The Joy of Three Sisters Gardening

Cherokee Striped Cornhill Pole Bean, 3 sisters gardening, beans on corn, pole beans on natural support

Three sisters gardening is a unique gardening technique developed long ago by Native Americans. To use the method one typically plants corn, beans and squash together. These are “the three sisters.” Corn, beans and squash were important elements in Native American agriculture, and when grown together properly, can be quite productive.

When properly done, the three sisters method can be quite productive.

I love this gardening technique but often warn others about some pitfalls which those trying often stumble upon.

Tips for Beans and Corn

  • Beware of using sweet corn instead of a sturdy stalked variety. Modern Americans often forget that past generations grew sweet corn as a novelty and non sweet corn was the staple. The very genes which are responsible for sweet corn make for weak stalks. Hence, the #1 problem one reads about, when someone is trying this method, is that their beans tear the corn down, causing both corn and beans to fail. If you want corn to support climbing beans, plant a variety of corn which is known to have sturdy stalks, and plant the corn a few weeks before planting the beans.
corn suitable for growing beans, sturdy corn varieties, three sisters corn
Mesquakie Indian (left) and Cherokee Squaw (right) are two excellent varieties for supporting beans. Hickory King is another good choice.

Green Country Seed Savers discussion on Mesquakie Indian Corn

Sandhill Preservation Center has one of the best selections of sturdy corns I know. They also have a good selection of beans and cowpeas.

  • Be careful not to mismatch varieties of corn and beans. Among climbing beans there is a wide range in vigor. Some beans climb 5′ and no further, some will climb over 20′ if given the support. Some corns only grow 3-4′ tall and others can grow over 15′ tall. Corn varieties vary in the sturdiness of their stalks and in time to maturity. If you’re just trying three sisters gardening, look for a bean which has “cornfield” in its name, and a corn which has been successfully used to support beans. Then keep records and observe how they work together.

Related article: The Joy of Three Sisters’ Gardening

  • Try not to plant the beans and corn at the same time, or too close to the same time. Most beans, if planted simultaneously with corn, will outpace the corn and pull it down. As a general rule, I wait until my corn is about 9-10″ tall, hill it (mound soil around its base) and then plant beans on the hill (mound).
  • Don’t plant the corn and/or beans too close together. Either give your corn an extra generous spacing, or else plant your beans only on the outside edge of the corn. If the corn and beans are spaced too closely, it’s likely that the beans will be starved for light and fail to thrive.
  • Finally, recognize that climbing beans will weave through the corn, sometimes making it nearly impossible to “get in there” to pick snap beans. For three sisters gardening you might want to grow a bean which works for both snaps and dry beans. Most cornfield beans are suitable for both.

Sustainable Mountain Agriculture probably has the largest selection of cornfield beans available.

  • One can either plant corn seed in groups of 3-4, called a hills, scattered throughout the the sisters patch, or in rows. Rows produce more corn, but one needs 3-4 rows, planted side by side for proper pollination of corn.
  • Cowpeas can be grown in the place of regular pole beans. They work very well with corn and squash and are very pest resistant.

Pointers on Squash

  • Either put A WHOLE LOT OF SPACE between your corn plants, or else plant the squash on the edge of the patch, and let it suppress weeds around the edges.
  • Keep in mind that “squash” and “pumpkin” are really the same thing, only one name comes from a Native American language and the other from Europe. Any pumpkin can be called a squash, and vice a versa.
  • Some squash have HUGE vines and some only make bushes. Know your squash and allocate the room it needs.
  • Truly rampant varieties of squash are actually very good at suppressing weeds.

Perhaps my favorite squash for our hot summers and rampant weeds: Old Timey Cornfield Pumpkin

  • Squash can be used as a fresh vegetable, for pies, soups and even for making a superb hot drink.

Drink your pumpkin? Yes! Try Pumpkin Atole

three sisters gardening, beans and corn, cowpeas and corn
Cowpeas usually grow beautifully on sturdy stalks of corn.

The three sisters gardening method is truly wonderful for overcoming invasive grass and weeds and for producing a productive, relatively low maintenance “jungle.” Just remember, that if you want a whole lot of beans in a given area, it is better to plant a concentrated patch of beans. If you really want a whole lot of corn, then plant a dedicated patch of corn. The same goes for squash. But if you want a beautiful, productive jungle of plants, which kills weeds and is fun to explore and harvest, this might be the way to go.

This is a hand mill, similar to what we use to grind our home grown cornmeal.


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