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The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

Nature Labs , Administrator  

What are the three sisters?

The "three sisters" are a traditional agricultural combination of corn (Zea mays), beans (Fabaceae family), and squash (Cucurbita spp.) by Native Americans, with much legend surrounding the practice. The three sisters mound is a prime example of polycultural companion planting. In other words the corn, beans, and squash live together symbiotically, each helping another to survive in some way. Every plant has a role to play; unlike gigantic and hazardous monocultures, this is a harmonious team effort.

The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb upon. It is essentially the apex of the three sisters pyramid.

The pole beans, as they climb up the stalk, help the corn remain sturdy in strong winds or storms, and they add nitrogen to the soil (with nitrogen fixing bacteria), allowing you to plant the three sisters there again next year.

The squash (which can be a pumpkin), being prickly, helps to keep pesky critters out that would otherwise chomp down your beans and corn. The broad, shady leaves also help to keep the weeds down to a minimum, saving all the nutrients and moisture in the soil for your plants. The squash's flowers can also attract beneficial pollinating insects, such as honeybees.

This unbeatable trio results in a great crop, full of protein and nutrients. Plus, your plants will be more productive (even up to 30% greater production).

Sometimes a "fourth sister," the sunflower, is planted around the three sisters mound.

(Sources: NativeTech, Tampa Bay School Gardening Network,, USDA, US Mint.)

How to plant your own three sisters plot

There are a variety of ways to plant your three sisters, including mound planting and raised bed planting; in the end, it is up to you what will work best in your situation. There are a few particulars that you need to attend to, but other than that, growing your three sisters is not an exact science. Here are the guidelines:

1) Plant your corn in the center, where the beans can grow up on them. You will want to plant your corn first.

2) After a few weeks or when the corn gets to be several inches high, you can plant the beans (they must be pole beans, which means they climb as a vine). If you plant the beans at the same time as the corn, they may grow faster than the corn and therefore choke the corn before it can mature.

3) Plant the squash seeds a little bit later around or amongst your corn and bean plants.

4) Let them grow and guide their growth when necessary.

(Sources: NativeTech,

For more exact planting plans, please see the following links:

NativeTech: Planting a Three Sisters Garden

The Three Sisters - Mother Earth News

Pitfalls and Tips

As with any gardening project, there are several mistakes that can be made with starting your own three sisters mound, some of which we at the Nature Labs have made ourselves. However, we want to give you the chance to avoid these mistakes by listing a few helpful tips.

1) Always plant your beans after your corn has matured some. If you plant your beans at the same time, the corn will most likely be choked by the fast-growing bean vines, and you may not get any ears because of it.

At 48 days, the corn is not nearly as mature as it should be due to the choking grip of the pole beans.

2) Always plant pole bean (not bush bean) varieties, which will climb your corn stalks. This may sound obvious, but sometimes it is not clear whether a bean variety is climbing or not. Be sure to do your homework and find out from a reliable source.

Here you see corn and squash planted with a bush bean variety (black turtle bean) (53 days). It is not a disaster, but it doesn't exactly follow the "three sisters" system.

3) According to the Backwoods Home Magazine forum, planting bush variety squash (as opposed to a vining variety) is advantageous in that it allows you to get to your beans more easily.

Clearly, planting the three sisters in your garden is a worthwhile, nutritious technique that has endured the test of time. The genius of this Native American agricultural system is even depicted on the 2009 US gold dollar (US Mint).

Don't expect perfect success the first time you try it, however. Like anything, it takes practice and experimentation to find a method that is right for you.



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