ASC Intern Journal: The three sisters…and that fourth sister no one really talks about

By Chris West, ASC intern

We all are familiar with the fact that the Native Americans were excellent hunter-gatherers, probably from our middle school textbooks. But, most of us were not informed of their laissez-faire system of symbiotic agricultural. What am I babbling about you say? I am speaking of the The Three Sisters, one of the farming techniques the Native Americans practiced.

Native Americans had their own distinct tribes, each with their own horticultural traditions. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) coined the term The Three Sisters although they weren't the only tribe to use the method. This style of planting utilizes three different crops to their full potential in one space. A circle of interdependence based on giving and receiving.

The Three Sisters is a combination of three plants working together:

Sister Bean fixes, or makes available in plant form, nitrogen from the air.

Sister Corn provides the support for Sister Bean’s trailing vine.

Sister Squash provides ground cover to hold moisture and maintain healthy soil environment as well as deterring animal invaders with its spiny stems.

The fourth sister can be Sister Sunflower or Sister Bee Balm (aka Bergamot, Horsemint and Oswego Tea). This sister supports the beans, lures birds from the corn with her seeds and attracts insect pollinators.

Being the over-enthusiastic gardener/farmer that I am (especially in the Spring), I insisted on trying to recreate The Three Sisters (plus one). There are different arrangements into which these plants can be put, but for my first go round I used the Wampanoag method, where the sisters are grown in blocks, more typical of today’s linear agriculture.

There are guides for growing The Three Sisters, but I can add the following pointers. First, plant seeds on level soil in full sun. Plant Sister Corn, Sister Sunflower and Sister Squash all at the same time. Sister Bean should be planted between 2-3 weeks after Sister Corn has established a proper support stalk. When Sister Bean is being planted or slightly later, ‘hill up’ the soil around Sister Corn and Sister Sunflower, this will add more strength to their root systems and allow them to stand strong during high winds.

I had a lot of fun seeing these plants all work together. I hope you do too and remember to keep on growing!

9 Responses to “ASC Intern Journal: The three sisters…and that fourth sister no one really talks about”

  1. Melissa Sylvan

    Interesting. I wonder about the effect from Sunflowers being allelopathic, meaning they release chemicals that suppress the growth of other plants growing nearby.

  2. Judith

    Sunflowers also use lots of nitrogen when growing rapidly. Not sure how that would impact the other vegetables.

    I really believe there are three more sisters – soil, water and sun. Without these sisters the other three wouldn’t grow. So does that make a “Seven Sisters” system with the sunflowers?

    Neat article and thank you for the information on the Native Americans that used the system and that it was a more mobile, less organized, garden than we try to plant.


  3. Richard Kanak

    I tried using sunflowers this season in conjunction with hyacinth and scarlet runner bean, plus Connecticut field pumpkin. It did not work for me. I wondered about the allelopathy potential of the sunflowers but feel it was more the sequence of planting since other plants flourish at the base of the sunflowers, It is also obvious that weeds were unaffected.

    I also was a dismal failure with planting Country Gentleman sweet corn, Fortex pole beans and Connecticut field pumpkins as the three sisters.

    From these multiple plantings the only crop harvested was sunflowers. I always remind myself there is a difference between farming and growing. Many plants grow on the farm. I need to learn how to market the items that grow.

  4. elin wieland

    trying to find info on beans native people called “mortgage lifters”. Have you heard of them?

    • Kerri

      You can find mortgage lifter beans by contacting this man as he does heirloom beans and they are rare. Mike Coffey, 970-677-2445, PO Box 552, Dove Creek CO, 81324. They grow 10 different varieties of heirloom and antique beans.

  5. Dan Lefever

    I doubt native people had “mortgage lifters” as in general they did not entertain the concept of land ownership. Land is something you use, but since you didn’t make it you can’t own it, only use it (just like the air you breathe) and then pass it on to your tribal progeny. They had much difficulty to deal with the European concept of land ownership; so I am guessing the concept of a mortgage would be about as intangible.

    on a more practical basis; I think allelopathy in sunflowers is largely exhibited by plant residue on the soil surface not from the growing plant. I seen it most strongly demonstrated below birdfeeders with sunflower seeds in the shell and the empty shell the birds drop beneath it limit most other seeds from sprouting and growing in that area.

    Beans (legumes) use symbiotic rhizobia bacteria to get ( fix) nitrogen from the air for their own use and are thus able to make higher protein bearing seeds. Is not 6.25% of protein content N ? I don’t think other plants can access it until the bean plant dies and decomposes enuf to let the nitrogen compounds in the plant and rhizobia nodules become “soluble” for other plant roots. This may not hold true for woody perennial legumes, they may be able to “throw off” fixed nitrogen to other plants around them. Thus the reasoning behind interplanting woody legumes amongst other permaculture tree crops to help feed them nitrogen. Is their verification of this?

  6. Paul Jones

    We grow sunflowers extensively as a natural shading tool. The
    only thing we are specific about is I keep them three feet away from other plants. I have found they seem to reduce fruit ripe on some varieties of long season tomatoes. We planted 360 sunflowers mixed giants and branching in 2015.
    PMJ Z6 high desert nuclear sun no rain 4,300′


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