The three sisters growing technique
The three sisters growing technique is uncommon in the UK.
It puzzles me that so few gardeners adopt this companion planting vegetable growing method.
Sweet corn – not maize
I pass fields of maize 10 even 12 ft high and with cobs on every stem and look enviously on. My own ‘maize’ is of course sweet corn and not the silage maze of farms. It has a very much higher sugar content than farmer’s silage maize.
I wonder what First Nation Americans would have thought of maize – this ‘corn’ on steroids? For them, maize was a staple and one of three vital crops they grew to ensure they didn’t go hungry in the harsh winters of North America. The Iroquois tribe is perhaps best known for this plant combination but many central American native peoples practiced it.
The other Sisters
The other two are pumpkins [squash] and beans and these three make up what has become known as the ‘three sisters’. I’ve grown the three sisters before, sometimes on a large scale and often with subtle variety variations.
The sweet corn bit is easy enough and we are fortunate in having varieties that will mature in our shorter summers and also are naturally high in sugar content which makes them deliciously sweet to eat fresh. But these, and to a great extent the pumpkins and beans would have been dried for it is the seeds of these that fed those native peoples in winter.
Sowing and Planting
You can sow sweet corn directly where you want them to grow by sowing in early May. I prefer to sow mine individually in deep containers such as Rootrainers and get them going in an unheated greenhouse. I am keen to get them off to a good start because I want them to be strong and tall enough to support one of the other sisters. You see, the tall stems of sweet corn provides the bean pole support that climbing beans need.
I plant the sweet corn out after the risk of late frost has passed. I then sow a bean seed beside each plant so that, when it germinates, it quickly climbs the sweet corn stem. Beans fix nitrogen in the soil and provide the sweet corn and pumpkins with some of the feed that they need.
Pumpkins or squash
But pumpkins and squash are hungry beasts and need lots of nutrients to do well. So I make sure that the whole plot has plenty of well-rotted manure added before anything is planted.
It doesn’t matter whether you grow pumpkins or the closely related squash. Whilst we will eat the flesh of the fruits, the native peoples will have almost certainly eaten the stored dried seeds in winter. Choose a variety that ‘runs’ and covers the ground. This ensures that the space below the beans and sweet corn is fully used and the leaves and shoots smother any weeds that might try to grow down there. Those big leaves will also mulch the soil to an extent and trap in valuable moisture.
Like the sweet corn, I prefer to sow my pumpkins and squash individually in containers. I like to get them up and away in the greenhouse before planting them out. Of course, this can just as easily be done with a bright windowsill. The pumpkins go out at the same time as the sweet corn plants. They scramble around on the ground under the beans and corn. This makes full use of the space and maximizes the yield from a small space without the three crops competing with one another.
I’m growing ‘Moonlight’ beans which is a hybrid between French and runner beans. This variety can be relied on to produce a good crop even when it’s hot and dry. That’s conditions that runner beans don’t particularly like. But the North American Indians would have grown a form of their native bean that was drought tolerant. Perhaps growing those speckled pod ‘Borlotti’ beans and drying the seeds would get closer to their practice. But the beauty of this system is that there is a balance between the plants and a balanced diet is the end result. There’s some tasty recipes based on these great beans here.
This ancient Three Sisters companion planting works as well now as it did so many years ago for the Native Americans. Whilst it’s too late to get going this year, perhaps I have sown the seed of an idea that you might like to try next spring.
Learn more about the three sisters growing technique here.
Have you had success growing the Three Sisters vegetable combination?
Do you grow a variation of the three sisters growing technique?
You might be interested to learn more about growing chili plants. Read my blog on a visit to a very special chili farm in south Devon.