Growing the Three Sisters
Many of us remember some version of a Native American story about Three Sisters.
The Iroquois passed down a story about three sisters, called the De-ho-a-ko. This native term roughly translates to “Our Sustainers.”
The Sustainers inhabited and protected croplands.
Sister Corn, in the story, stands tall to protect the crops against wild animals and raiders. Sister Bean feeds the roots of Sister Corn. Sister Squash, or in terms of the plants we know in our time, Sister Pumpkin, is the elder sister who encircles the crops. She uses her large leaves to keep the ground cool and moist and to protect the others. The Three Sisters receive rain from Father Sky.
Anthropologists tell us that the First Peoples of North America have been growing these three crops for 12,000 years. When European settlers arrived, they quickly learned that these plants were well-suited to farming in the New World, and they became an important source of nutrition for them, too.
But the wisdom of nurturing the Three Sisters is something that modern science has only begun to appreciate. The Three Sisters did more to protect the land, and more to nourish people than our teachers ever told us in school.
The Ecological Value of the Three Sisters
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The conventional telling of the Story of the Three Sisters gets translated into horticultural terms something like this:
- Beans fix nitrogen from the air. They add nitrogen to the soil.
- Corn provides a “pole” for the beans to climb.
- Squash and pumpkins spread out and choke out weeds.
Some tribes may have used fish to “feed the Three Sisters”, providing all three plants with fertilizer. Fish meal is a common fertilizer used today, so they must have been on to something.
These three observations are all true, but does this mean you will get more beans, corn, and squash in the same hill in your modern garden?
This technique isn’t really helpful in a conventional garden. But it is a great idea for a permaculture garden. If you’re considering more sustainable gardening methods, then it’s worth looking into.
Native Americans didn’t have tractors, rototillers, or metal-edges hoes and turning forks.
They cleared the ground for a garden, and they probably pulled weeds, but at least in what is now the United States, they didn’t do anything to the ground after that. (Tribes in parts of Mexico and Central America burned dead plant matter at the end of their dry season to prepare for the next crop.) They practiced what we would now call permaculture.
Native Americans are one of the many cultures that took advantage of permaculture ideas before ‘permaculture’ was even a term.
Permaculture has one significant advantage over regular cultivation. It allows mats of fungi to send out mycorrhizae all around them. Mycorrhiza is a microscopic fungus that has a symbiotic relationship with plants.
Think back to elementary school science for a moment… a symbiotic relationship is a relationship between two organisms in which both organisms benefit.
In this case, mycorrhiza acts as an extension of the plant’s root system, and the plant, in turn, gives the mycorrhiza food.
These tiny “pipes” share water and nutrients with the plants above them. When the plants above them die, they provide food for the fungi.
Beans host nodules of bacteria that produce nitrogen, mostly for the benefit of the bean. These bacteria don’t naturally share nutrients. They are tiny, round spheres, sometimes with cell walls that lock contents inside. They don’t improve tilth by making the soil lighter.
But the next year, after both the beans and the bacteria die, the nitrogen is left behind. As long as the soil isn’t trampled down, the next year’s fungi carry the nutrients—including the nutrients from the last year’s fish—all around the mound to all three plants and any other plants in the vicinity.
The Nutritional Value of the Three Sisters
It turns out that corn, beans, and squash are unquestionably nutritious on several levels. Some of the ways they supported the nutritional wellbeing of Native Americans are, well, just plain amazing.
The Three Sisters: Complete Amino Acids.
Our bodies make uniquely human proteins out of long chains of amino acids. Each amino acid has to be added at the right location of the chain, or the body can’t be formed.
There are certain amino acids that humans must get from their diets: Histidine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, phenylalanine, methionine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Corn has all of these amino acids except lysine. Beans provide all of these amino acids except methionine. When people eat just corn or just beans, their bodies can’t make proteins.
When people eat both corn and beans, they get the benefits of complete protein.
The Three Sisters: Probiotic Bacteria.
Bacteria are everywhere. Some are helpful, or “probiotic,” and some cause disease. Some bacteria that are closely related to disease-causing microbes are actually probiotic. This is true of eight species of Streptococcus that grow on corn, beans, and squash in the garden, and persist on these foods when they are processed and stored.
These helpful Streptococcus bacteria make lactic acid. The lactic acid they generate gives corn, beans, and squash a depth of flavor, but it also kills harmful bacteria like certain strains of E. coli. They prevent food poisoning and keep the corn, beans, and squash from spoiling.
The Three Sisters: Readily Absorbed Minerals and Vitamins.
Native Americans had a sophisticated way of processing corn that European settlers were slow to adopt.
The technical term for the process these first peoples on the continent used to release the mineral and vitamin content of corn is nixtamalization. (This scientific term is based on the word for it in the Aztec language.)
This technical term refers to the process of treating corn with slaked lime (the mineral, not the fruit) and wood ash, which create lye and calcium hydroxide, before drying and storing it.
Corn is naturally rich in niacin, but this B vitamin is bound to cellulose. The human gut can’t digest it without help.
