"Planting the Three Sisters" by Justin Butts of Four String Farm

Kayla with Harvest in a Three Sisters Garden
If you are ready to start your own garden, but aren’t sure where to begin, you might consider the Three Sisters method of planting. Now is the perfect time.

The Three Sisters is the Native American technique of inter-planting corn, beans, and squash. This method is an easy and sustainable way to grow a great deal of food on a very small space with minimal work or expense.

In a Three Sisters garden, the corn grows thick and tall. The bean vines climb the corn stalks as a trellis. Squash plants cover the soil as living green mulch. The plants don’t crowd one other. They actually grow better when planted together, than when planted separately.

Native American Indians grew a tremendous amount of food in these gardens without the use of a plow, and without any chemicals whatsoever. They used the same tools as a modern backyard gardener.

The Aztecs fed a crowded city of 200,000 people from their Three Sisters gardens. Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was an island city on a lake when Cortez discovered the Aztec Empire in 1519. Between 60,000 and 100,000 people shopped the downtown farmers' markets each week, with the vegetables carted down from thousands of small Three Sisters gardens ringing the city. Tenochtitlan was possibly the largest, most complex, and best-fed city in the world, rivaled only by Paris, when the Spaniards seized possession of it.
Purple Bean Flowers on
a Corn Stalk Trellis

Pocahontas saved the colony at Jamestown by sending them corn, beans, and squash. When Captain Smith left the colony, she taught the technique to her new husband, John Rolfe, and he became the first great plantation owner in America. Pocahontas taught John Rolfe the secrets of Three Sisters agriculture, and also showed him how to grow and cure tobacco. Tobacco became the chief cash crop from the New World to the Old, and Three Sisters gardens fed the army of workers required to produce it.

Squanto taught this method to the Pilgrims. Three Sisters agriculture helped establish the colony at Plymouth Rock. In fact, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated with corn, beans, and squash. Following that first Thanksgiving, Governor Bradford gave each family their own plot of land, rather than all families cultivating a communal plot, as in Europe. Each family was free to grow their own Three Sisters gardens and to sell or trade their surplus.

The Mayflower Compact is considered to be the origins of democracy in America, and this act to privatize farming in Plymouth Rock is the birthplace of capitalism. For the next 50 years, corn, beans, and squash constituted up to 70% or more of Pilgrims' diet, and the trade of surplus produce allowed them build their practical wealth in the New World. Plymouth Rock, in a sense, was built on Three Sisters gardens.

Even a tiny three foot by three foot garden will produce with this method. Plant the corn and beans seeds on the corners of a 12 inch square, and plant the squash seeds along each straight line. This is a perfect starter garden for children.

To plant a one hundred square foot garden, prepare three garden rows, each ten feet long. Plant the corn and bean seeds together down each row, 12 inches apart. Plant the squash seeds in between these pairs, 24 inches apart. This little garden can produce 60 ears of sweet corn, 30 pounds of beans, and over 150 pounds of summer and winter squash. You can even grow melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, herbs and flowers in this garden.

Black Diamond Watermelons at Edge of a Three Sisters
Garden; Bean Vines on Corn Stalk on Left

The Three Sisters were cultivated extensively across America until the early 1900’s, when industrial farm equipment replaced small-scale farmers. Vast chemical monocultures soon dominated the landscape, and the old ways of farming were forgotten.

The Three Sisters method is possibly the best-kept gardening secret in America, but you can use this method to pioneer your own space. The Three Sisters will happily make themselves at home in your garden.

Justin Butts is a local farmer and business owner of Four String Farm in Rockport.

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