Many of the tribes indigenous to North America have a variation of the Legend of the Three Sisters. The most widely recognized is the Haudenosaunee version in which three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) live together in a field and help one another survive. As the story goes:
Very long ago, there were three sisters who lived in a field. The youngest was so small she could not yet walk; she crawled along the ground, dressed in green. The middle sister wore a bright yellow dress and darted back and forth across the field. The eldest sister stood tall and straight, and her body bent with the wind. She had long yellow hair and wore a green shawl. The three sisters loved one another very much and could not imagine living without the others.
The story goes on to describe how the sisters developed a relationship with a boy from one of the villages and in the fall they joined him and his family in their home to help feed them through the winter. To read the full story of the Three Sisters, visit the Oneida Indian Nation website.
This story is not only a beautiful telling of how these three crops came to be intertwined in our lives, but nestled within the story are instructions and lessons for how to grow and utilize these crops. As I will detail below, the birth order of the three sisters holds information about how to plant the crops and the order in which they are eaten by the family over the winter describes how to properly store the harvest. At the heart of the story, the sisters care for one another throughout their lives which describes the mutually beneficial relationship between the corn, bean, and squash plants.
When gardeners mention companion plants they’re often referring to groups of vegetables that tolerate one another when grown in close proximity. In the case of corn, beans, and squash, they not only tolerate one another, but they help one another thrive.
Beans, like all legumes, host nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots which provide the corn and squash with much needed nitrogen to fuel their growth. The corn offers a tall structure which the climbing beans can use to access sunlight and keep their seeds from rotting on the ground. The vining squash contributes a living mulch that retains moisture in the soil for the other two sisters and prevents weeds from encroaching in the field. Together the sisters create a fairly self-sufficient gardening system that requires very little input from the gardener until harvest time comes around.
While the sisters are most often characterized by their companionship in the field, they also work together in our bodies. Mature grain corn and dry beans contain all of the amino acids to form a complete protein when eaten together. Winter squash and pumpkin are filled with carbohydrates and vitamins that provide us with energy and support our immune system. All three crops contain dietary fiber and plenty of calories to fuel us through the winter. We use these three crops to form the base of our diet through the winter and with the addition of venison, fish and a variety of fruits and nuts we are well-fed until spring.
When it comes time to start your garden in the spring, look to the Haudenosaunee legend which states that the corn is the oldest sister, the beans are the middle child, and the pumpkin is the baby. This birth order is critical to growing a successful three sisters garden.
Corn takes a couple weeks to get tall enough to support the fast growing beans. And if the squash and pumpkins emerge before the corn and beans are tall enough to rise above their leaves they’ll end up shading them out. We like to allow our corn to grow on its own until it’s about a foot tall and then we transplant beans at its base. We typically wait about another week before transplanting the winter squash and pumpkins which quickly emerge and crawl around the base of the other two crops.
Depending on the variety of corn you decide to plant it can sometimes buckle under the weight of the bean vines later in the season. If you find that your corn is leaning over or breaking, it’s not a bad idea to remove a few of the bean vines or add a trellis system to support the plants. To avoid this altogether, consider growing a sturdy variety of grain corn like Wapsi Valley or Bloody Butcher.
When it comes to harvesting and storing your corn, beans, and squash you can look again to the legend of the three sisters for guidance. In the Haudenosaunee telling of the story, the winter squash is eaten first and the beans and corn dry themselves for later use throughout the winter. Dry beans and dry grain corn can be stored indefinitely at room temperature so it makes sense to eat the squash first since it doesn’t last quite as long in storage.
As mentioned above, the corn and beans together form a complete protein so they are critical to maintaining a balanced diet in the early spring when many other crops from the previous season’s harvest are spent. We generally allow our corn and beans to dry in the field before harvesting. Once harvested we hang the corn in our basement and shell the beans to store in large glass jars. As long as the winter squash has formed a mature skin and the stem has dried down, it too will store for months at room temperature.
The three sisters growing method has been used across the U.S. and Mexico for thousands of years, and for good reason. These staple crops are low-maintenance in the field, store well long-term without refrigeration, and form the base 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 thrive on and care for this land.
Stay tuned for more in depth articles coming soon that will provide details on growing corn, beans, and squash in your gardens.