The Three Sisters Method of Growing


Corn growing in our garden

Lots of people have heard about companion planting. That is when different plants are grown together to mutually benefit each other in some way or ways. The three sisters method of gardening is an example of companion planting.

Many tribes of Native Americans have been companion gardening for a long time. Among those tribes was the Iroquois Indians and it was they who came up with the term of three sisters planting.

The three sisters are corn, squash and pole beans. These plants are grown together for the mutual benefit of all three plants. It is easy to see how this works.

Corn grows tall, stout stalks. Beans are among the few plants that can take nitrogen out of the air and put it in the soil so it can be used by the beans or any other plants. Squash grows very large leaves. Planted together, the result is quite good.

Pole beans are fast growing once they get going and the temperatures warm up, but they enjoy having some kind of support to climb on. They will readily wrap themselves around growing corn stalks and in the process, add nitrogen to the soil that the corn can use. Meanwhile, the huge squash plant leaves block the sunlight from easily shining on the ground. This puts the ground in shade, not only keeping the roots of the beans and corn cool in the heat of the year but also shading out weeds that would compete for nutrients and water.

The squash is not directly aided by the corn, but it does get the benefit of the added nitrogent from beans. Squash fruit develop best when the soil contains plenty of nitrogen, so this is important for the squash plants.

Sadly, not too many gardeners take advantage of the three sisters growing method, but it really is advantageous to all three plants. It doesn’t really matter if all three plants are planted at the same time or not, but commonly the corn and squash are planted first and the beans are planted a few days to a week later. This lets the corn gain height before the beans start vigorously producing their climbing vines. The squash usually grows at a modest rate until it has a half dozen leaves and the soil warms. Then it begins to produce larger leaves that begin their work of blocking out the sunlight. By then, both the corn and the beans are taller than the squash and are established, so the squash doesn’t prevent those sisters from receiving the needed sunlight.

With this method of growing, it is possible to also substitute plants. For instance, cucumbers will happily use corn stalks for support, though the leaves don’t tend to get as large as with squash and they don’t fix nitrogen like beans. Peas can be used instead of beans, since they do fix nitrogen and tend to use the support as they grow, though peas prefer cooler growing temperatures than corn does. Still, the original three sisters were corn, squash and beans.

Gardeners who become curious about how well this works and who decide to try it are often surprised at the results. Probably the thing that they will notice more than anything else is that this method requires much less effort than traditionally growing corn, squash and beans. Less effort means more time to enjoy other aspects of gardening.

Three sisters gardening is interesting and it really does work.


  1. Eva James

    I have used it in the past with my pole beans. But since I like the taste of the bush beans better I have not been. But I
    always plant next years corn where I had this years beans to get the extra nitrogen for it. My beans are usually planted beside my corn also.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      That is a great idea! Have you tried growing peas or cucumbers next to the corn, for the support?

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It is surprising how well it works. The Iroquois were well known for their ability to get things to grow profusely. I have little doubt that they had other little tricks that helped, too.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      I think you’ll like how well this works next year. It cuts enough of the labor that it makes a big difference. I’m all for anything that lets me have more time to be lazy. Hahaha Of course, if I end up with more time on my hands, I end up working on other gardening projects, but it at least feels like I have more time.

  2. Kyla Matton Osborne

    I am looking forward to the time when I’ll have enough space to grow these crops again! I tried to do just a single row of corn with beans and zucchini in our first year here. But sadly, our little yard just doesn’t get enough sunlight to keep the plants alive.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, Kyla. Corn is wind pollinated, so single rows usually don’t hack it. Three rows of three each would be better than a single row of a dozen corn plants.

      You should try growing things in containers. The corn would probably be out of the question, but you could have a nice little garden in very little space. I’ve known people who lived in an apartment who were able to have a garden that way.

  3. Kyla Matton Osborne

    I know! I didn’t have room for even two rows, the way our yard is laid out, let alone three or four. I only planted about three hills, just to see if anything would come up. I don’t think the corn even got true leaves. It’s way too shaded, even for container gardening. I want to try mushrooms instead, LOL!

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      Hey, mushrooms might work! 🙂 If you can find any shaggy mane mushrooms, you should be able to grow them. White/button mushrooms need a LOT of shade and morels take 3 years and are very picky. Shaggy manes, though, should grow easily.

    2. Kyla Matton Osborne

      We have a local guy who sells growing kits for oyster and shitake mushrooms. Apparently, these two types do well on his land share. I was thinking to just try button mushrooms, as we use those a lot in our cooking. We have more than plenty shade in our yard, so I’m hoping they’ll do well.

      I remember seeing mushrooms in Quebec that looked like they might have been shaggy mane. I don’t think I’ve seen any growing in our yard here, but perhaps if I went out foraging in the woods…

    3. Rex Trulove Post author

      It would sure be worth going out and looking for them and shaggy manes are often found in the fall. If you had a small amount of rotted hay or sawdust, all you’d need to do is dampen it and toss a few shaggy manes there to let them turn into the inky mess. As long as the hay/wood was kept damp, you could have shaggy manes two or three weeks later, without even having to go out into the woods. 😀 Of course, I love going out into the woods and the mushrooms can provide a good excuse, if one is needed…

      I really need to write some articles about mushrooms, too.

    4. Kyla Matton Osborne

      I can see why you recommended shaggy manes. It sounds like the results are very quick! I’ll check with a local guidebook and see if they grow here. If they do, we can look for them this fall 🙂

    5. Rex Trulove Post author

      If it helps, Kyla, the scientific name is Coprinus comatus and they are sometimes known as ink caps. Unlike button mushrooms, the spores don’t become airborne. Instead, as the cap matures, it turns into a inky looking puddle. This is what contains the spores. Incidentally, to slow down the process of the caps turning inky, put them in ice water until you can cook them.

    6. Kyla Matton Osborne

      Awesome! Thanks for that last bit of info! I’m not all that familiar with shaggy mane mushrooms. The main wild type (pardon the pun) that people here are concerned with is the Morels.

    7. Rex Trulove Post author

      Morels are probably the most popular wild mushroom in the world. They are also much loved in Europe and all over the US. Thankfully, we have a lot of them in Montana. (They also happen to be my favorite mushroom.)

      When we go foraging for shaggy manes, we usually take an ice chest half filled with ice and water. Then when we get home, we immediately blanch them and either use them in that night’s dinner, or freeze them. You can’t dry shaggy manes like you can do with morels, but they freeze okay, once they are blanched.

    8. Kyla Matton Osborne

      How do the shaggy manes hold up after freezing and thawing? Do they hold their shape and at least some of their firmness?

    9. Rex Trulove Post author

      Somewhat like button mushrooms do, but not as well as morels, chanterelles or puffballs. They aren’t as firm bodied to begin with. They make up for it by there being a lot of them. Usually, when you find them, you don’t just find one, you find a whole cluster. There have been times when we’ve only found a single morel or puffball, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single shaggy mane growing by itself. That comes from their method of distributing the spores.

      The flavor is better than that of buttons, though. The taste is ever so slightly nutty.

    1. Rex Trulove Post author

      It is quite a space saver. We Native Americans really knew how to save time, space and effort, huh? LOL

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