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The Three Sisters: Corn, Squash and Beans

Question. I have set aside an area in my vegetable garden to try The Three Sisters system of growing corn, beans and squash. Do you have any suggestions as to what type of squash and beans to plant? (I've been told that I can use just about any type of pole bean (green beans or others) and just about any bush or non-vining cucumbers, squash or pumpkins to cover the ground. And are there recommended varieties for the corn?

---John in Edmond, OK

Answer. I learned quite a bit about The Three Sisters when we staged a major exhibit featuring Native American culture at the 1996 Philadelphia Flower Show back when I was the editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine in the 1990s. (Won Best of Show in our category for the third year in a row!) The three crops are part of an intricate Iroquois story about the world's beginning, springing out of the earth to feed and nurture the first Human Beings.

But you're a little misinformed about the specific nature of the crops in question. Although some corn and beans were almost certainly eaten fresh, the majority of the harvests of America's First Farmers were for winter storage. Thus, the corn was grown to be dried for grinding into cornmeal; same for the beans—they were selected for their ability to be dried and stored. Native Americans didn't know from cucumbers (which are not one of the sisters)—or even zucchini and other summer squash. Their squash would have been pumpkins and other winter squash, varieties that would store well, even improving in flavor over the winter. Think about it—there was plenty of fresh edible vegetation growing all around in the summer, but squirreling away lots of corn, beans and squash was essential for staying alive and healthy over the winter.

And the actual growing technique is a master class in space utilization. You'd plant varieties of flour corn whose stalks were especially sturdy, so they could handle the bean vines that would be tugging at them. Near those stalks, you'd plant 'pole' (climbing) beans that produced big, nutritious seeds, but whose vines weren't so heavy and aggressive that they'd start tugging the corn down to earth. Then, when those crops were up and growing, you'd plant pumpkins and other winter squash with really broad leaves around them—to shade the soil, conserve moisture and keep weed growth down. (The prickly squash leaves were also felt to help deter critters like deer and raccoon from going after the corn.)

To make the circle even more complete, the bean vines would be plowed back into the soil or buried in another area at the end of the season, so that the nitrogen-rich vines would decompose and provide some of the food for the next season's corn crop. Pretty smart! (If the correct bacteria are present in the soil, "nitrogen-fixing" crops like peas and beans can pull nitrogen from the air and store it in their cells. Modern growers insure this great symbiotic relationship by purchasing a specific pea and bean inoculant and dusting their seeds with it before planting.)

I wouldn't advise trying this technique with regular sweet corn or string beans, as the ideal Three Sisters are not picked during the season. It's hard to imagine how you could get in there TO pick without stepping all over the poor squash vines; and the stalks of modern sweet corns just aren't strong enough to support vigorous bean vines.