A Tale of Three Sisters
A Three Sisters garden is corn, beans, squash all interplanted, in the style of many Native American nations. I'm not sure where this first was documented; many of us learned about it in grade school during lessons about the Pilgrims. One early authoritative source is Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden, the result of lengthy interviews with a Hidatsa woman. It was published in the late 1800's and includes pictures and diagrams. This first-hand account of Hidatsa gardening practices includes information about tools, recipes, preserving crops, and some keen observations about human nature.
My corn this year is Painted Mountain Flour corn, and the first block is already a few inches tall. For beans, I chose Hidatsa Shield Figure beans in honor of Buffalo Bird Woman. I'm going to break with tradition and grow some melons as well as winter squash. My community garden plot is my only garden space with enough sun for melons. I'll have Sunshine kabocha as my winter squash, and Green Machine melon and Hime Kansen watermelon.
The first block of corn seedlings is already up and about four inches high. Planted May 1st.
Growing a Three Sisters
Some directions say to plant the corn and beans at the same time in hills, and plant the squash after the corn is a foot tall. Others say to plant the beans after the corn is 6 inches tall, and the squash at the same time. I put the squash in first last year, and do NOT recommend it-- the squash grows faster as the weather warms up and shades the beans before they get going! My current plan is to put in the beans when the corn is 6 - 8 inches tall, which should be in about a week, and to put the squash in around June 1st. I started them just this past Monday, so there's no hurry. Last year I'd started squash FIRST, and they were getting too big so I had to put them out. Oops.
The layout of the garden can be tricky. There are several different schools of how to do this. One says to plant all three in one hill, another says to alternate rows of corn-plus-beans and of squash. The theory is the same in both cases, though-- the beans climb up the corn stalks, and fix nitrogen at the roots to help a good corn crop. The squash vines ramble between the hills of corn and shade out weeds, as well as making it more uncomfortable for garden pests to come bother the corn. I found that a 4x18 garden bed is fairly tight spacing for either method. Here's last year's diagram; it didn't work very well, but I'm not sure if that was because of putting in the squash too soon, as above.
This year I am planting one corn per square foot, and leaving some 2x2 foot 'bay windows' along the front for bush varieties of winter squash. Since a bush variety really means "a bush plus short vines" I am hoping this works well. I do wonder if I should have put the bay windows in the back, so that vines would move forward toward the sun, but it's too late now. Will see how this goes-- every year, another experiment!
Reading about Buffalo Bird Woman's garden, one finds that the Three Sisters were in fact usually Four Sisters, the fourth being sunflowers. I usually plant sunflowers along the outside of my garden bed to attract pollinators, and this turns out to be an old, old practice. The Hidatsa often grew sunflowers in hills of three, the same as for corn, but I just plant them in a row due to limited space in the garden bed.