Three Sisters Garden

A few years ago, one of my daughters had wished we could grow corn in the backyard, because she wanted a “maize maze” for our dog; I kept rejecting the idea, because of lack of space.  Finally, in the fall of 2015, I decided we would make it work, thinking I would have to give up my largest garden bed along the North fence in the backyard, and basically just grow corn for the summer of 2016.  With that in mind, my daughter gave me a collection of seeds for Christmas, including, of course, a packet of organic sweet corn:

013 Corn seeds for Three sisters garden

Strangely enough, just a couple of months later, our old big spruce fell down, due to strong winds.  My initial puzzlement gave way to joy; quoting from my previous post: “ … after I had flattened the spot where the tree was, I realized that I had just acquired a gardening area of a little over 100 sq. Ft. (9.3 m²).  Wow! The crops I could grow …”  Indeed!  This is how my new plot looked in April, flattened, fenced with chicken wire (to keep the dog out for now), and with a few bags of top soil and compost ready to be applied, to cultivate the soil:

011 April 19 2016 fencing and cultivating soil

Corn requires a lot of space to thrive; each stalk needs about 1 sq. Ft. (around a 30×30 cm square), and 2 Ft. (61 cm) between rows.  At the same time, pollination may be an issue if the stalks are too far apart, especially in small plots.  We decided to saw the corn in blocks of 2 rows with 3 seeds each, instead of single rows; this optimized the use of surface area, and gave my daughter more flexibility for her maze design, without having to worry about isolated stalks of corn not getting cross-pollinated.  The diagram below shows the corn block design, in red, forming the maze:

014 garden plan

Once we finished creating the blocks and paths, and cultivating the soil, we sawed the corn seed in late May, when the temperature was steadily warm. Of course, I could not just wait and see the corn grow (even though it grows fast, since it is a kind of grass); I felt mettlesome, and decided to bring our plot to the next level: a “Three Sisters Garden” (see photo at the top of the post, taken in mid-July.)

The concept of the “Three Sisters Garden” originated from a pre-Hispanic agricultural technique developed in Mesoamerica (current Mexico and Central America), that later extended to the North, as far as the Mandan and Iroquois native American regions in the USA and Canada. The domestication and cultivation of each of the three “sister” crops took place over thousands of years; the first domesticated crop in Mesoamerica was squash (mostly summer varieties at first), with corn (maize) following, after volcanic activity and floods created better conditions for this crop; and finally beans, coming as the last domesticated plant of the trio. This implies that the discovery of the plant interactions and the benefits of planting them together were probably developed gradually over a long period, as well as at different rates in different geographical regions (for example, winter squash was more viable in the Northern regions.)

The name of “Three Sisters” was given by the Native American nations of the North, and it seems like every community has its own version of the origin story; the common element in all stories is the interpretation of the interactions amongst the three crops as part of a sisterhood, in which each member contributes something unique to the group, an inseparable set that best thrives together.

The principle of cultivating crops together for mutual benefits is called companion planting.  In the case of the three sisters, the corn will attract pollinators and serve as support for the beans to grow; the beans’ roots will host microorganisms that fix nitrogen, nourishing the soil; and the squash vines, spreading underneath the stalks, will serve as a natural mulch, protecting the soil from weeds and other toxic pests.

In our garden, I chose red scarlet pole beans and two kinds of winter squash (classic orange pumpkin, and “Casper” white) to complement the organic sweet corn. After the corn seed was sawed, four pole bean seeds were pushed into the soil around each corn seed, and a few pumpkin seeds were sawed along the edge of the blocks.  The photo below (taken in July) shows a detail of a corn stalk wrapped by a pole bean vine in bloom, and large squash leaves covering the soil; all the plants look green and healthy:

Three sisters growing together July 2016

By the middle of the summer, we were picking green beans (notice some at the top of the photo below, left), while several pumpkins developed (photos below):

The corn stalk tops were blooming (photo below, left) and attracting pollinators.  Besides by insects, grains of pollen get transported in the air when the wind blows, but since our plot was small, I helped the process by gently shaking the stalks.  The ears of corn form along the stalk, and each strand of silk on them is connected to a single kernel spot inside the husks; in order for the kernel to grow, the corresponding silk strand must be fertilized by a grain of pollen.  The photo below, right, shows a developing ear on the stalk, and grains of pollen may be seen on the silk and on some leaves:

In August we ate the sweetest corn on the cob, and it is true that there is nothing like the flavour of freshly picked and cooked corn on the cob (you start a pot of water before heading to harvest the corn, so it is boiling when you bring it back to the kitchen):

ears of corn August 2016

In the fall, the beans continued to spiral up the dying stalks of corn, holding pods full of drying beans; I am happy to report a whitewash victory for our dog, sniffing his way out of the “maize maze” (photos below, left and centre), and the harvest of  both traditional orange and novelty “Casper” white pumpkins (one of each adorning the maze exit, photo below, right):

halloween 2016

Finally, after harvesting the dry beans, and carving the pumpkins for Halloween (two carvings of “Casper”, in the photo), the remaining corn stalks and bean and squash vines were pulled and added to the compost pile.  What a great season that was, for the three sisters, our dog, and all humans involved!

 

There is still time to order or purchase seeds for a 2019 “Three Sisters Garden” (in the Northern hemisphere); any early to mid-season sweet corn, pole beans (not bush), and vine-growing squash (either summer or winter) will make a good combination.  Detailed directions on how to grow this type of garden may be found, for example, in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  I have a four-year rotation plan in my backyard, so I must wait at least until next year before planning another “Three Sisters Garden”.  I planted Brassicas (mainly broccoli and kale) in 2017, and tomatoes and peppers last year.  I also started a strawberry patch, which should produce for a couple more seasons. I still have to decide what to grow for this coming season of 2019.  Wow! The crops I could grow …

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16 thoughts on “Three Sisters Garden

    1. Hi, Eilene, nice to read you! And thank you for your kind comment; I sure have come a long way since my days of growing up in a three-bedroom apartment in Mexico City and killing my school science experiments!

      Liked by 1 person

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