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.