Native Americans Learnt How To Use The Three Sisters Very Early In The History Of Their Farming. Here I Explain The Three Sisters Technique Though History To The Modern Day. It’s Not What You Might Think?

The three sisters technique is an ancient farming method that was found amongst many of the more sedentary Native American tribes from the Great Lakes to Mexico. Today, gardeners in the UK try to copy the technique, but though all three crops can be grown it isn’t easy to get good yields from all of them. In this article I explain the species grown in the three sisters mix, how that might be modified and how to plant the three to get maximum returns with as little effort as possible.

What Are The Three Sisters?

Three Sisters Technique Garlan Miles, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally the three sisters were maize (what the Americans call corn), climbing beans and squash. At least that is what most books will tell you. But they are wrong.

This three crops were what most tribes grew, but the Iroquois grew Indian potatoes (Apios americana) instead of climbing beans. So immediately we can see that many of the “facts” we read about the three sisters as being corn, bean and squash is wrong.

And from there on in it just gets more complex. But don’t despair, there are some easy experiments you can try.

When Are The Three Sisters Sown?

Firstly, note I say sown. That is because the native Americans sowed seed rather than planted plants. Or at least if they did transplant I can find no record of plants being transplanted.

Traditionally the sowings were staggered. Corn (maize) was sown first, then a few weeks later the beans were sown. Then, a week or so later the squash were sown. This gave each crop time to grow without being smothered by the others. And it meant the beans had something to climb as the maize acted as a support for them.

That’s how it used to be done. But this section started with the word “are” rather than “were” sown. We could use transplanted maize with beans sown the same time and the squash later.

As for dates. I’m a great believer that most maize is sown far too early. Where I live in Devon, the end of May is early with most commercial crops being grown in the first week of June. I know that will shock some gardeners but my experience is that unless you want really early sweetcorn/maize crops it makes no difference to timeliness and yields are better when sown later.

The bean crop could be any type of climbing bean, French or runner. Bush crops are not going to be so successful as they will get swamped by the squash.

As for the squash, there are options. Any trailing cucurbit could be grown. Marrows, gourds, squash. Even melons might be worth a try.

The thing is, and this is important, we can’t grow the same varieties as the native Americans did. We are 3000 miles away, our climate is different and the varieties they grew probably don’t exist any longer. So, if we want to try the Three Sisters we have to experiment and see what works for us in the UK. And what works for men may not work for you. Change the soil type, altitude, soil type and varieties and nothing comparable exists. So copying what someone on Facebook claims to be the way is probably not going to be ideal.

And let’s not forget the Native American tribes all had their own variations on the Three Sisters theme. It’s a “prescription”, a technique, not an absolute recipe. It’s a bit like eye of newt and toe of toad. Just an indication of what might work .. or not!

How Should The Crops Be Sown?

I’ve previously explained the sowing dates, or at least the order of sowing. But how should we sow? Again there isn’t one method., there are several. In some cases people mound up the soil and plant on top of it. It you are in a wet area, prone to flooding, that might make sense. But otherwise I have doubts. Though when I watched some of the videos I’ve reviewed some gardeners were quite specific about mounding, as if there was no other way.

In most cases the maize was sown in the middle of a mound. The climbing bean then went in a concentric circle around them and the squash were then planted between the mounds. There is a logic in this. It means the tall stuff is in the middle and low lying stuff around it.

And if instead of mounds you decide to follow those that plant in rows then it makes sense to have a row or two of maize with beans either side and squash in the rest of the space. If you grow a lot then it makes sense to have several parallel rows of maize with the other crops laid out between.

The Three Sisters Technique Videos

Most of the videos about the three sisters are, understandably, American. After all it’s an American biointensive method of growing crops. And if you think about it, it is an advanced technique where three crops are grown in one space. Walk around allotments and gardens in the UK and we rarely see this level of sophistication, or intensity.

There are a few videos below. I’m not recommending any of them, they are simply because to stimulate ideas, NOT to be copied as being ideal for the UK.

When Ancient Wisdom Beats Modern Industry

Planting Corn, Squash and Beans Using the Three Sisters Method

Three Sisters: Companion Planting of North American Indigenous Peoples

Research Sources:

Mt. Pleasant, Jane (2006). “The science behind the Three Sisters mound system: An agronomic assessment of an indigenous agricultural system in the northeast”. In Staller, John E.; Tykot, Robert H.; Benz, Bruce F. (eds.). Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Prehistory, Linguistics, Biogeography, Domestication, and Evolution of Maize. Amsterdam: Academic Press. pp. 529–537. ISBN 978-0-1236-9364-8.

 “The Three Sisters: Optimizing the value and food potential of an ancestral indigenous crop system”. Ottawa: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. August 6, 2021. Retrieved October 14, 2022.

Mt. Pleasant, Jane; Burt, Robert F. (2010). “Estimating Productivity of Traditional Iroquoian Cropping Systems from Field Experiments and Historical Literature”. Journal of Ethnobiology30 (1): 54. doi:10.2993/0278-0771-30.1.52ISSN 2162-4496S2CID 85696505

Tag: Three Sisters Technique
Image Attribution: Garlan Miles, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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