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.

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4 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.”

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