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Three Sisters Gardening Method

Seed packets for each item in the Three Sisters Garden, squash, corn and beans, pinned to a wire fence around a garden.

The Three Sisters Garden can be a fun and rewarding experiment for the family in the backyard vegetable plot. This ancient method dates back to Native American culture. 

The trio of corn, pole beans and squash are planted together in hills, a crop management system called interplanting or companion planting. All three of these vegetables are warm-season crops, so they should not be planted before soil temperatures have warmed to 60 F, which is around mid-May. 

Select a site that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight and has good access to water. Prepare your hills by working in a complete fertilizer, compost or lime into the soil. The corn is planted first to provide a trellis for the beans. Bloody Butcher and Blue Carage are good heirloom varieties to plant.  

Plant four to seven corn seeds 6 inches apart in the center of the mound and cover with soil. Then, gently mound or hill around the corn plants as they emerge. When the corn is about 4 to 6 inches high, plant three to four pole bean seeds in a circle about 6 inches away from the corn. Coal Camp and Fat Man are two excellent heirloom varieties. 

Thin the beans to the three or four healthiest seedlings. At about the same time, plant four squash seeds next to the mound, 3 to 4 feet apart around the outside ring of the corn and beans. Patty Pan, Delicata and Cushaw squashes are great heirloom choices. As the squash vines grow, direct them around the mound and up into the center ring of corn. These three crops will flourish together for the remainder of the growing season.

Each vegetable in the Three Sisters gardening method provides a benefit to others. Corn plants provide support for the beans. The pole beans are a legume, which capture nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that the corn and squash can use.

Squash vines serve as living mulch, shading the soil and preventing moisture from evaporating. The vines from the beans and squash can be left in the garden as compost. These plants even complement each other when consumed. Cornmeal provides carbohydrates, beans are a good source of protein and squash contains important nutrients. 

By J.J. Barrett, WVU Extension Agent – Wood County