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the three sisters

2015 July 29
by Rachel Turiel

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When Col announced that he’d like to grow a three sisters garden this summer, I said, all casual, “Sure, honey, let’s make that happen.” But inside, the 9-piece mariachi band started blasting the tune: Here’s something you and your son can enjoy, together! (Because when he asks, like he did this morning, if he can hot-glue some popsicle sticks into a boat and then burn it, I’m a little perplexed).

A 3 sisters garden is a Native American tradition, in which corn, beans and squash are planted together, each benefiting the whole. The beans climb the tall corn and add nitrogen to the soil, and the squash vines crawl around, their platter-sized leaves keep moisture in the soil and discourage weeds.3 sisters10

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Growing the 3 sisters garden has been like having a living art installation in the backyard. Everyday I  behold the changes. After two months, the three species have entirely merged, each plant in constant symbiotic motion, much like people who make up a household. Bean vines swing from corn-stalk to corn-stalk, and climb up the thick, straight poles. The corn plants rise towards the sun, spooling off wide, grass-like leaves. Squash tendrils anchor themselves on the bases of the corn, while their vines snake through the whole wild patch.

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*Pictured in the mix here, amaranth, which appears to be the 4th sister (also a food plant cultivated prehistorically in North and South America).

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The whole 3 sisters garden appeals to my agricultural sense of intermingling species, of trusting the wisdom of the plants, and of allowing each variety to perform their own heroic act within the symbiosis of the community.

Also, I did let Col glue a popsicle stick boat together this morning and then burn it in the fire pit, because I couldn’t think of any reason not to.



15 Responses leave one →
  1. Chelsie permalink
    July 29, 2015

    Love the pics! And that you said “yes” to Col, love love it!

  2. July 29, 2015

    Love it! I was just making notes yesterday to plant corn/bean/squash/amaranth (or rocky mt bee plant) mounds next year, largely for my 9 year old who always wants corn in the garden but I can never seem to find good space for it. Yet we grow beans and squash, so three-four sisters is perfect. I’m even more inspired now – thank you for sharing.

  3. Sarah permalink
    July 29, 2015

    First, congrats on not killing Col’s boat-burning vibe ;)

    Second, I have been equally interested in and terrified by the
    permaculture notion of companion planting. Why terrified?
    I don’t know, what if I screw it all up and the plants don’t like each
    other? What if they all DIE instead?? Besides, there are just so
    many combinations and I get overwhelmed.

    So, thanks for the evidence that it can be much simpler, at least to begin with :)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      August 4, 2015

      Think of it all as a big, ongoing experiment. You can do it!

  4. July 29, 2015

    I’ve tried this off and on over the years, and never had the success that you are having. Either the beans get to big to fast and the corn isn’t tall enough yet, or the squash grows away from the corn, or the beans don’t vine…sigh. I do love the idea of it all, but kind of gave up on it. Mine seem to do better when separate. Lovely pictures!

  5. Andrea permalink
    July 29, 2015

    Hell Ya, sista’s.

  6. Melissa Louise permalink
    July 29, 2015

    Ohhh wow, how beautiful. I love the childhood you are shaping for your kids, it looks like a great way to grow up!

    We’re at the end of winter here in Australia (oh I hope we are anyway) and I have just moved into a house with a yard for the first time in 7 years!! I’m absolutely going to give this a try!

    How fun!

    Burning things is also fun, totally get the appeal ;)

  7. July 29, 2015

    I just learned about the 3 sisters outside the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This summer was L’s second in the Children’s Garden, so now he probably knows far more about gardening than I do. Your plants are so beautiful.

    As for the boat burning, perhaps it had something to do with Vikings, or with Beowulf?

  8. Ellie permalink
    July 30, 2015

    Such a beautiful living metaphor.

  9. Dave Brown permalink
    July 30, 2015

    Was Col motivated by Taylor Mali’s wonderful poem about seventh grade viking warriors?

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      August 4, 2015

      Holy moly, that was moving! Thank you for sharing. We’re all a little speechless now.

  10. July 30, 2015

    Oh my, do I love this.

    I feel a deep emotion welling up at the sight of these glorious plants growing up in tender, mutually sustaining, intricate harmony — a feeling of recognition, as it is the way I see life, all the time: life as it is meant to be, and as it often is, if we notice it.

    Beauty we are here to see, and to share.

    Thanks deeply to you and Col :o)


  11. August 3, 2015

    somewhere in permaculture literature, i read that the fourth sister was considered to be rocky mountain bee plant. functionally, it would attract pollinators for the beans and squash. i ordered some from prairie moon one year, but the seeds didn’t germinate for me. i bet you’d do much better with that, up at 6512 feet!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      August 4, 2015

      We have a lot of self-seeding rocky mtn bee plant in the yard. Will save seeds for you. xo

  12. August 9, 2015

    I tried the three sisters in my Bayfield library garden bed the first year, except I think I forgot the squash and I planted the beans too late. For nice corn though! Next time I get a chance I’m coming to you for timing tips. Glad to know about the fourth sister too, she’s such a wonderful being whether she be amaranth or bee plant, certainly her presence belongs in the mix : )
    Col’s got a good mama, an Mama’s got a good Col, thanks for sharing!

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