We know 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 agriculture. I’m speaking of the the Three Sisters, one of the farming techniques the Native Americans practiced.

Did you know?

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.

How it Works

This style of planting utilizes three different crops to their full potential in one space to create 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 while 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.

Beebalm, or Bergamot

I experimented with growing the Three Sisters using the Wampanoag method, where the sisters are grown in blocks more typical of today’s linear agriculture. Here’s what I discovered:

  • Plant seeds on level soil in full sun.
  • Plant corn, sunflower and squash all at the same time.
  • Beans should be planted between 2-3 weeks after the corn has established a proper support stalk.
  • When planting beans or slightly later, ‘hill up’ the soil around the corn and sunflowers. 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!

Chris West is an intern with the Agriculture Supported Communities program.

For more updates on Rodale Institute research and programming, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

16 thoughts on “The Three Sisters… And that Fourth Sister No One Really Talks About

    1. I’ve successfully grown all three indivually in beds of similar size (4×20). I’ve combined beans and squash before and had success. I’ve never tried to combine either with corn because I’ve always done just fine planting a big bed of corn. It could be to do with spacing; in my experience squash needs quite a bit of room per plant (about 18 inches between each seed when you sow) while corn and beans only need about 4-6 inches between seeds (depending on variety of course). If I were to try this method I’d make the corn and beans the main focus (planting the seeds with enough room fir each plant) and then throw in a few squashes where you have the room at the corners of the beds, allowing the vines to sprawl where they will. I always plant sunflowers sporadically throughout my yard so no experience with combining them in this method.

  1. Hi Ruby,
    Maggie, Plant Production Specialist here at the Institute, says the following:

    “Without knowing more about why the system didn’t work for you, I’d say a raised bed probably doesn’t provide enough space to have rows of corn that cross pollinate, or allow squash to run. I would think a 15 x 15 space might be more like the minimum.”

    1. I have successfully planted just 5 stalks of corn in as a climbing tool and it cross pollinated just fine, growing some really nice sweet corn. My bed is only about 8ft long by 3ft wide. Maybe it was a fluke but I wouldn’t say its impossible at this point.

      1. Agreed. I successfully grew corn last year in 3 rows of 4 plants. Only a few ears did not pollinate correctly.

  2. Ho, d’ora someone know of is it possibile to add a fourth underground layer instead of sunflower, like beets, Camerota, onions or another root/tuber?

    1. I’ve never done it but I feel like the roots of the beans, corn and squash would creep through the soil faster than beets or onions could come to harvest time, but maybe with an especially fast growing radish like Sparkler or Pink Beauty? It’s my first year of trying this method and your idea is definitely worth trying, if I have any success I’ll let you know! I’m also going to try to swap out the corn for okra as my husband and I don’t really eat a lot of corn but we love our summer okra, and the plants will get gigantic if you give them enough space!

  3. Just my thoughts three sisters or 4+ was not created in only one year they were used year after year and built up . think they would have been dug out as a depression and filled with wood,sticks, buffalo dung, weeds, fish, bones, top soil from other places things that they knew would grow from experience then covered back filled to a mound with a depression around it more than likely remade every winter and fortified with what was grown there and added to .making a better place to plant every year ,I just cant see were they wouldn’t have known to do some of this .they did it for years before our government destroyed there culture I know they were smart and learned observed from results.

  4. About how many beans per sunflower? I’m skipping the corn. I have a 10 gallon pot, and I thought I’d grow one, two maybe 3 sunflower and some Kentucky wonder beans.

  5. Hi! I’m trying the Three Sisters plu one this year. I want to grown black, kidney or pinto beans. Are there varieties of any of these that will work: ie: climb up the corn? Or, are they all bush beans? I’ve checked the ones I have in my pantry for viability. They are all growing, although the black beans have the highest germination rate and are growing vigorously.

  6. A good reference for how the 3 sisters were actually grown (with the 4th sister as sunflower) is Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html

    The different sisters were grown together in the same farm or field, but in different plots near or surrounding one another. Corn at the center, surrounded by beans, then by squash, and finally sunflowers. Seeds were sown in hills, not in lines or beds. Each of the sisters contributed to a balanced diet of food that could be stored through the long cold winters with minimal processing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.