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Plant a Three Sisters garden. January 16, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Want to grow something fun this year? Our friend Ben gets a kick out of theme gardens, and the beauty of a vegetable theme garden is that you can try a new theme every year. You don’t even need three sisters to grow this particular theme garden, because the “Three Sisters” referred to in the title are plants: corn, beans, and squash, the staples of Native American food gardening in what would eventually become the United States. It’s thanks to the Native Americans’ sharing their crops and cooking and growing techniques that the early Colonists were able to survive here, and the reason why corn and pumpkins (which are actually a type of winter squash) remain harvest-season decorations, symbolizing bounty and thankfulness, to this day.

If you grew up in the U.S., you doubtless learned the story of how the Native Americans taught the early settlers to grow corn by “planting” a fish in the bottom of each hill before sowing the corn. As the nitrogen-hungry corn grew, the decaying fish provided fertilizer. While our friend Ben wouldn’t recommend dumping dead fish all over the garden (unless—eeewww—you happen to live near a fish-processing plant where the offal is free for the taking), especially if you don’t like the idea of every carnivorous critter for miles around making a beeline to your backyard to dig it all back up, there’s no doubt that the First Americans were on to something.

Corn is wind-pollinated, so it needs to be planted in blocks or clumps to get good pollination, which results in full ears (an unpollinated kernel doesn’t develop, which is why you sometimes get those flat, “blank” spaces in your corn cobs). A lonely row or two just won’t do the trick. The Native Americans got around this by planting corn in “hills”—or, more accurately, around hills, with spaces between each hill. (Just think: the first New World crop circles!) But they didn’t let the space go to waste (or weeds). Instead, they grew pole beans up the tall corn stalks and long-vining squash in the center of each hill. The squash, which, as you know if you’ve ever grown pumpkins or another vining squash, takes up a lot of ground, could enjoy the fish fertilizer under its roots and would keep down weeds with its rampant, ground-eating growth. And the beans would not only have their own cornstalk trellises for greater productivity and easier harvesting, they’d fix nitrogen to add fertility back to the soil. It was a win-win design all ’round.

So why don’t we still grow corn, beans, and squash this way? One word: efficiency. You can get higher yields with solid blocks of a single crop, and tight rows yield better than hills. Our modern tillers make it easier to turn large plots of land, whereas if you’re tilling by hand, the hill system means you only need to prepare the area you’re planting. Also, these days, most home gardeners grow sweet corn, bush snap beans, and bush summer squash (including zucchini), which are harvested considerably earlier than the long-keeping dried corn (including the colorful “Indian” corn, flour corn, and popcorn), dried beans, and winter squash and pumpkins of old. 

 Obviously, you could still plant a modern-day version of a Three Sisters garden, with blocks of sweet corn at either end of a bed oriented East-West, or at the North end of a bed oriented North-South, and alternating blocks of bush beans and bush summer squash between (E-W) or in front (N-S) of the corn. To maximize the space, you could grow a cold-tolerant crop like spinach, leaf lettuce, or arugula and harvest it before planting your modern Sisters, then, after you harvest your corn, squash, and beans and till in or compost the plants, replant the bed with a second crop of greens. 

But our friend Ben thinks that the whole point of a theme garden is that it should be fun, decorative, and educational. If I’m going to plant a Three Sisters garden, I want to grow heirloom varieties in the traditional way. Maybe I’ll just get a few dozen ears of corn, a bag or two of beans, and a half-dozen squash or pumpkins. But I’ll have a fascinating experience, and whatever I harvest can be used for Harvest Home decor throughout September, October, and November, then stored and eaten. That works for me! I’ll still grow my beloved bush beans and summer squash in my raised beds, and buy sweet corn and supplemental beans and squash at my local CSA and farmers’ markets. This is a different thing, more like growing a bed of ornamental annuals with an edible bonus.

Want to try it yourself? These crops all need full sun, so reserve a sunny part of your garden just for them. These are warm-season crops—corn seed will actually rot in wet, cold soil—so wait to plant until at least two weeks past your last predicted frost, when the soil has warmed to between 55 and 65 degrees F. Once you’ve prepared your plot or bed, our friend Ben suggests making hills with ample shovelfuls of compost and/or well-rotted manure, or a generous application of balanced organic fertilizer. We’re not talking about trivial hills here, either—you want a circle 4 or 5 feet across. Pile several inches of soil back over the compost or fertilizer, making a mound or “hill.” If you want to grow several hills, perhaps showcasing different varieties in each, space hills 3 to 4 feet apart and mulch between them.

