Planting the Three Sisters and Other Companions

Against my better judgement, we’re going to try planting corn this year! It was an utter failure when I was a kid, but I am in Maryland, and corn is supposed to grow really well here. Of course, I’m going to have the bare minimum amount of corn to really expect it to fertilize well, which might be an issue. Another problem is that we’re in a windy area, and the wind might blow all the pollen away before it can fertilize. We did have some fertilization issues last year in the cucumbers and squash, but that might be because of their varieties.

Not only are we planting corn, but we’re using the three sisters method. It was the way many Native American tribes planted their crops. It involves three different plant types: corn (maize, really), squash, and beans. They are naturally complimentary crops — the corn makes a great trellis for the beans to climb and the beans in turn help stabilize the corn against the wind. Beans also fix nitrogen back into the soil, helping to fertilize the other plants. The squash act as a ground cover, blocking weeds from growing and shading the soil to help the soil keep from drying out as quickly. If you plant a spiny squash, it can also discourage predators.

 I read a nearly 100-year-old account of a Native American woman’s recollections of how she and her tribe farmed, using this method in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden.

For information about planting your own garden with the Three Sisters method, check out Renee’s Garden.

A Cherokee tribe in Alabama posted some three sisters myths online.

The farmer’s almanac has more information about companion planting. Some of these most gardeners are familiar with, such as planting basil and marigolds with tomatoes. There are also plants that need to planted away from each other, such an onions and beans.

My plan is to plant two 4′ x 4′ raised beds. One has early varieties of corn, squash, and beans, the other will have varieties the mature in a more regular length of time. If you divide the beds into 1′ x 1′ squares, each has 16 squares. I plan on putting five squash plants in five squares (the corners and center). The other 11 squares will each get 2-3 corn plants and 2-3 bean plants. If you’ve never heard of square foot gardening, this can seem awfully close, but the “experts” indicate that it does actually work, if you can water everything enough and fertilize often. That’s where the compost pile and the beans’ ability to fix nitrogen really comes in handy. 

And yes, this is just another way to make homeschooling fun — we get to learn all sorts of things:

  • Science — Life cycle of seeds, soil science, nutrition.
  • Social studies — Native American culture, traditions, stories.
  • Math — building the raised beds requires a lot of measuring and engineering, volume calculations to determine how many bags of dirt to buy, figuring out how many seeds to grow, timing everything just right, writing and reading charts of planting, and more!

Wish us luck — we barely had winter this year, which is a double edged sword. I think we’ll get to start the garden 1-2 months earlier than last year, and get some nice cool weather for the broccoli and such, but the bugs will probably be overwhelming. But the kids are pretty excited!

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