According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans, and squash are three
inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. This
tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same
mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is a
sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil
fertility and a healthy diet to generations. Growing a Three Sisters
garden is a wonderful way to feel more connected to the history of
this land, regardless of our ancestry.
Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops domesticated by ancient Mesoamerican societies. Corn was the primary
crop, providing more calories or energy per acre than any other.
According to Three Sisters legends corn must grow in community with
other crops rather than on its own - it needs the beneficial company
and aide of its companions.
The Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from
the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sisters spirits,
called the De-o-ha-ko, or Our Sustainers". The planting season is
marked by ceremonies to honor them, and a festival commemorates the
first harvest of green corn on the cob. By retelling the stories
and performing annual rituals, Native Americans passed down the
knowledge of growing, using and preserving the Three Sisters through
Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix
nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot
by providing nitrogen to the following years corn. Bean vines also
help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to
blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a
living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture
from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of
survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage
predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of
crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back
into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic
matter and improve its structure.
Corn, beans and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Corn
provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing
the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. Finally, squash yields
both vitamins from the fruit and healthful, delicious oil from the
Native Americans kept this system in practice for centuries without the
modern conceptual vocabulary we use today, i.e. soil nitrogen, vitamins,
etc. They often look for signs in their environment that indicate the
right soil temperature and weather for planting corn, i.e. when the
Canada geese return or the dogwood leaves reach the size of a squirrels
ear. You may wish to record such signs as you observe in your garden and
neighborhood so that, depending on how well you judged the
can watch for them again next season!
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Early European settlers would certainly never have survived without the
gift of the Three Sisters from the Native Americans, the story behind
our Thanksgiving celebration. Celebrating the importance of these gifts,
not only to the Pilgrims but also to civilizations around the globe that
readily adopted these New World crops, adds meaning to modern garden
Success with a Three Sisters garden involves careful attention to
timing, seed spacing, and varieties. In many areas, if you simply plant
all three in the same hole at the same time, the result will be a snarl
of vines in which the corn gets overwhelmed!
Instructions for Planting Your Own Three Sisters Garden in a 10 x 10
When to plant:
Sow seeds any time after spring night temperatures are in the 50 degree
range, up through June.
What to plant:
Corn must be planted in several rows rather than one long row to ensure
adequate pollination. Choose pole beans or runner beans and a squash or
pumpkin variety with trailing vines, rather than a compact bush. At
Renee's Garden, we have created our
Garden Bonus Pack, which contains three inner packets of multi-colored
Indian Corn, Rattlesnake Beans to twine up the corn stalks and Sugar Pie
Pumpkins to cover the ground.
Note: A 10 x 10 foot square of space for your Three Sisters garden is
the minimum area needed to ensure good corn pollination. If you have a
small garden, you can plant fewer mounds, but be aware that you may not
get good full corn ears as a result.
How to plant:
Please refer to the diagrams below and to individual seed packets for
additional growing information.
1. Choose a site in full sun (minimum 6-8 hours/day of direct sunlight
throughout the growing season). Amend the soil with plenty of compost or
aged manure, since corn is a heavy feeder and the nitrogen from your
beans will not be available to the corn during the first year. With
string, mark off three ten-foot rows, five feet apart.
2. In each row, make your corn/bean mounds. The center of each mound
should be 5 feet apart from the center of the next. Each mound should be
18 across with flattened tops. The mounds should be staggered in
adjacent rows. See Diagram #1
Note: The Iroquois and others planted the three sisters in raised mounds
about 4 inches high, in order to improve drainage and soil warmth; to help
conserve water, you can make a small crater at the top of your mounds so the
water doesnít drain off the plants quickly. Raised mounds were not built in dry,
sandy areas where soil moisture conservation was a priority, for example in
parts of the southwest. There, the three sisters were planted in beds with soil
raised around the edges, so that water would collect in the beds (See reference
2 below for more information). In other words, adjust the design of your bed
according to your climate and soil type.
3. Plant 4 corn seeds in each mound in a 6 in square. See Diagram
4. When the corn is 4 inches tall, its time to plant the beans and squash.
First, weed the entire patch. Then plant 4 bean seeds in each corn
mound. They should be 3 in apart from the corn plants, completing the
square as shown in Diagram #3.
5. Build your squash mounds in each row between each corn/bean mound.
Make them the same size as the corn/bean mounds. Plant 3 squash seeds,
4 in. apart in a triangle in the middle of each mound as shown in Diagram
6. When the squash seedlings emerge, thin them to 2 plants per mound.
You may have to weed the area several times until the squash take over
and shade new weeds.
Links to Legends about the Three Sisters:
1. Bird Clan of E. Central
Alabama: The Three Sisters
Cornell University Garden Based Learning: Three Sisters Garden- A Legend
MN State U: Native American Vegetable Contributions:
Three Sisters Garden
References and Further Reading
Creasy, Rosalind, "Cooking from the Garden", Sierra Club Books, San
2. Dodson, Mardi, ďAn Appendix to Companion Planting: Basic Concepts &
Resources - Ancient Companions. ATTRA: National Center for Appropriate Technology,
2002. Available at
3. Eames-Sheavly, Marcia, "The Three Sisters, Exploring an Iroquois Garden",
Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell U., 1993
Hays, Wilma and R. Vernon, "Foods the Indians Gave Us", Ives Washburn, Inc.
Thank you to Jane Mt. Pleasant of the Cornell American Indian Program