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How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden at Home

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 17, 2020 • 2 min read

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Ron Finley Teaches Gardening

The ancient three sisters garden technique highlights natural harmony at its best.

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Ron Finley Teaches GardeningRon Finley Teaches Gardening

Community activist and self-taught gardener Ron Finley shows you how to garden in any space, nurture your plants, and grow your own food.

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What Is a Three Sisters Garden?

A three sisters garden features cornstalks, squash plants, and beans, grown closely together. This centuries-old Native American interplanting method is a precursor to what is now known as companion planting—an organic gardening technique that attracts beneficial insects, encourages pollination and natural pest management and plays off the strengths of one plant to help its neighboring plants thrive.

What Are the Origins of Three Sisters Gardening?

It’s no accident that versions of the three sisters technique appeared across Mesoamerica: corn, squash, and beans were the three main crops for many Native American tribes like the Iroquois and Wampanoag. Growing them together meant aligned harvest times, healthier soil, and better crops. Other tribes, like the Tewa in the Southwestern United States, often incorporated a “fourth sister,” bee balm, which acts as extra incentive for pollinators.

Why Do the Three Sisters Work Well Together?

The corn plants act as a living trellis for the bean vines, and the prickly large leaves of the sprawling squash vines act as ground cover and living mulch, controlling weeds and soil moisture down below and deterring larger pests. The beans deposit nitrogen back into the soil, which benefits the other plants and renews the health and fertility of the soil.

This technique can be used with many different sweet corn varieties, though dent, flint, and flour corns are particularly well-suited for it thanks to their height and sturdy stalks. Popular bean varieties include bush beans and pole beans. Both summer squash varieties and winter squash will work, and the same technique can be applied with watermelon, gourds, and pumpkins.

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When to Plant the Three Sisters

As all three plants featured in the three sisters garden are warm weather summer crops, begin planting in early spring, a week or two past the last frost date, when the soil is workable.

How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden

  1. Prepare the site. A week before planting, clear any debris or weeds and spread a thick layer of compost on the growing area (at least four inches thick). It’s best if the beds you create are no more than four feet wide so you can reach into the center without stepping onto the soft soil and compacting it, undoing all your hard work.
  2. Plant the corn seeds. Shape the soil into a shape like a pitcher’s mound, about a foot high. Plant pre-soaked kernels (this will help with germination) around the top of the mound, with about 10 inches of space between them. The Haudenosaunee tradition involves planting corn seeds three days before a full moon, accompanied by kind thoughts. Find our complete guide to planting and growing corn here.
  3. Plant the bean seeds. Once the young corn stalks have sprouted and reached about 5–6 inches, it’s time to plant the beans. Space 4 bean seeds evenly around each new stalk. Learn how to grow beans in our guide here.
  4. Plant the squash seeds. A week or two later, plant 6 squash seeds around the base of the mound.
  5. Water. Water well, maintaining a moist, but not soggy, well-drained soil. Try to water at the base of each plant, as showering the squash vines or leaves too much can lead to rot.

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Grow your own food with Ron Finley, the self-described "Gangster Gardener." Get the MasterClass All-Access Pass and learn how to cultivate fresh herbs and vegetables, keep your house plants alive, and use compost to make your community - and the world - a better place.

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