Corn, beans, squash

food_4_me(z5b Chicago)April 18, 2004

A friend and I are gardening on this city lot for the first time. My friend remembers hearing about this native American technique of making a big mound and growing corn in the center, then beans around the corn, and then squash around the beans. Does anyone else know about this technique and the benefits of it?


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Well I haven't tried it yet.
I have read they do it traditionnally in mexico.

The corn serves as a pole for the bean to grow up on and the squash covers the ground and so serves as a living mulch (keeps from erosion and keeps soil moist).

I am definitely trying it this summer!

    Bookmark   April 18, 2004 at 11:51PM
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food_4_me(z5b Chicago)

Keep us posted, and we'll do the same!

    Bookmark   April 19, 2004 at 9:10AM
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The Three Sisters compose a sophisticated nitrogen cycle.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2004 at 9:45AM
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Richard_inNM(8 New Mexico)

I have heard directions that differ a little to those given above/below. I heard that you plant your corn seed and when it is 4 inches high then you put in a bean right next to each corn seedling and your squash seed in between your rows of corn. I have tried this before, but it hasn't been successful, for reasons unrelated to the guild itself.
I've heard that one problem can be that the bean tendrils can pull the ears of corn off their stalks. I wonder if there are certain varieties better suited than others... a taller variety of corn for example with a gentler variety of bean, maybe?
I'm trying it again this year, with muskmelons instead of squash. So far the corn has come up well and I'll be putting in the innoculated beans in a few days. It will be interesting to track the various results members of this forum have over the next few months.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2004 at 10:44AM
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According to my favorite permaculture book, Gaia's Garden, you should:
1. mark out a series of planting holes one meter apart (you should get 4-5 ears of corn per hole), and plant 3-4 kernels of corn in each one, and cover it with 1 inch of soil.
2. When the corn sprouts, start mounding the soil over the base of the plant (don't cover it completely though!) Do NOT thin the corn. You want two or three stalks per mound.
3. Two weeks after planting the corn, plant two or three bean seeds in each mound. (If possible, coat the beans with a legume specific bacterial innoculant to insure the bacteria will be present. You can order it with seeds online or maybe get some at a garden center.)
4. At the same time as the beans, plant squash, pumpkins, or other vining squash between the mounds.

That is it, then just follow the care instructions on the vegetable seed packets.

What happens is that the cornstocks support the beans, and the corn roots ooze a a sugar that the nitrogen fixing bacteria on the beans love. The bacteria feed the beans corn, and the squash. The squash shades the ground between the corn, keeping it cool, moist, and (relatively) weed free.

The book also mentions a fourth "sister," the Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) which attracts beneficial insects like bees to help pollinate the beans and squash, and ladybugs to control aphids. You can eat the young leaves, flowers, and seedpods of the plant, which are rich in iron.

Also in the book it mentions an agronomist from Cornell Univ., Jane Mt. Pleasant, who has shown that caloric yields from the guild are 20% higher than from a same sized area planted only with corn.

I hope that helps. There are many ways to plant the three sister though, so don't feel bound by any one way.

Happy Guilding!
Eric in Japan

    Bookmark   April 23, 2004 at 8:26AM
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seraphima(z4 AK)

When I had gardens in Vermont and New York State, we put several shovelfuls of manure in a spot, then scraped surrounding soil and heaped earth over the manure into a mound. We planted 6-8 corn, 1-2 squash, and 3-4 beans in each hill. Corn and squash are very heavy feeders, need a lot of manure. Indians used to bury dead fish in their hills for the nitrogen.

When all plants are up, mulch the hills well for water retention and weed control. If the beans are damaging the corn, build a brush teepee with 3-4 sapling poles tied at the top for the beans to climb.

I doubt that beans can supply all the nitrogen corn and squash need, but they can certainly supplement and assist.

Corn is wind-pollinated, so be sure to make a block of hills to keep the corn pollen close to the plants; don't spot them around the garden.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2004 at 7:45PM
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You are referring to a Three Sisters Garden which creates a symbiotic relationship among corn, beans and squash. If you do a web search of Three Sisters Garden, you will come up with several helpful hits.

