The Three Sisters
How Corn, Beans, and Squash Live Happily Together
To some Native Americans corn, beans, and squash are known as the Three Sisters. When planted together as companions, corn is in the middle, next beans around the corn, then squash near the beans.
The corn will grow tall and give the beans a strong place to climb up. The squash will spread her stems and leaves out to give shade to the beans and cornstalk near the ground. This helps also to hold in moisture, so that all three sisters are less thirsty than if they stood alone.
The Three Sisters can provide staples in a balanced diet. Corn and beans (after the beans are dried) together provide a complete protein. The squash provides vitamins and minerals. With the Three Sisters you get fiber and starch as well.
When planting the Three Sisters together, you can choose from many varieties of each. I do recommend pole beans rather than bush beans. Pole beans climb, while bush beans bush out. Bush beans will be harder to harvest if bunched up with your squash plants. Pole beans will be much easier to harvest, and you will be able to pick them standing up, rather than bent over, or squatting down.
Many people plant in rows. I find that corn makes better when planted in squares. I believe the pollination process is more effective when the corn is planted in square sections. Either way you decide to plant, be aware of how much your squash will spread out, and allow enough room between your corn to accommodate your squash.
I also recommend using heirloom seeds. Almost all corn in the United States is genetically modified. Many beans and squash (and corn) are hybrid. Some hybrids do give a higher yield, but if you wish to save seeds for next year's planting, and want a plant true to the parent plant, heirloom is the way to go.
I once planted second generation hybrid beans, which produced tiny, mini beans. The beans were so small I was convinced I had wasted my time, effort, soil, and water on them. But the experience served to teach me the importance of heirloom seeds.
Some heirloom seeds are from open pollinated plants. This does not promise your plants are not hybrid. But if you buy your seeds from a reparable supplier your chances are better than not. Also speak to your supplier, either in person, or on the phone, and ask questions about how the seeds you want to buy were produced.
When you plant, don't plant multiple varieties near each other. This will help cut down on the chance you will end up with hybrid seed stock. I suggest planting one kind of corn per year to keep your seed stock as pure as possible. With beans and squash, you may decide to plant more than one kind. In that case, plant them at opposite ends of your garden, as far apart as possible. Some cross pollination may occur, but chances are you will have plenty of pure seed stock in the end.
The Three Sisters eaten together can provide good nutrition, as part of a balanced diet. You can have fresh meals as soon as your produce ripens, and freeze, can, or dry the bounty to have throughout the year.
The Three Sisters are native foods in the United States, that have been consumed for centuries. I hope you will enjoy them too!
Dan Gaulin on November 12, 2020:
May I use the illustration of the 3 sisters in this article. Massachusetts is considering redesigning its state flag and I think the 3 sisters motif should be a prominent feature.
PS - Your article convinced me that I need to plant the 3 sisters next year.