Alison Siggelko, one of our departing interns spent a full spring with us getting things in the ground and helping us immensely at the farmer's market. We bid her a fond adieu as she heads to California for graduate school in Transpersonal Psychology. Good luck Alison! You will be missed!
The Three Sisters growing technique is a Native American way of companion planting with squash, corn and pole beans. Typically you need at least a 10' x 10' space but we had a lot less to work with. This is our experiement:
A few weeks ago, the interns were asked to plant a Three Sisters garden. With free reign to designate planting mounds and seed spacing, we were initially nervous. Between a combination of how-to planting guides and the ancient myth of Three Sisters, we figured out how to lay four soil mounds and plant our first crop of corn.
I personally remember the legend of the Three Sisters from elementary school. Corn, beans and squash were the first crops to become domesticated by Mesoamericans and were viewed with great reverence as gifts from the Great Spirit. (The legend of the Three Sisters can be found here.) What was left out of my brief education of the Three Sisters was the sustainable science of this growing method.
Once our corn began to sprout, we planted pole beans around each corn plant. The corn stalk will provide a trellis for the beans to climb, and the bean's presence will not only stabilize the tall corn, but will also fix the nitrogen in the soil for the corn of following years. Squash* was planted around the corn/bean mounds providing soil cover and eventually crop residue beneficial for soil structure.
Nutritionally the combination of the three plants is also well balanced. Corn provides carbs, beans give us protein and a balance to the amino acid found in corn, and squash fruit is chock full of vitamins.
Of course, ancient Americans didn't understand the chemistry behind this system. In all probability, they discovered Three Sisters because these crops could be successfully cultivated while maintaining balance and health for people. It is a beautiful example of common-sense sustainability and a reminder of the importance of maintaining indigenous traditions.
Though none of the interns follow Native traditions, I think it’s safe to say we all felt a shimmer of the ceremonial as we built our soil mounds and planted corn seeds. In keeping with indigenous tradition we decided that there should be four mounds and that they should each represent one of the four directions (N,S,E,W). Though we giggled at our unexpected reverence for tradition, I for one felt a surprising satisfaction at combining the practicalities of farming with a respect and admiration of nature.
* Instead of squash, petite watermelon were planted since vine borers had been a problem in the previous year in the same location.