Many of the tribes native to North America have a variation on the legend of the three sisters. The most well-known is the Haudenosaunee version, in which three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) live together in a field and help each other survive. How the story goes:
A very long time ago, three sisters lived in a field. The youngest was so small that she could not walk yet; She crawled across the floor dressed in green. The middle sister was wearing a bright yellow dress and was scurrying back and forth across the field. The eldest sister stood tall and erect, her body swaying in the wind. She had long yellow hair and wore a green scarf. The three sisters loved each other very much and could not imagine life without each other.
The story goes on to describe how the sisters formed a relationship with a boy from one of the villages and joined him and his family in their home in the fall to feed them through the winter. To read the full story of the Three Sisters visit the Oneida Indian Nation website.
Not only is this story a beautiful narrative of how these three plants became intertwined in our lives, but embedded in the story are instructions and lessons for growing and using these plants. As I will elaborate below, the three sisters’ birth order provides information about how the crops are grown, and the order in which they are eaten by the family over the winter describes how the harvest is properly stored. At the core of the story, the sisters care for each other their entire lives, which describes the mutually beneficial relationship between corn, bean, and squash plants.
When gardeners mention companion plants, they’re often referring to groups of vegetables that get along well with each other when growing in close proximity. In the case of corn, beans, and squash, they not only tolerate each other, but help each other thrive.
Beans, like all legumes, harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots that provide much-needed nitrogen for corn and squash to grow. The corn provides a tall structure that the climbing beans can use to gain access to sunlight and prevent their seeds from rotting on the ground. The vine gourd contributes a living mulch that keeps moisture in the soil for the other two sisters and prevents weeds from entering the field. Together, the sisters create a fairly self-sufficient gardening system that requires very little input from the gardener to harvest time.
companion in the belly
While the sisters are most often characterized by their camaraderie in the field, they also work together in our bodies. Seasoned grain corn and dry beans contain all the amino acids to form a complete protein when eaten together. Winter squash and squash are packed with carbohydrates and vitamins that provide us with energy and support our immune system. All three plants contain fiber and lots of calories to get us through the winter. We use these three crops as the basis of our diet over the winter and keep well into spring with venison, fish and a variety of fruits and nuts.
When to Plant a Three Sisters Garden
When it’s spring time to plant your garden, check out the Haudenosaunee legend that says corn is the eldest sister, beans are the middle child, and squash is the baby. This birth order is critical to growing a successful three sisters garden.
Corn takes a few weeks to grow big enough to support the fast-growing beans. And if the squash and gourds show up before the corn and beans are big enough to rise above their leaves, they’ll end up overshadowing them. We like to let our corn grow on its own until it’s about a foot tall, and then we transplant beans at its base. We usually wait another week or so before transplanting the winter squash and squashes, which quickly emerge and crawl around the base of the other two plants.
Depending on the corn variety you choose, it may buckle under the weight of the beanstalks later in the season. If you find your corn leaning or breaking, it’s a good idea to remove a few of the beanstalks or add a trellis system to support the plants. To avoid this altogether, consider growing a hardy corn variety like Wapsi Valley or Bloody Butcher.
Harvesting and Storage
When it comes to harvesting and storing corn, beans and squash, you can once again orient yourself to the legend of the three sisters. In the Haudenosaunee that tells the story, the winter squash is eaten first and the beans and corn are dried for later use during the winter. Dry beans and dry grain corn can be stored at room temperature indefinitely, so it makes sense to eat the squash first as it won’t last quite as long in storage.
As mentioned above, corn and beans together form a complete protein, so they are crucial to a balanced diet in the spring when many other crops from the previous season’s crop have been depleted. We generally let our corn and beans dry in the field before harvest. After harvest, we hang the corn in our basement and shell the beans to store in large jars. As long as the winter squash has developed a ripe skin and the stalk has dried, it can also be kept at room temperature for months.
The three sisters’ cultivation method has been used in the US and Mexico for thousands of years, and with good reason. These staple foods are easy to care for in the field, keep well without refrigeration and form the basis for a healthy, balanced diet. As gardeners looking to produce our own food, it’s always a good idea to learn from the methods of the people who first figured out how to grow and care for this land.
Stay tuned for more in-depth articles coming soon, detailing how to grow corn, beans, and squash in your gardens.