It’s been a while since I got caught up with a Grow It Forward Friday post, but rest assured that I have some good stuff lined up for the next several weeks.  In fact, this post goes hand in hand with next week’s post on heirloom beans, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, let’s talk about Three Sisters.  The three sisters are traditionally corn, squash, and beans, three plants that are excellent garden companions.  When this Native American planting method is followed, the corn provides something for the beans to climb on; the beans fix nitrogen, making the soil richer in necessary nutrients; and the squash vines help hold moisture by shading the ground and the roots of the corn.  

Having some space to create a Three Sisters planting was one of the driving forces behind my most recent garden expansion.  For my three sisters, I chose to grow popcorn rather than sweet corn, dried beans rather than snap beans, and pumpkins as the squash.  Since my garden is planted densely, using dry crops eliminates the challenge of having to get in there to pick beans or corn on a regular basis.  All are heirloom varieties: Calico Popcorn,  Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, and Small Sugar Pie Pumpkins.  All together, it should be a pretty gorgeous harvest this fall!

I used one of the new 4′ x 4′ beds for my Three Sisters planting, which made the spacing easy, as I wanted each circle of corn and beans to be approximately 2′ x 2′ (they are slightly smaller than this, when all was said and done).  I started by planting corn in circles (this helps with pollination), and discovered that using an empty five gallon paint bucket is a pretty slick way to get perfect circles.  I just pushed it in and twisted a few times, leaving a nice little trench for me to space eight seeds evenly around each circle.

After the corn had germinated (about 10 days), I needed to wait until it was about 4″ tall (another two weeks) before planting the pole beans.  If the beans are planted too soon, they’ll over take the corn before it has a chance to grow tall enough to support the beans.

When the corn had grown tall enough, I planted the bean seeds in a ring about 2″ from the corn seedlings.  I planted one bean per corn seedling.

There was another week or so waiting, as the beans sprouted and grew a few inches, before planting the pumpkins in the very center of the four corn and bean circles.

And now, just over 5 weeks since planting the corn, the corn is about knee high (and it’s not even the 4th of July!) and the beans are just starting to get ready to climb.

Traditionally, a Three Sisters planting is planted on a mound, with the corn on top, and the beans a little further down (to give the beans a little more distance before climbing up the corn, I presume).  As you can see, I didn’t do that in my raised bed, but I did start another three sisters planting in my new community garden plot, and I decided to try it with mounds in that garden.  It will be an interesting experiment to see how the two plantings compare as the season goes on.

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Three Sisters
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26 thoughts on “Three Sisters

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  • March 16, 2014 at 9:21 pm
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    Do you have any follow up posts on this? I’m curious how it turned out!

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    • March 19, 2014 at 5:40 pm
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      Regretfully, I did not put together a follow up post (but I totally should have!).

      But I can tell you that the Three Sisters planting turned out incredibly well. I had good pollination in the corn, which was what I was anticipating to be my biggest challenge, and ended up with a nice harvest of popcorn, dry beans, and a couple of pumpkins. The only thing I would do differently next time is that I would wait one more week to plant the beans, as the beans were very quick to catch up to the corn, and eventually did outgrow it.

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  • August 29, 2014 at 4:16 pm
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    This year i planted Glass Gem corn, a pole bean and yellow squash and pumpkin in my 10 X 20 Community garden, 15 hills. I drove a stake or a ladder in each hill. Last Monday we had a 60+ mph wind which all but flattened half the hills. I just pulled them upright and tied a twine string around each hill. Hopefully they will

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    • August 30, 2014 at 9:39 am
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      Oh no! Sounds like you got them back up right away, so hopefully they’ll pull through. Fingers crossed for you!

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  • February 22, 2015 at 9:18 am
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    I’m planting bush beans. Should it work the same way do you think?

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    • February 22, 2015 at 10:14 am
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      Unfortunately, bush beans are not well suited for a three sisters planting. You would likely run into issues with the bush beans not receiving adequate light underneath the corn (particularly in the center of the planting) and they would also be competing for space with the squash. I would suggest using pole beans or doing a modified version of a three sisters planting that would provide better conditions for the bush beans. Good luck!

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  • March 27, 2015 at 5:58 pm
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    And that’s eight single seed in each hole, correct?

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    • April 3, 2015 at 9:46 am
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      I am assuming you are asking about the corn seed, correct? I spaced the eight individual corn seeds evenly around the circle/trench (one seed at the top, bottom, both sides, and then one in between each of the first four). I hope this helps clarify!

