeds. Covered them with yellow tulle fabric we had bought at a yard sale last year - a whole bolt for $5. The fabric was to make sure no birds stole our seeds. It was very successful.

The next pic is the corn bed about one week later (Jun 17 2008) - unbelievable! Look at the growth!

We added several more Three Sisters raised beds within the next couple of weeks.

Please note that we did sooo many things wrong in 2008. We planted them too close together. We planted them all at the same time. The corn ended up a little stunted because the beans started creeping up before it got established. And we planted too many kinds of squashes. The summer (zucchini and crookneck) rose straight up and pushed away the nearby cornstalks. We got mutants from crossbreeding. It was a mess. But... the corn was sweet and tasty, eaten right there and then, raw. The beans grew fat and strong.

But ... we also didn't protect from weeds enough. While we did get a great harvest from everything, we would have had much more had the bindweed not strangled everything.

We can't raise corn this year (2009) because it can't be moved to our next house, the when we can, we'll make sure to lay down lots of newspaper instead of just one layer. And we'll keep up with the weeding more. Plus we'll space the boxes apart a bit more so that it's not quite a chore to bend over and weed - it's not fun bending over and getting poked in the hind-end with a corn stalk!

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