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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