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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Growing The "Three Sisters": Corn, Squash, Beans

Have you heard about the "Three Sisters" method of planting corn, beans and squash?

From ( ): 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.
Native American People used corn as the staple in their diet. Parched corn plus prevented starvation for many days. Corn was boiled, roasted and also ground and used as flour for many dishes. Corn was easy to store by braiding the leaves and hanging upside down from rafters. Husks for used as dolls, masks and mats. Corn stalks could be used as fuel. Keep a watch on the corn, and soon after you see the silks and pollen (which gets everywhere!), watch for the cobs. After a while you'll get the hang of seeing the brown silk tassles, and the feel of the cobs, you'll know when to harvest.

Pumpkins (or other winter squash) provide the ground cover. The pumpkins from even a couple of centuries ago weren't our jack-o-lantern but more of a crookneck. Pumpkins could be stewed or dried to use during the coming winter. Not sure if the seeds were roasted, or just kept for planting the next year.

Fresh young beans were cooked in stews, while the dried beans provided meals later - rehydrated for soups and stews, or ground into flour. Great source of protein when meat was scarced. The vines were braided together and also hung from the rafters. Pole beans, chosen appropriately, will use the corn stalks as a trellis without strangling the stalk. Planting the corn with plenty of room in between will help you find the beans. Once they start flowers, keep careful watch. They will quickly become edible size and ready for eating as cooked "green beans". If you plan to dry the beans, leave them alone until harvesting the corn, to dry on the vine. Still, keep a watch on them so that predators don't steal them or they don't split once they've dried.

Sunflowers have recently been found to do excellently in this arena. They break down the earth with their strong roots, and stretch out to provide a living trellis for the beans. The sunflowers are harvested when the back of the heads turn brown and bend from the weight of the seeds. Cut the stalk near the ground, hang upside down, with paper bags around the head to catch the seeds as they dry. Good for snacks, but also good for grinding into flour, and making sunflower seed oil.

Why companions? The squash/pumpkin provides ground cover to keep moisture in, and the prickles of the leaves and vines prevent predators (like raccoons) from getting to the corn. The corn provides stalks for the beans to climb. The beans fix nitrogen into the soil, which the corn needs. Together, this is companion planting at it's best. PLUS, when you mix corn, squash and beans in your diet, they make a complete protein. Also called succotash, which we don't like, but we do make our own various recipes even tastier!

Picture: Our Three Sisters
Corn-Patch on August 20 2008

As novice gardeners, we tried the "Three Sisters" in Summer 2008. This year we planted "Early and Often Sweet Corn", several different kinds of beans, and several squashes, including pumpkins, Mexican X-Top, zucchini, and yellow crookneck, plus some sunflowers and cucumbers. We tried to follow the "Square Foot Gardening" method but having difficulty finding how to plant using the Three Sisters, we guessed. BOY, we were WRONG!
  • We planted the corn seeds too close together.
  • We didn't plant enough sunflowers.
  • We planted too many kinds of corn, and they all intermingled, which was ok with us, but the different heights and maturation rate gave us problems.
  • We planted too many kinds of beans. At the end, we froze all of them because we couldn't remember what was good to dry and what was good fresh-eating.
  • We planted way too many kinds of squashes and cucumbers and etc. They all cross-pollinated, and came out very strange. Mutants. Plus, some of our choices (zucchini and yellow straightneck) were bush kinds which grew up to push aside the corn stalks, making them weak.
  • We didn't mulch and keep up with the weeds. Thus, by the end of August, we couldn't keep up and the weeds (bind-weed in our case), strangled all of the plants. We would have had a much better harvest if we'd kept up with the weeding.

So, here's what you need to do:

  • Start corn in peat pots, one corn seed per. When the seedlings are an inch high (you'll notice a long taproot starting), plant entire peat pot in corn bed. One corn per square foot.
  • Two rows of corn, about 10 feet long. Then 4-5 feet before starting another 2 rows of corn, 10 feet long. And again. The 4-5 feet in between gives you room to pick your beans, check the corn and squashes, and pull weeds without getting a corn stalk hitting your heiny.
  • Same with sunflowers - make sure they get the northern side of ALL the cornbeds because if you get the mammoth sunflowers, they will block out sunlight for everything else. These need 3 square feet for each flower as their roots are quite strong, and their stalks and leaves and faces need more room up top.
  • A week after planting the corn and sunflowers, start seeds indoors (in peat pots) for pumpkin (or your chosen vining squash).
  • When corn is at least one foot high (prefer two feet high to give them a good head start), plant entire peat pots of squashes - one per TWO corn plants and one per TWO sunflowers. Your squash seedlings should be a few inches tall by now.
  • At the same time, sow three bean seeds per corn or two per sunflower - make a triangle around the corn/sunflower. They will quickly grow up and around the stalks.

Our plan for next year: we've chosen:

  • Black Aztec Corn (heirloom - not hybrid) (sweet when ripe, and black when dried, perfect for flour) ORDERED
  • Connecticut Field Pumpkin (heirloom - not hybrid) (perfect for making pies and canning puree, and this is the pumpkin we see for sale in October for Jack-o-Lanterns) ORDERED
  • Missouri Wonder Pole Bean (heirloom - not hybrid) (old-time cornfield type - loves winding around the corn stalk and won't strangle it - good for string beans and for drying) NOT YET ORDERED

We have ordered Sonoran Gold Bush Tepary Beans (low on gas-producing, high in protein, don't need much water, excellent fresh or dried for storage) but as you can tell from the name, they are a bush bean. We'll grow the tepary, soybeans, anasazi, black turtle and other beans elsewhere.

As to the squash choice... in the following years, we'll replace the pumpkin (year 1) with Mexican X-Top Cushaw Squash (year 2), Butternut Squash (year 3) and Spaghetti Squash (year 4). Then we'll start the rotation all over again. This will prevent cross-pollination, and give us a variety. When each squash is harvested, half of the harvest will be put into cold storage, and the other half will be sliced and dehydrated (saving some seeds for toasting and some for planting in the next appropriate year).

You absolutely should try planting the "Three Sisters". It's companion planting at it's finest.


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