I grow this garden at my elementary school. The mounds are to prevent erosion. This year I only planted 3 mounds, with 6 corn plants on each mound. Believe it or not, the corn is about a foot high already. There is also a book about it, which I have at school, which provides a lot of information about which Native Americans used this method and other historical information, crafts. If you want to know the name of the book, e-mail me back and I'll get it for you.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2004 at 11:06PM
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lpinkmountain(5b/6a border PA)

Any corn, bean, squash variety suggestions for this guild? I'm looking to buy something over the counter at this point. Do you think that's possible?

    Bookmark   May 18, 2004 at 6:35PM
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Ana53(Tx7a/8b sun33)

I've heard of sunflowers being planted with the Three Sisters as well.


    Bookmark   June 7, 2004 at 6:04PM
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Richard_inNM(8 New Mexico)

Well, my beans didn't germinate very well, and my rockmelon (muskmelon) didn't really start to take off until after the corn had done its thing so you couldn't really say it was much of a groundcover for the corn.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2004 at 12:44PM
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I started 3 spots. 2 of them mulched with straw. 1 of the mulched ones is doing really well with all 3 kinds of plants growing well. Beans and squash were eaten from the start on the other spots, but they might recover. I'll keep you informed.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2004 at 12:31PM
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BelgianPupWA(WA/Zone 8)

For next year: it is also recommended that you plant the corn farther apart (3 ft in all directions) than usual.


    Bookmark   August 10, 2004 at 11:22PM
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dixielib(z6/7 Ga)

I hadn't heard of Three Sisters, but was already planning to interplant corn and beans next year after reading that the beans would help feed the corn. I had tried pole beans with corn and that was a disaster. I like a half-runner called peanut bean that I plan to use with the corn next year. Now I may consider adding the squash. Neat idea!


    Bookmark   September 11, 2004 at 8:54AM
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We've been doing this for years and found that bush beans around the corn works well, pole beans can be a bust. The prickliness of the squash plants surrounding the two other sisters discourages critters such as coon from damaging the corn and beans.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2004 at 12:50PM
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alternative_ag(swMO usa)

Corn, beans and squash were commonly planted together by the Native American Indians, and called The Three Sisters, as mentioned above.

ACRES USA organic farming magazing has a book catalog section on their website at

Their book catalog has a new book in its inventory in 2005. Native American Gardening, item no. 6741, catalog price is ^16.00 US currency with $3.00 S&H.

It's all about growing the traditional Native American garden of corn, beans and squash. Also about native diets and meals, natural pest control, the Circle of Life.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2005 at 4:20PM
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"I've heard of sunflowers being planted with the Three Sisters as well."

I planted sunflowers, BROOM corn, beans, and squash together. If I find Cleome (rocky mtn bee plant), I will include that, maybe next year. I chose broom corn because I have uses for it, and it seems a much more forgiving plant than the other type of corn. Again, maybe I'll try corn next year if I feel I have more time to spend preparing and caring for it. The squash all sprouted, I swear, about 2 days after we planted it, and the corn and some of the beans are coming up now. We (my 3 yo daughter and I) planted it all together at the same time. I am very excited to see how this works. I did use pole beans in this area, so I hope it will be alright. I think it will since it's brrom corn and doesn't form ears that can be strangled.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2005 at 11:48PM
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I see this post is old but I have a great book to recommend, just came to our local library this week. Its called" Buffalo Bird Womans Garden" by Gilbert L. Wilson. Its about an indian tribe that gardened instead of hunting and gathering. the old woman tells how they did it. It is a great book. Very detailed recipies and techniques refering to the three sisters and sunflowers. Everyone should check it out.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2005 at 9:40AM
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Ana53(Tx7a/8b sun33)

Eden, you still looking?

    Bookmark   April 12, 2005 at 12:29PM
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This link to ATTRA gives some excellent descriptions and illustrations of layouts of Three Sisters Gardens of various tribes.

Here is a link that might be useful: companion planting

    Bookmark   April 26, 2005 at 9:31AM
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