Now, time to plant. Sow squash or pumpkin seed 1 to 2 inches deep in the center of your hill, 2 seeds per hill. (Tip: Soaking squash seed in compost tea for 15 minutes before planting will help prevent disease.) Plant your corn seed 1/2 inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart around the perimeter of the hill. Once the corn germinates and grows 3 to 4 inches tall, you can thin it to a foot apart. Then sow bean seeds around each corn stalk, planting them 1 to 2 inches deep; thin to one plant per corn stalk once they’ve emerged and are growing strongly. Make sure your Three Sisters receive an inch of water from rain or irrigation each week while they’re growing. Remember that corn and squash are hungry crops, so side-dress them with compost, kelp meal, or balanced organic fertilizer and/or spray the foliage of your corn and squash plants with compost tea or liquid seaweed once a month while they’re growing and the crop is maturing. Once corn and squash are mature, stop fertilizing and cut back on the water so your crops can cure, i.e., dry down for harvest.

As noted, our friend Ben would hate to waste all this effort on ordinary garden-variety crops. If I’m going to plant a Three Sisters garden with a Native American theme, I’d like to grow some colorful Native American crops in it. Here are just some of the options: ‘Hopi Blue’, ‘Hopi Pink Flour’, ‘Hopi Chinmark’, ‘Anasazi’, ‘Taos Pueblo Blue’, ‘Parching Lavender Mandan’, ‘Parching Red Mandan’, ‘Supai’, ‘Oaxacan Green’, ‘Black Aztec’, ‘Dakota Black Popcorn’, ‘Rainbow Sweet Inca’, ‘Seneca Mini Indian’, ‘Escondida Blue’ corn. ‘Hopi Pale Grey’, ‘Seminole Pumpkin’, ‘Hopi Cushaw’, ‘Tohono O’odham “Ha:I”‘,  ‘Taos’, ‘Navajo Hubbard’, ‘Pacheco Pumpkin’, ‘Pipian from Tuxpan’, ‘Silver Edged’ winter squash and pumpkins. ‘Chaco Canyon’, ‘Scarlet Runner’, ‘White Dwarf Aztec’ runner, ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’, ‘Tarahumara Dark Purple’, ‘Hopi Yellow’ lima, ‘Christmas Pole Lima’ bean. Go for color and history, I say! You can find these heirlooms and many others at seed sources like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com), Native Seeds/SEARCH (www.nativeseeds.org), and Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org).

Want to make your Three Sisters garden even more fun for kids? Reserve a corner and grow a bean teepee. “Plant” stripped, unbranched saplings or tall, sturdy bamboo poles in a circle, teepee-fashion, leaving a foot between each pole and a 3-foot opening in front for a “door.” Tie the poles together at the top or use one of the plastic circles with pre-punched holes that makes creating a teepee-style trellis easier. Then plant ornamental bean vines up each pole.

Here are some of our friend Ben’s top choices for a bean teepee: ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans produce gorgeous scarlet sweet-pea-type blossoms and edible beans, and one runner bean, ‘Painted Lady’, has bicolored red-and-white flowers. ‘Christmas Lima’ has gorgeous red-and-white lima beans, but the plant itself is not as decorative as a runner bean, so if you grow them, you might mix in one or two for the “bean factor.”

Or go for the gorgeous and plant purple-flowered hyacinth beans (Lablab purpureus, aka Dolichos lablab), which also have purplish leaves and stunning bright purple pods. ‘Moonshadow’ is a classic cultivar. You can tell the kids that Thomas Jefferson grew hyacinth beans in his garden at Monticello! (Don’t eat this one, though. While young pods are considered edible, older pods and mature beans may be poisonous. Better safe than sorry!)

Another option: Give the kids the thrill of a lifetime and plant some yard-long beans. ‘Chinese Red Noodle’, ‘Taiwan Black Seeded’, and ‘Red-Seeded Asparagus’ are just three of the amazingly long-podded (up to 3 feet, as their name implies) varieties to choose from, and ‘Chinese Red Noodle’ has brilliant red pods! The tender pods are great when stir-fried.

What to plant around your teepee? How about some colorful native New World flowers like nasturtiums, zinnias, marigolds, nicotiana, petunias, and/or dwarf sunflowers? These cheerful annuals will enjoy the full-sun conditions every bit as much as your beans, even if the kids need to take some shade breaks inside the teepee. Since some of the older nasturtium varieties are vining, you can even grow them up the poles with your beans for a doubly colorful effect, along with those other native Americans, morning glories. Don’t forget that you can harvest nasturtium buds, leaves, and flowers for salads, too, if you can bring yourself to reduce the floral show!