experiential adventures learning about sustainability, balance and love.

Three Sisters Gardening – Guilds, Companion Planting Corn, Beans and Squash.

I’ve been reading up on companion planting during seed selection time and I came across some good info about the “Three Sisters.” The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen and feed the corn, and the squash provides a low cover crop, deturring weeds and pests. The Indigenous North Americans have used this example of a plant guild for ages.
This page: Celebrate the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash gives a great run down on the technique.

Instructions for Planting Your Own Three Sisters Garden in a 10 x 10 square

When to plant:
Sow seeds any time after spring night temperatures are in the 50 degree range, up through June.

What to plant:
Corn must be planted in several rows rather than one long row to ensure adequate pollination. Choose pole beans or runner beans and a squash or pumpkin variety with trailing vines, rather than a compact bush. At Renees Garden, we have created our Three Sisters Garden Bonus Pack, which contains three inner packets of multi-colored Indian Corn, Scarlet Runner Beans to twine up the corn stalks and Sugar Pie Pumpkins to cover the ground.

Note: A 10 x 10 foot square of space for your Three Sisters garden is the minimum area needed to ensure good corn pollination. If you have a small garden, you can plant fewer mounds, but be aware that you may not get good full corn ears as a result.

How to plant:
Please refer to the diagrams below and to individual seed packets for additional growing information.

1. Choose a site in full sun (minimum 6-8 hours/day of direct sunlight throughout the growing season). Amend the soil with plenty of compost or aged manure, since corn is a heavy feeder and the nitrogen from your beans will not be available to the corn during the first year. With string, mark off three ten-foot rows, five feet apart.

2. In each row, make your corn/bean mounds. The center of each mound should be 5 feet apart from the center of the next. Each mound should be 18 across with flattened tops. The mounds should be staggered in adjacent rows. See Diagram #1

3. Plant 4 corn seeds in each mound in a 6 square. See Diagram #2

4. When the corn is 4 tall, its time to plant the beans and squash. First, weed the entire patch. Then plant 4 bean seeds in each corn mound. They should be 3 apart from the corn plants, completing the square as shown in Diagram #3.

5. Build your squash mounds in each row between each corn/bean mound. Make them the same size as the corn/bean mounds. Plant 3 squash seeds, 4 apart in a triangle in the middle of each mound as shown in Diagram #4.

6. When the squash seedlings emerge, thin them to 2 plants per mound. You may have to weed the area several times until the squash take over and shade new weeds.

three sisters guild diagram permaculture
Links to Legends about the Three Sisters:

Further Reading

Creasy, Rosalind, “Cooking from the Garden”, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988
Eames-Sheavly, Marcia, “The Three Sisters, Exploring an Iroquois Garden”, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, 1993
Hays, Wilma and R. Vernon, “Foods the Indians Gave Us”, Ives Washburn, Inc. NY, 1973


2 responses

  1. Mezz Brock

    Thank you for this, very well explained and easy to understand.

    August 21, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    • malleabis

      I’m glad you enjoyed! Now that it’s towards the end of the season and all my corn is harvested i must say, the mounds work! They heat up and get the corn growing a lot sooner, they do dry out faster though. I should have planted way more pumpkins then the mounds would have had better ground cover. One area was thick with pumpkins and everything grew huge in that area. (perhaps everything would have been huge if I watered daily, but i like to torture my plants a little : )

      August 26, 2010 at 6:31 am

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