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  • April 12, 2015 at 12:15 am
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    I feel like the middle is not being used and could, would you suggest something to plant in that space?

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    • April 13, 2015 at 8:54 am
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      Keep in mind that the corn will be growing out as well as up, so in time, the space in the center of each circle will be occupied by the growing corn plants. This is already a very dense planting, and I would not recommend planting anything inside the circles. I hope this helps!

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  • April 25, 2015 at 12:27 am
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    How many pumpkin/squash seeds did you plant in the center of the corn circle?

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    • April 27, 2015 at 8:03 am
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      I think I planted 2-3 pumpkin seeds in the middle. I typically plant 3-4 squash seeds per hill, but went with slightly fewer seeds in this set up due to space in the raised bed.

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  • April 30, 2015 at 8:12 pm
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    the bean ring that you planted 2″ from the corn ring….was that a circle that was 2″ wider all the way around? Or on the same circle as the corn?

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    • January 30, 2016 at 8:10 am
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      Yes, 2″ wider all the way around – this gives the beans some space and light to get started, and once they are ready to climb, they’ll grab on to the nearest structure (in this case, the corn).

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  • January 29, 2016 at 4:33 pm
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    HI Maria! I am loving this and want to try it this year. My only question is, when you say you plant pumpkins in the center, do you mean the very center of the 4×4 bed or in the center of each circle? I hope that’s not a stupid question :/

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    • January 30, 2016 at 8:08 am
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      Hi Rachel, Not a stupid question at all! I plant one hill of pumpkins/squash in the very center of the bed. They will get enough light while the corn is young and then you can train the vines to grow around the outside of the planting so they will continue to get good light throughout the season. Good luck! 🙂

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  • January 30, 2016 at 10:03 am
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    Thanks for this post! I tried a three sisters planting last year and the beans and corn did well, but the squash did not get enough light and never took off. I’m making a note of your spacing suggestions to try for this year.

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  • March 1, 2016 at 12:58 pm
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    Hi! I loved the post and am preparing my boxes now. I have 2 4X4 boxes but I have some uestions I could really use an answer to :

    1) The beans- 2″ inside the corn ring or outside the corn ring?

    2) The pumpkin : 1 planting per BOX or per circle?

    3) I am in N TX and cannot find a clear recommendation of which corn to use. I have had success with rattlesnake beans in the past and plan to use pumpkin as the squash but cannot figure out which corn to use. I tried a popcorn before (half heartedly ) but was not successful. Any advice appreciated!

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    • March 2, 2016 at 7:22 pm
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      Hi Jes,

      To answer your questions about the planting itself: I planted the beans on the outside of the ring of corn, a then planted one hill of squash in the middle of the entire planting (not per circle).

      As far as the recommendations for corn varieties for northern Texas, I am afraid I can’t be of much help as our climate is so different here in Minnesota/zone 4b. I would suggest taking a look at the offerings at http://www.southernexposure.com/ (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange specifically carries varieties that do well in southern climates) and/or contact a local Extension or Master Gardeners program for recommendations. Good luck!

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      • March 2, 2016 at 8:33 pm
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        Thank you so much Maria! I will pop on over and check it out. Happy Gardening!

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  • April 21, 2016 at 8:37 pm
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    I learned about three sisters planting when I visited Plimouth Plantation a few years ago. Reading this has got me rethinking my garden design. Thank you for the gardening tips!

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  • June 1, 2016 at 8:22 pm
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    can this be done with zucchini or summer squash or strickly winter squash and pumpkin ? I can’t wait to try this

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    • June 7, 2016 at 8:16 pm
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      I think you might run into a couple of challenges planting zucchini or summer squash: First, summer squashes tend to have a bush habitat instead of vines, so they would need a lot more space and light than would be available in the middle of the planting as described above. The other issue is going to be access for harvesting. If you are able to get a summer squash established in the middle of the planting, as the corn gets taller it will become increasingly difficult to get in there and harvest it. You could try moving the squash to the outside of the corn/bean planting, though you would probably need a lot more space than the 4×4 bed described above. If you do experiment with it, I would love to know how it turns out! Good luck!

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  • January 7, 2017 at 8:56 am
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    How well did this method work in comparison to the mound method? You said you did both.

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  • January 7, 2017 at 9:03 am
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    Oops. One more question. Will any corn, pole bean and winter squash varieties work, provided they are suitable for the specific zone you’re growing in? I’m in 4; don’t know if it is a or b or whatever…whichever is coldest, I guess, since I’m in the northeastern most corner of the state about 20 minutes from the Canadian border.

    Reply

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