Somehow Native Americans knew that treating corn with slaked lime from rocks and wood ashes from their campfires would break down the corn to make it more digestible. Dozens of scientific investigations confirm that nixtamalization not only releases niacin, it also makes copper, zinc, and iron more available.
Thousands of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century settlers suffered vitamin-deficiency diseases because they did not know about nixtamalization.
Eventually, using the Native American process of treating corn to make hominy and hominy grits corrected an epidemic of pellagra.
The Native American method of cooking beans increased their nutritional value.
Most Indian tribes cooked beans, corn, and meat together in a pot in a fire pit.
They would dig a hole in the ground, fill it with dry wood, and set the wood on fire. When the fire burned down to embers, they would place a pot with water, beans, corn, and meat on top of the embers and cover it with a blanket or with rocks.
Everybody then had warm ground to sit on while they waited for the food to cook.
The calcium from the nixtamalized corn made the beans take longer to cook, but it also made them more tender and digestible. They produced less gas.
Slow-cooking beans reduces their zinc content, but pre-treating corn increases its zinc content, so cooking these foods together in this way preserved zinc nutrition. It also breaks down phytic acid, which can interfere with mineral absorption.
Let’s not overlook the nutritional potency of squash and pumpkins.
Not all the plants grown by Native Americans were what we now call “squash.”
Northern tribes grew white scalloped squash, yellow crookneck squash, and a plant similar to zucchini.
Southern tribes grew more of what we call “acorn squash” but also a squash better known as chayote.
Native Americans north and south consumed the fruit of the plant, but also leaves, sprouts, flowers, and seeds, fresh and dried.
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that is most readily available from dairy products and liver. As far as we know, no Native Americans kept animals for milk, and most modern Native Americans lack the lactase enzyme for digesting it. Liver was a popular food, but wasn’t often available.
However, the human body can make vitamin A out of beta-carotene and related compounds, which are abundant in squash and pumpkins. When game wasn’t available, squashes and pumpkins helped keep native people healthy.
The seeds of squash and pumpkins are great sources of phosphorus, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, and magnesium. The leaves are a good source of vitamin K1, which is important for blood clotting. The sprouts concentrate minerals in an easy-to-digest form.
How to Grow the Three Sisters in Your Garden
The Three Sisters are a great way to grow corn and squash in a smaller space. It’s a challenge for most urban and suburban gardeners to find the space to grow corn.
You can’t grow just one stalk of corn. It needs other corn plants, ideally at least 100 or so, for reliable pollination. If you use traditional row planting, you might have room for a corn patch and nothing else.
With the Three Sisters method, you can use the same plot for three crops at the same time. They will choke out weeds and create their own compost for next year.
There is just one thing to remember about growing the Three Sisters: Never trample their growing bed. This destroys mycorrhiza and disrupts the nutrient movement in the soil.
It also helps to keep the soil moist, but never soggy. The garden soil where you’ll grow the Three Sisters is similar to a compost pile. The bacteria and microorganisms that help to make the soil healthy need a moist growing environment. Your plants will also need water, so be sure to keep the soil moist.
Respect Mother Earth by treading as lightly as possible. Your reward will be the food of the Three Sisters in abundance and a healthier garden for everything you grow in the future.
Planting the Three Sisters
This method of growing works best in hills. You’ll want to space the hills far enough apart to allow your squash to spread out accordingly. The type of squash that you’re growing will determine how spaced out your hills should be.
For example, if you’re growing pumpkins as your squash, you may need to space your hills so that each hill has roughly 10 square feet of growing space since pumpkin plants can get rather large.
If you’re growing yellow or zucchini squash, you won’t need as much room. A few square feet will be enough.
Keep in mind as you’re creating your hills that you want to give yourself enough room to walk around the hill itself, without stepping on it.
Mound your dirt up and sow your corn, squash, and bean seeds directly into the top of the hill.
Corn needs to be planted early, so you can plant your corn a few weeks before the squash and beans. This will give the corn time to get a head start so that the fast-growing beans have something to climb up when they get large enough.
Keep the soil consistently moist for both the soil organisms and your plants. The hills will help prevent the soil from becoming soggy, as the excess water can drain off of the hill.
Fertilizing the Three Sisters
The longer you grow these plants in the same location, the more fertile the soil is going to become naturally. The beans will help to put nitrogen back into the soil. However, the Native Americans knew that these plants would need food.
You can mimic what the Native Americans did. They used fish to feed their plants. They would do this by burying a fish at the bottom of the hill in which they planted their corn, beans, and squash. As the fish broke down in the soil, it released valuable nutrients into the soil that the plants could use.
You don’t have to bury a whole fish in the soil to get the same effect. You can use fish meal fertilizer to feed your plants. This is an easy way to get similar results.
Native American Gardening and the Three Sisters
There is much that we can learn from the Native Americans and how they grew food. They were able to practice sustainable gardening methods long before permaculture and similar terms were even an idea.
They knew that caring for the soil was just as important as caring for the plant. They also made use of other resources around them (like the lime) to improve the nutritional value of their food.
Growing the Three Sisters together in your garden is a wonderful way to ensure a bountiful harvest and successful gardens year after year.