A girl tending to a three-sisters garden.
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How to Grow a Three-Sisters Garden

May 24, 2017

When connecting kids to good food, growing food and where it comes from, things can get a bit overwhelming! The Indigenous way of Three Sisters gardening is a wonderfully simple way to incorporate storytelling, the vibrant history and culture of Native peoples and agriculture all at once! Pop into the garden every day to watch how the seeds sprout, the leaves curl and open, and the stems of corn stalks grow taller, as the vines of the beans wrap around them! Share in their joy of discovery in picking and tasting the crops.

You don’t need a lot of space for it either, since the three-sisters-way of gardening is built upon the foundation of close-crop vegetation. Originating from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) ‘people of the longhouse’ or Six Nations (Six Iroquois nations all living together: Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora), the Three-Sisters Garden is meant to embrace community and the many purposes and inherent goodness of plant life. The long and short of it is this: the beans, corn and squash represent three very different Indigenous sisters with their own unique capabilities and healing properties — ‘sustainers of life’ who love one another and their community very much. They need to stick together and support/help one another in order to thrive. Their gifts are meant to benefit, sustain and help grow their community too.


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How To Plant a Three-Sisters Garden

The three types of seeds are to be planted in close proximity: squash, corn and bean help each other thrive. As with most veggie gardens, you’ll need plenty of direct sunlight. The type of corn, beans and squash is all up to you! Plant bean seeds close to the base of corn sprouts, as the bean tendrils are meant to climb the corn. Corn then uses the nitrogen it needs from the beans, thus the beans and the corn will flourish because of the squash's leaves that will shade the soil and keep weeds away. There are numerous configurations you can employ in your build, the space you have available to you should be your main consideration. You can prepare mound, a field or landscape-type design. If space is of an issue for you, the circular mound method will work well in an extra large circular or rectangular container/barrel or earth-bucket or box (at least 3 feet across and 1 foot high). I’m going to describe the mound way of planting. 

The author's two children standing in their garden with plants.

Corn

A tall, sturdy variety of corn (sweet corn, Blue Hopi corn, rainbow corn or popcorn all work well), should be planted first, 6 inches apart, 1–3 inches deep.
Depending on the width of your garden container, plant 4 or 6 seeds. Once they have sprouted, thin to just 2 or 4 depending on how many you planted in the first place to compliment the size of your container.
Many
 Six 
Nations 
people 
honour 
the 
tradition 
of
 giving 
thanks 
to 
the 
“Four
 Directions”
 by 
orienting 
the 
corn 
seeds 
to 
the 
north, south,
 east,
 and
 west.


Beans

Plant beans at least 2 weeks after the corn has sprouted, planting 5 to 8 seeds (again depending on container size and how many corn sprouts you have) about 6 inches away from the corn sprouts.
Select a pole bean variety of bean (green and lima beans both come in pole and bush varieites, and you can also try dried beans such as pinto, black turtle, Anasazi or navy) to encourage all the twisty, upwards climbing action around the corn stalks you want! When these sprout, also thin accordingly.


Squash

Plant 2 to 4 squash seeds (depends greatly on variety as well as your initial sizing/space, as zucchini squash are smaller and not as heavy as acorn or long-pie-pumpkin squash), on the edge of your mound or container.
Thin to 1 or 2 when they sprout. The squash seeds will be planted on the edge of the mound, about a foot away from the bean seeds.


As your plants grow, employ your kids to gently encourage the plants to grow together! The squash will grow around the base, while the bean vines will benefit from little fingers twining their tendrils around the corn stalks. Introducing your kids to o the concept of how relationships with people and plant life — no matter how different —  can still depend and benefit from helping and supporting one another. Symbiotic relationships, in a nutshell! Helping is a concept children really understand and jove with — as they help you in the garden, you help them to learn about so much more than gardening.


Lead photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr, licensed CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

Article Author Selena Mills
Selena Mills

Selena creates digital content, art, crafts, shares stories, wrangles children, and cooks delicious food whenever and however she can. When the chaos permits, she looks for other parents to revel (and or kvetch) in motherhood with. A perpetual dabbler, she has been known to freelance as a personal development and wellness coach, artisan, brand designer and social media consultant. Clearly, she doesn’t like rules, but she really likes kids and helping other women cultivate self-confidence and time to nurture themselves. She strives for this through food-education, healing, art, movement, love, respect and ferocity. Find Selena on Facebook and Instagram.

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