May 14, 2022
If you're visiting this page and live in northern Michigan, it may be because you recently received a Three Sisters Garden seed kit through a regional community seed distribution program. Three Dogs Seed Farm was grateful to fill the role of seed provider for the Three Sisters Garden seed kits this year. Alternatively, perhaps you've wound up here by chance.
Below is some basic information regarding planting and growing Three Sisters gardens. This information is by no means exhaustive, but is a place to get started. Take what's useful or helpful and leave the rest.
Information included in Three Sisters Garden Seed Kits:
Three Sisters Gardening
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you may have some interest in growing a Three Sisters garden and now you have the seeds to get started! Perhaps you’ve grown a Three Sisters garden in the past or maybe this is your first time. This is exciting. Growing and caring for a Three Sisters garden is an excellent opportunity to learn about and care for a plant community in which the Three Sisters take care of one another – and us!
This document is intended to provide some basic information regarding growing a Three Sisters garden. There is so much more to learn and different growers and communities may have different perspectives and knowledge regarding growing the Three Sisters. Feel free to use the information here that is helpful and learn as you grow. Happy gardening!
What is a “Three Sisters garden?”
The simple answer is that a Three Sisters garden is a garden of corn, beans, and squash. The full answer is so much more than that. Many Indigenous communities in North America have grown and continue to grow variations of Three Sisters gardens, sometimes growing more than just the three types of plants mentioned above and sometimes referring to these types of gardens by different names, such as “milpas.” Three Sisters gardens are an example of a type of polyculture, in which multiple plant types are grown together, and an excellent example of what many know today as “companion plants,” or plants that benefit one another when planted together.
In a Three Sisters garden, there is mutual flourishing. When planted together, the Three Sisters maintain beneficial relationships with one another and help each other to grow. In this case, the corn stalks provide strong supports for the beans to climb. The squash, with their vining habits and large leaves, provide shade and help to keep the soil cool and maintain moisture in the soil for the Three Sisters. In turn, the climbing beans do their work – converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form of nitrogen that can be used by plants in the future. Beans are soil helpers!
Who else? While the Three Sisters obviously play a huge role in a Three Sisters garden, there are others who carry out important work! The wind and flying insects do their part to pollinate the flowers of these plants. The beneficial microbes on the roots of the beans are hard at work fixing nitrogen. Perhaps you’ve invited others to grow in your Three Sisters garden (e.g., sunflowers). And then there is you! You have the opportunity to play another important role in the Three Sisters garden as caretaker, beneficiary, and perhaps even as seedkeeper. Take note of who else plays a role in your Three Sisters garden this growing season. You may be surprised!
Preparing your Three Sisters garden: How and where you decide to plant your Three Sisters garden is ultimately up to you. Many gardeners like to create low hills to plant their Three Sisters garden. If you decide to do this, it is recommended that you space your low hills three to four feet apart in all directions. These low hills don’t need to be too high – perhaps a foot or less – and are often constructed so that they are large enough to plant 5-7 corn seeds. Mixing a bit of compost into the low hills at the beginning of the season can help with growth, but may not be necessary. Keep in mind that corn does best planted in blocks (or clusters) versus long narrow rows.
A note on timing planting for a Three Sisters garden: After the young corn is a few inches tall (~6 inches) is a good time to plant climbing beans and squash. It is a good idea to weed your corn hills prior to planting beans and squash. Paying attention to timing is important. You don’t want to overwhelm your young corn plants with quick growing beans and squash.
Corn: Plant corn after the last frost and after the soil has warmed. Some recommend soaking your corn seed for a few hours prior to planting, but no more than eight hours. If you choose to do this, keep in mind that those seeds shouldn’t be allowed to dry out during the first ten days to two weeks that they are planted, so if you don’t receive rain you may want to consider watering every couple days to make sure that the seeds don’t dry out. Plant corn about an inch deep and ~8 inches apart in your hills.
Beans: Plant the beans about an inch deep and a few inches away for your young corn plants. The beans can be planted around the outside of your low hills. The beans will find their way to the corn stalks and begin climbing when they are ready. You can give them a hand (“train” them) if it seems as if they aren’t grabbing the cornstalks. Planting four or five beans per hill should do the trick.
