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Learning from the Past
One of the simplest ways to start gardening with permaculture is with an ancient native American planting technique – the Three Sisters. Start out your 3 Sisters Journey with heirloom vegetable seeds like these from Eden Bros. Heirloom seeds are ideal for homesteaders of all sizes. You can save the seeds of the plants you grow and know that you’re getting the most honest version of produce available.
The Ancient History of the Three Sisters
Three Sister’s planting was used in the America’s as far back as the Mayan empire. The use of this permaculture method spread from South America all the way up into the Mississippi River Valley. In the Southwestern land owned by the Puebloans, however, there was a fourth sister added. Sunflowers were planted in the permaculture system to create greater opportunity to bring pollinators.
But who or what are the three sisters? They are corn, beans, and winter squash.
One of the permaculture practices that grabs people’s attention is guilding: a type of companion planting where each plant provides a benefit to those around it. The Three Sisters is one of the simplest and most basic guilds that you can start with and helps to build understanding of the practice of guilding because it is a straightforward system to understand.
Corn is the center of the guild and is a ‘heavy feeder’, taking a lot of nutrients from the soil, but especially nitrogen. It also acts as a trellis for the pole beans. Beans are nitrogen fixers, plants that naturally add nitrogen to the soil. Planted at the base of the corn, they work at feeding the corn as they grow up the stalks and provided added strength as the corn bows and bends in the wind. Winter squash grows broad leaves long before they produce any fruit. These broad leaves give the beans shade in the heat of summer and helps to prevent weeds from growing.
It’s a simple guild, and yet it works perfectly; even in raised beds or less than ideal conditions, these three plants will work together to create a thriving, nutritious garden.
How to Plant the Three Sisters
Setting up the Three Sisters guild properly is a big part of its success. Also, it’s important to plant the different seeds at the right time to receive the maximum benefits.
You begin with the corn. If you plan to plant in the ground, you’ll want to mound the dirt. This provides warmer soil for the corn seeds to germinate in and also gives better drainage. Ensure that you plant your corn in small squares of at least four stalks to maximize pollination. Corn is wind-pollinated and needs to be close to other corn, or it won’t fruit. Pick full-sized, not dwarf, varieties of corn as dwarf corn will not get tall enough to provide support for your beans. There are many beautiful heirloom and heritage varieties that you can find to plant. Plant after the danger of frost has passed and wait until the corn is roughly five inches tall before moving on to the next step.
Begin with your favorite varieties of pole beans, not bush beans. You can plant the beans between stalks of corn, leaving about three inches of space between them, or you can plant your beans in a perimeter around the corn. Planting between stalks may improve how much nitrogen is provided to each stalk, which might improve your production. You can try lima beans, runner beans, and common green beans as they do well climbing up the stalks. By planting them when the corn is already a few inches high, they won’t be able to pull the corn down as they wind and trellis up.
Between your mounds of corn and beans is where you will plant your squash. Winter squash and gourds are ideal – do not plant summer squash. You will want to plant these in mounds, as well, since all squash tend to be very susceptible to mold and mildew due to their large leaves. You will want to plant your squash about a week after you plant your beans. By this time, your corn will have shot up so quickly you’ll be amazed, and your beans will be tall enough that they won’t be in danger of the squash leaves shading them out of sunlight. This is the genius of the three sisters. Remember that you are growing the squash for the leaves’ benefit as far as the other two sisters are concerned. Avoid bushing varieties and stick with vining pumpkins and butternuts that will sprawl out across the ground.