Gardening Blog

How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden

Have you heard about three sisters gardens and wondered what was up with them? While the three sisters garden is an ancient Native American gardening practice with some spiritual belief behind it, you don’t need to be Native American to grow one in your home or community garden.

Three Sisters Garden

Photo via Abri Le Roux

What is a three sisters garden?

A three sisters garden consists of corn, beans and some type of gourd ( squash, pumpkin, melon) that are interplanted. This garden is the most popular example of companion planting, and has been employed by Native Americans since before Europeans arrived on this continent.

You will need to buy seeds for your favorite corn, some kind of climbing beans, and either a squash, pumpkin or melon. In keeping with tradition, choose seeds that are heirloom and open pollinated for your three sisters garden.

Quick three sisters garden tutorial

Step 1:

In early spring, save a section of your garden that is at least 4 feet wide for your three sisters garden layout. At this point you can dig up the section and keep it weed-free, or you can pile compost and other soil amendments into a mound that is 12 inches high to prepare the “raised bed” you will plant your seeds in.

Step 2:

In late spring after the last frost has passed, sow eight corn seeds in a circular pattern in the center of your mount. Space your corn seeds about 6 inches from each other in the ring pattern you have started. Pat down the soil around the seeds and give the mound a good drink of water and keep the soil moist until the corn germinates in the mound.

Step 3:

A couple of weeks later your corn should be sprouted and somewhere between 5-10 inches tall if everything has gone well. At this point it is time to plant the beans. Take about four beans and evenly space them around each corn stalk. Use your finger to push the bean seeds about an inch below the soil’s surface. Again, water your mound and keep your bean seeds moist until they germinate.

the three sisters garden

Photo via Abri Le Roux

Step 4:

A week after your beans have sprouted and began to grow up the corn, take 6-8 squash, pumpkin or melon seeds and plant them evenly spaced outside the ring corn and beans. As the squash vine grows, help it along by directing the vines around the mound and up into the center ring created by the corn.

How does it work?

This ancient method of companion planting works because all three plants grow and support each other in some way. Corn, the oldest sister, provides support. Beans are the nurturing sister. Beans take nitrogen from the air and holds it in the soil the plants are growing in. Squash (the traditional gourd grown here) provides protection. She mulches and cools the soil mound they grow in by acting as a living mulch, and her prickly vines and leaves keep pests away from the tender bean sprouts and corn.  As these three sisters grow and intertwine together they create a strong barrier that is hard for the elements and pests to bring down, just like a supportive family structure.

Now that you know the basic three sisters garden layout, feel free to experiment with the shape and size of your three sisters garden and find a layout that works best in your garden space. If you are looking to learn more gardening, check out the class below or we have some free gardening mini classes!

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17 Comments

Ralph Carter

what a super idea, thanks

Reply
Nela

Great idea but how do you prevent squash bugs from getting to the squash vines?

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Shelley

try those stinky marigolds, or cayenne pepper on the ground.

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Michelle

Marigolds will also keep wasp and rabbits away as well.

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waterlily

Just make sure that the marigolds are the heirloom varieties. They smell the worst.

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Leigh

What kind of beans? Broad beans, French beans, runner beans.

I use 6 foot Cannes for runner beans I find it hard to imagine the corn wouldn’t be swamped.

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Denise

see my reply below … I used runner beans and my corn was strangled 🙁

Reply
Kay

Will this work with containers?
I was going to plant potato chunks (with eyes) this Spring in containers.

Reply
Pamela Hallett

Would be interested in container planting

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Jenny N

I think this would work with container gardening and was thinking about the same thing. You can get container corn seeds that are not supposed to be but about 4-5 feet tall. I think the only problem would be if you had the space for all the vines to go if you used melons or winter squash but if you do everything should work great. I may try this in some containers this year.

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Carla Steinhaus

When you say 4 beans around each corn stalk, do you 4 bean seeds total for the garden or do you mean 4 bean seeds around each of the 6 corn stalks? And if the latter is the case, the beans wont pull the corn down?

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Charles Bingham

You missed an important step. Where’s burying the fish? I guess there’s always, ‘fish emulsion’.

Reply
Rachael

I love this! My undergrad Nutrition class recently read Daphne Miller’s “The Jungle Effect,” which explores indigenous diets/lifestyles in four disease “cold spots” including Copper Canyon, Mexico (a cold spot for diabetes).

One student made & brought the Three Sisters Stew in to share, which was a huge hit. To really bring the lifestyle into your life, I love the idea of cultivating the “slow-release sisters” yourself, & in a way that honors its indigenous roots! Beautifully rounded.

Here’s one recipe for the stew. I’m sure there are several out there! http://www.cookusinterruptus.com/three-sisters-stew-4136-96.html.

Reply
Denise

I did this last year and the beans “strangled” the corn 🙁 My corn was about 2 feet high when I planted the beans and I hoped the corn stalks would be able to keep ahead of the fast growing beans. My pumpkins (hokkaido’s) did super

Reply
Dee Schleifer

I’m wanting to do this but am wondering if bush beans would work. Have thought that the pole beans would strangle the corn as well. Any thoughts? Thanks!

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Eloise

I tried this method for the first time in a raised bed that was 4’x12′. The corn did great but the pole beans and the butternut squash struggled. The beans would not germinate and the squash were very small. I suspect it was the lack of nutrients/fertilizer. I tried side dressing with my homemade compost but, without testing, it seemed the composition of the compost did not have what the correct proportion of nutrients. I may try again…

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Linda Alkire

The corn did fine, the beans were hard to get to, The squash was so shaded by the corn to produce well. This year I will try blocks of corn 6×6 , With beans only around the very out side of the corn and the squash 8 feet away from the outside of the beans so the mother squash plant has plenty of sunshine for proper photosynthesis. I will try this again, because it is interesting. But I will change the lay out.

Reply

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