Planting the Three Sisters

By Cassidy Metcalf

 

This is my third season as coordinator for the two community gardens in Woodstock. I’ve enjoyed planning the garden season, helping orient new members, and organizing work days and potlucks. This year, however, in addition to my normal coordinator duties, I have the unique pleasure of maintaining a garden plot as well.

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For the past few years, my husband and I have grown a small vegetable plot together in our backyard. This year we are living in a new place and don’t have access to a garden space at home, so the community garden plot was a perfect fit for us. Instead of planting our usual repertoire of leafy greens and carrots, we decided to try our hands at something a little different. We chose to grow corn, beans, and squash – collectively known as the Three Sisters. We had both heard of this interesting trio and wanted to see if we could successfully farm them ourselves.

 

Corn, beans, and squash were the main agricultural plants cultivated by a number of Native American groups in North America. Together, they contain complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and all eight amino acids, providing a balanced diet and allowing most tribes to thrive as vegetarians. The Three Sisters were also essential to peoples’ spiritual well-being. Native Americans believed they should always be planted together, eaten together, and celebrated together.

 

Over thousands of years of agricultural experimentation, Native Americans developed a unique system of planting in which each of the three crops contributes something to the group. The corn stalks serve as a pole for the beans to climb, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the sprawling squash leaves shade the area, keeping weeds at bay and holding moisture. Today we call this style of gardening ‘companion planting,’ but Native Americans were doing this long before the term existed. They understood instinctually that crops planted as a whole ecosystem would be stronger than if planted separately.

 

Planting the Three Sisters is simple, but must be done with careful consideration of timing and space. Prepare the soil in spring by adding aged manure or compost to increase fertility. Make a flat mound of soil about a foot high and 4 feet wide. When danger of frost has passed, plant corn in the mound by sowing six kernels about 10 inches apart in a circle about 2 feet in diameter. When the corn is 5 or 6 inches tall, plant three pole beans evenly spaced around each stalk. A week later, sow five winter squash seeds around the perimeter of each mound.

 

What you will end up with is corn in the middle, beans growing up the corn, and squash plants filling the empty space around the mounds. The specificity of this method may sound a little funny, but it has proven itself over thousands of years of agriculture. The numbers listed are intentionally exact and designed to form the most efficient system. If you plant too closely, the space will be crowded and unproductive. If you don’t wait until the corn is tall enough, the stalks could become overtaken by the beans and stop growing.

 

If you are interested in seeing this Three Sisters planting in person, come on over to the community garden at Billings Farm. There are lots of other wonderful plots to enjoy as well. Located on Billings Farm and King Farm properties, the community gardens are a project of Sustainable Woodstock and open to all community members. The cost is $40 for the first plot and $25 for each additional plot. The gardens are full this year, but if you would like to be on the list for next year please email cassidy@sustainablewoodstock.org.

 

 

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