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The Legend of the Three Sisters

Thyme Square Gardens, Native Corn, Beans and Squash, May 2011

This Legend has been told by the Iroquois Indians and passed down through many generations. It's about the relationship of companion planting and how it has proven itself as one of the most intricate and romantic growing techniques throughout the history of farming and gardening. At least I see it that way and perhaps you may as well after hearing the tale. It's a story of growing corn, beans and squash together as one in unison with each other.Allow me to first share the tale before I share my own adventures growing Three Sisters in my garden. I've found most of the story preserved at the Museum of Natural History by Shelia Wilson, a member of the Sappony Tribe.

The Legend of the Three Sisters 

A long time ago, three sisters lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different
from one another in their height and in the way they carried themselves. The little sister
was so young and round that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green.
The second sister wore a bright, sunshine yellow dress, and she would spend many an
hour reading by herself, sitting in the sun with the soft wind blowing against her face.
The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other
sisters, looking for danger and warning her sisters. She wore a pale green shawl and had
long, dirty-yellow hair. There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved
each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.

One day a strange bird came to the field: a crow. He talked to the horses and other
animals, and this caught the attention of the sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and
smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad. Again the crow came to the field to
gather reeds at the water’s edge. The sisters who were left watched his trail as he was
leaving, and that night the second sister, the one in the yellow dress, disappeared. Now
the eldest sister was the only one left. She continued to stand tall. When the crow saw
how she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together, and they became stronger
together again. The elder sister stands tall looking out for the crow to this day.

Native American Cornfield Beans
This year, I decided to try what is called a "Three Sisters Garden".  It was a planting method used by Native Americans that was what people now call companion planting.  The story passed on throughout generations of Native Americans is about three sisters, corn, beans, and squash.  These three sisters care about each other very much and when together, strengthen and help one another as they grow.  These were also three staple crops of the Native Americans that were essential for their survival.  Corn was a mainstay that could be eaten "green" or dried for storage and provided carbohydrates for them, beans provided protein for them and could also be eaten right off the plant or dried for storage, and squash provided many extra vitamins and minerals.  The three together provided a well balanced and life sustaining diet for them, that could be stored to get them through the winter months.   
    These three plants, when planted together, are found to benefit each other in their growth.  The corn provides a natural structure for the pole beans to climb.  The beans help the corn by providing extra support to the corn stalks to prevent wind damage, and they also are found to add nitrogen to the soil that the corn naturally depletes.  The squash provides a living mulch for both the beans and the corn, it inhibits weed growth and shades the soil to retain water better in dry times.  So, not only were these "Three Sisters" important to the people's diet, they were important to each others growth. 

I knew that I wanted to do this type of garden, but did not plan as well as I should have, so this year is a bit of an experiment to see how it does.  After doing our "Lasagna Garden", we were hit with rainy and wet conditions, great for the lasagna garden, but the wet ground kept me from preparing the mounds for the "Three Sisters".  I had originally wanted to order some flint or field corn to plant, but it was already late may, and all the local stores only sold packets of sweet corn.  So, I went with sweet corn instead.  Which is fine, because I love to eat fresh corn, but I had planned on drying some of it to use as a supplement to chicken feed this winter.  Sweet corn does not dry all that well, so I plan on just freezing any extra, and occasionally  thawing and giving the chickens some ears as a treat this winter.  So at the end of May, the ground dried out enough for me to form about five mounds in the space left over next to my winter wheat.  I planted several seeds in a circular pattern in each mound.  

As soon as these spouted, I planted my pole beans.  I put three to four seeds around each of the sprouted corn.  Again, I had originally wanted to plant a good bean that I could not only eat, but that I could dry to add to the chicken's feed.  However, due to easy availability, I just went with a Kentucky Wonder green bean.  The family loves green beans, and we could can any extra to eat later or feed to the chickens.          
    I went with pumpkins for the squash, mainly because I had an old pack of pumpkin seeds.  I now wish I would have gotten a new pack because only around seven of them sprouted.  One mound did not have any pumpkins sprout, but I think I can direct the runners from one mound to the other.  The pumpkins were planted on the edge of the mounds and I will keep the runners directed into the mound to provide that living mulch.  My plan is to have some jack-o-lanterns for the kids this Halloween and to dry the seeds to eat and again, give to the chickens.
    At this time everything is growing, but not very impressive yet, I will post more pictures and update this post as things progress.
Native Cornfield Bean Pods at the base of the corn stalks.

The first Native American series coin was released in January 2009 and has a reverse side that depicts a Native American woman sowing seeds of the Three Sisters, symbolizing the Indian tribes' contributions to agriculture. It is better known as the Sacagawea Dollar. I found it a very befitting symbol to be placed on a round coin because round circles are how the Native Americans have always grown their crops.
The native people believe, because the Great Spirit caused everything in nature to be round. The Sun, Sky, Earth and Moon are round that the circle represents the circle of life. When they plant their Three Sisters it is planted on mounds in round circles. This is exactly how we planted our Three Sisters here at Thyme Square Gardens and it is the most beautiful experience I have had in gardening. From start to finish we have grown as close to the ways of the Native Indians as possible. Right down to trying to grow the closest varieties to our Native American Texas soil.When you plant your corn in the circle with the beans on the outside of the corn and then the pumpkins on the outside of the beans, everything gets the proper light it needs. With all the high winds we've had this season, not one stalk has blown over. Every sister truly supports the other in so very many ways. Actually the field is even easier to walk through while the pumpkins are still maturing. Every thing seems to cling so nicely on the little mounds. Companion planting is the only way to grow!!

The beauty of companion planting
Companion planting will help your garden to look attractive. It encourages you to consider a greater variety of planting, which is always good for biodiversity, and different layouts and arrangements of plants within the plot.
It helps your garden to sustain itself – with well-selected companion plants, your garden should be humming with life, not sterile and formal. 
Adopting companion planting methods should mean you can greatly reduce or eliminate any use of pesticides. It should help you to raise better crops and improve the sustainability of your soil. At the Secret Garden Club, we're aiming to create a harmonious combination of edible and ornamental plants and companion planting has found its way into the heart of that plan.

References and Further Reading
1. Creasy, Rosalind, "Cooking from the Garden", Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988
2. Dodson, Mardi, “An Appendix to Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources - Ancient Companions. ATTRA: National Center for Appropriate Technology, 2002. Available at http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/complant.html#appCultivation.
3. Eames-Sheavly, Marcia, "The Three Sisters, Exploring an Iroquois Garden", Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell U., 1993
4. Hays, Wilma and R. Vernon, "Foods the Indians Gave Us", Ives Washburn, Inc. NY, 1973
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