Squash: Squash plants grow large and fairly quickly, and need not be planted in every hill. Doing so could create a situation where the squash vines and leaves crowd out your other plants. Many recommend planting squash in every seventh hill around the young corn plants. You can plant up to 4 squash seeds per Three Sisters hill. Squash seeds should be planted about an inch deep after the danger of frost.
Caring for Your Three Sisters Garden
Three Sisters gardening will encourage you to keep an eye on the weather, and rain specifically. Your plants will need water each week. If it doesn’t rain, you should plan to provide water to your Three Sisters garden each week. When possible, it helps to control other plants (“weeds”) in your Three Sisters hills, especially when the plants are young. Corn may also benefit from hand pollination if there are few corn plants in your garden. Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) has some excellent visual instructions for hand pollinating your corn plants if you choose to do so.
What is seedkeeping? Seedkeeping is the practice of caring for and maintaining seeds of plants from generation to generation. Seedkeeping goes beyond just growing and allowing plants to mature to seed and planting them the next year and also includes maintenance of knowledge, traditions, and practices associated with plants. It is possible (and encouraged!) to save some seed for future plantings! A few basics are below.
Seedkeeping considerations for beans: Beans are largely self-pollinating, thus requiring little isolation distance from other varieties of beans in order to maintain seeds that are “true to type” to the original variety. If seedkeeping, grow individual varieties of beans 10-20 feet apart. Allow the seed pods to mature and dry to brown on the vines. Remove the beans from the pods and keep the dry beans in a cool and dry location over the winter.
Seedkeeping considerations for squash: Squash are pollinated by flying insects. If you’re planning to save seeds from a specific variety of squash, you will want to separate them from other varieties of squash of the same species by 800 feet to half a mile. If this is impossible, it is possible to isolate individual flowers from cross-pollination using blossom bags or masking tape (again, try online resources for more info). Allow squash to mature on the vine and then allow to cure in a protected space for ~30 days. You can clean and dry the seeds as you cut individual squash open to eat during the fall and winter months. Store seed in a cool, dry location over the winter.
Seedkeeping considerations for corn: Corn is primarily pollinated by the wind, and thus requires half a mile to a mile of isolation from other varieties of corn in order to maintain seed that is “true to type” to the original variety (unless you are hand pollinating!). Allow corn to mature on the stalk and allows the husks to brown. It is acceptable to harvest corn for seed near or shortly after the first light frost of the season. Allow corn seed to dry completely before storing in a cool, dry place over the winter.
The above information is also available for pdf download below.
Information NOT included in Three Sisters Garden seed kits that may also be helpful:
Native Seeds SEARCH: How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden: Great information, including helpful diagrams for laying out a Three Sisters Garden or Three Sisters mounds
Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: This is a link to purchase the book 'Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden.' This book contains beautiful descriptions of planting practices of the Hidatsa, including corn, beans, squash (the Three Sisters), and others. You may be able to find this book at your library, borrow through inter-library loan, or find a digital version online.
Seed Savers Exchange, Hand-Pollination: Corn: This may be helpful information and visuals if you would like to try hand-pollinating your corn. This can be helpful if you can only grow a few plants or if you grow in close proximity to another variety of corn and would like to save seed from your variety. I think the photos in this guide by Seed Savers Exchange are very helpful.
Seed Savers Exchange, Hand-Pollination: Squash: Same as above, but with squash!
A quick note on hand-pollination for the home gardener: Hand-pollination isn't required. You can grow beautiful plants and delicious food without hand pollinating. In the case of mandaamin, or corn, it maybe be helpful to hand-pollinate if your plants are sparse or few and you want to see full cob production because corn relies on the wind for pollination. For squash, this is more a consideration if you'd like to save seed for planting in the future that is the same as the parent seeds. If you don't hand pollinate, you'll still get squash. Their seeds (offspring) just might look like the squash in your garden AND the squash in your neighbors' gardens because of flying pollinators. Assuming everything goes well, those seeds will still be viable and still produce squash in the future. They just might not look or taste like the squash you plant this year.
Good luck growing! If you come across any issues with this contact, please feel free to let me know using our Contact page.