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!

35 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.

    • Paula Ohara

      Since sunflowers do dominate and take more than their share of nutrients, plant in deep pots. Beans can still climb up, but this would keep the flowers from robbing the beans, corn, and squash from the food they need to survive.

    • Josh

      Beans fix nitrogen in the soil by pulling atmospheric nitrogen(gas) from the air and converting it to usable form for the corn and other crops by developing little nodules on its roots where the nitrogen is deposited. After the bean plant dies, the roots will rot in the soil and the soil microbes (bacteria and fungi) break down these “nitrogen nodules” making the nitrogen available to plants. This is how all soil fertility works. Microbes eat soil amendments and then “poop” them out (and many will also get old and die) for the plants to consume. This is why manures must always be composted before applying to plants, bc the plants cannot use the actual manure, only the excrement and dead bodies of the microbes that consumed the manure. -But that is a whole other conversation for another day. So the point of all that is to say that the beans cannot provide immediate nitrogen available for the corn same they climb on, but it will be available for next year’s corn or whatever else is planted there. So the “bean sister” is always feeding next season’s “corn Sister”, not the current one.

  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.

    • Macy

      I grow a Three Sisters and their Cousins garden every year. All of these seeds are planted in hilled-up mounds of dirt, which I prepare ahead of time.

      First, I sow the corn. I usually do Sweet Bantam varieties, but sometimes Glass Corn or Popcorn instead. They all grow and develop similarly! 4 kernels to a mound, to aid pollination.

      Secondly, I plant Pole Beans when the cornstalks are about 1ft high, one by each Corn plant, so 4 per mound. Beans grow more quickly than Corn, so I stagger the planting times so they don’t overwhelm delicate new Corn plants!

      Thirdly, I plant squashes in mounds that were reserved for them. This is where the “Cousins” part comes in…because I plant Summer Squash, Hubbard Squash, Birdhouse Gourds, Acorn Squash, Buttercup, and different Pumpkins too. They all provide great ground cover!

      This garden bed is circular, about 16ft in diameter. In the off-season, I clean out our chicken coop, and toss it there to compost in place. I usually grow a cover crop there in the Spring and Fall, to keep weeds down.

      This has been a “dig once” garden, that I put in 5 years ago. It is going strong, with no chemical amendments needed!

      • Heidi

        I am interested in planting. 3 sisters garden to be harvested in October. When would I plant that? Would you be willing to draw a diagram? I’m not even a novice at this- the only thing I grow is flowers that are in pots someone else started. Thanks in advance for your trouble.

  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.

    • Valerie

      Mortgage Lifter is a variety of heirloom tomato. I don’t believe the native people had mortgages back then.

  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′

  7. Emma

    Cool story, I remember this from my middle school history textbook. How do you think the people back then figured that the three sisters grow well together?
    Excellent article!


  8. Nico

    The beans provide nitrogen in the soil for the crops in the following year.

    • Curtis Martin

      What kind of squash did Native Americans use wither the three sisters method?

      I tried growing borage flowers to attract bees, but it didn’t thrive. We had to pollinate our zucchini by hand last year.

  9. Linda

    I’m plotting out our new garden and wondering if the three sisters can be planted in the same space year after year or do they have to be rotated out.

  10. Jen

    Linda – I found some sources that say that historically, aboriginal north americans did rotate crops, and other sources that say the ‘three sisters method’ makes it unnecessary (if I’m reading correctly). In any case, this article: has a list of academic papers from the archeological field, so it might have more robust information. Good luck with your new garden!

  11. Darren

    I had been reading about native americans and decided to plant ‘three sisters’ in a small plot. It seems to be going well so far, but maybe should have delayed beans by a few weeks because they seem to grow faster. (I planted mine at the same time in short rows to create a square shape. I’m not a fan of sunflowers, but I would suggest planting them nearby and not with the others. I’m in western PA.

  12. Chris

    I decided to use three sisters in my corn patch this year, and ran into a little difficulty. Planting the corn rows at minimum recommended spacing tends to cause 8 lb zucchini… to be specific, I planted green zukes and green beans amongst the corn rows. The beans trellised as advertised, but I couldn’t get to the vines to harvest. The zukes put on quite a few fruit, but between the squash leaves and the shade from the corn (and again plant density) I ended up picking more than a few baseball bat zukes at the end of the year.

    I’d definitely recommend a non-green squash for the sisters, whether golden varieties of patty pan or zukes, or a spaghetti squash or pumpkin, just for purposes of visibility… I’m also wondering if bush beans (or peas) might work better than vining varieties, simply to avoid the issues I had with hiding bean vines and overlooked harvest.

    On the upside, I averaged just shy of 2 ears per square foot in that plot, which I suppose to be fairly decent…

  13. Anonymous Web Surfer

    I don’t know why the writer of this article used sunflower for the first common name of this plant, but bee balm and sunflowers are completely different plants. Sunflowers (The Helianthus genus, particularly Helianthus annuus, which many of you and a scientific paper one of you cited as allelopathic) is completely different from Bee Balm/Bergamot (Monarda, particularly Monarda didyma). Sunflowers are in the Aster family. Bee Balm is in the Mint family. Bee balm is famous for its attractiveness to beneficial insects. I believe that bee balm is the helpful “fourth sister” mentioned in this article.

  14. Clyde Beers

    When I read about the fourth thing not talked about, I thought the reference was going to be the fish. The Iroquois supplemented each hillock with a fish buried at planting (I assume some type of natural nutrient). Or perhaps the fish adjusted the natural Ph.

  15. Vanessa

    The fourth sister is neither sunflowers, nor bee balm (although bee balm would attract pollinators), but rather Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata). This flowering plant is native to the same areas where Three Sisters planting was historically utilized, and was also used by Native groups in New Mexico for food and pottery dye.
    This article explains more:

  16. Betty Crain

    I love this article. It makes so much sense. My mother always had a row of flowers amidst her vegetables.

  17. Carol Ann

    I was told that the beans grown for the 3 sisters were for drying for the winter, and the squash were winter squash as many of the tribes had summer camps and separate winter camps. When they would come back from the summer camp, if all had gone well there would be corn and beans for drying and squash to store through the winter.

    Not saying it can’t be done differently, I know I have experimented with different ways and will do again but it just seemed interesting to me and does give insight as to why they would grow with this method.

  18. James Anthony

    I’m starting a 3 sisters garden here in central AZ using local drought resistant plants. Going with Amaranth, Rattlesnake pole-beans, O’odham pink beans, and Gila Pima Ha-l squash. Hoping to be able to supplement my diet with what I grow this year, though I’ve never done anything like it before.


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