Companion Gardening the Three Sisters Way

If you’ve never had a vegetable garden before, figuring out how to make it all work can seem daunting.

If you’re a beginner, it’s easy to start out trying to plant too many things, only to become overwhelmed within a few months and give up. That’s why starting smaller and simpler might be a good idea - and one of the easiest gardens to plant is called the “Three Sisters Garden.”

The stuff of legends

Iroquois and Cherokee native legend tells us that corn, beans, and squash, when planted together in the same area, become like three inseparable sisters who make the best of companions and yield bountiful food. By the time European settlers came to America in the early 1600s, Native Americans had been planting by the “Three Sisters” method for over 1000 years.  

A Three Sisters Garden is special for many reasons, but centuries ago, simply surviving day to day was key.

The three vegetables create a nutritious and balanced diet, which helped to ensure the Natives’ survival, and later, the Europeans who came to live on the land. Corn is an excellent source of necessary carbohydrates, beans are a legume filled with protein and provide nitrogen to the soil through their roots, and squash has plenty of essential vitamins and minerals.

Eaten together, this trio of “companion” vegetables provides a complete vegetarian protein and has helped people maintain dietary health over millennia.

European settlers would all have starved without the bounty of the Three Sisters from the Native Americans, and it is this story that is the root of the Thanksgiving celebration. 

Three Sisters companion gardening | Vego Garden

Close-knit family

When they’re planted together instead of separately, they yield up to 20% more produce while using less land. That’s because these three vegetables truly “help” each other grow.

Just like any good relationship, timing is everything. It’s important to plant the seeds in the springtime, after the last frost, and it’s critical to plant them in a certain order. 

The first sister is corn. As they grow, pole beans, the second sister, will vine around the corn, and they also help stabilize the stalks, so they do not blow over in high winds. The third sister, squash, acts as a protector to the other vegetables with its large leaves providing shade and cooler temperatures, limiting the weed growth that competes for water and nutrients. The squash’s prickly, big leaves also repel predators such as raccoons, insects, or rabbits.  

The three plants work together symbiotically, like a family, offering each other nourishment and protection, each with their own strengths.

Native American legend teaches that corn, beans, and squash are gifts from the Great Spirit, each watching over the others and growing best when in community with each other rather than on their own.

Just as in families, they are at their best with the company and support of each other. 

Planting guidelines

To plant a Three Sisters garden:

  • Choose a site that will have 6-8 hours of full, direct sunlight.
  • Put plenty of compost or manure on the soil.
  • Make dirt mounds for corn and beans in each row. The center of each mound should be 5-feet apart from the center of the next.
  • Plant four corn seeds in each mound in a 6-inch square. When the corn is 4-inches tall, plant the beans and the squash. Plant four bean seeds in each corn mound, 3-inches apart. 
  • Build squash mounds in each row between the corn and bean mounds and make them the same size. Plant three squash seeds 4-inches apart in each squash mound

Three Sisters is a deeply meaningful and profound way to begin a sustainable garden that yields maximum nutrition with minimum effort. 

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