“Together these plants—corn, beans, and squash—feed the people,
feed the land, and feed our imaginations, telling us how we might live.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Before European arrival, a robust agriculture of corn, beans, and squash, known as the Three Sisters, thrived in the Northeast. The genius of the Native Three Sisters planting is its sustainability, as its elements weave connections between soil and plants, plants and our health, and our place in nature.
Planted together, these three crops provide mutual success: Corn gives support to beans that pull nitrogen from the air to the soil, while squash shades the ground, retains moisture, and reduces weeds. Nutritionally, the three complementary foods provide nutrients and essential amino acids that no one of them sufficiently supplies. Nurturing the plants and soil, people appreciatively demonstrate their connection to the natural world.
Evidence of this once thriving agriculture can be found in places like the Sarah Doublet Forest in Littleton, Mass., where the outlines of planting mounds are still visible.
Starting a Three Sisters Garden
Planting a Three Sisters garden, whether small or large, in a single backyard or a large community garden, can provide healthy food, nurture the soil, and honor Native American values that we can carry into the future.
There are many online resources for learning about the Three Sisters tradition, science, techniques, and plot designs. A few links to get you started include:
Abenaki Seeds of Renewal Project
Haudenosaunee Confederacy: Food and Hunting
Legend, instructions, garden design and references at Renee’s Garden
Overview, legend, and how-to from Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Three Sisters Soup
- Choose good soil in a sunny location with available water.
- Allow enough room for at least four corn plants, representing the four directions and a minimum number for natural pollination.
- Plant corn first and follow with beans and squash when the corn is six inches high.
- Space plants with corn at the center, beans close enough to climb the supporting corn, and squash where it can spread without shading out the beans.
- Nature will do most of the work, but nurture is needed.
- Augment the soil with natural fertilizers, pull weeds, and water during dry times.
- Give thanks.