Ancient Companion Planting: The Three Sisters

Squash, beans, and corn have a long history of being planted together to benefit each other, the soil, and the nutritional needs of the people who grew them.

  • Squash, maize, and beans have complementary growth styles and nutrients.
    Photo by Flickr/Perry Quan
  • Scarlet runner beans use maize stalks as a sturdy trellis.
    Photo by Wikimedia Commons/awkiku
  • Modern beans have larger, flatter pods than their ancient counterparts, but they serve the same purpose in a Three Sisters garden.Beans help fix atmospheric nitrogen in soil as they grow and decompose.
    Photo by Getty Images/rootstocks
  • Maize, a heavy nitrogen feeder, benefits from being grown in soil that’s been loaded with the nutrient.
    Photo by Getty Images/yod67
  • The broad, flat leaves of squash vines serve to cool the soil beneath them, as well as suppressing weeds by blocking sunlight from open ground in the garden.
    Photo by Getty Images/dulezidar
  • The cool, humid environment created under squash plants' broad leaves is perfect for the Three Sisters' roots.
    Photo by Getty Images/struvictory
  • In the arid southwestern U.S., maize, beans, and squash are traditionally planted in separate plots, to make better use of minimal rainfall.
    Photo by Getty Images/cunfek
  • Runner beans will readily climb any vertical support they're given.
    Photo by Getty Images/BasieB

This article is Part 4 of Nan Fischer’s four-part series about the Three Sisters crops.

Part 1, Ancient Beans for Modern Gardeners, was featured in our Spring 2017 issue.
Part 2, A-Maize-ing Maize: The History of Corn, appeared in our Summer 2017 issue.
Part 3, Squash on the Scene: The Evolution of Cucurbits, was printed in our Fall 2017 issue. 

Before humans began practicing agriculture about 12,000 years ago, beans, squash, and teosinte grew together in the wild near Oaxaca, Mexico. As indigenous people transitioned from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural one — during a span of about 5,000 years — they slowly abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and domesticated these wild plants for a more stable food supply.

Squash (Cucurbita spp.) was the first of the trio to be domesticated, about 10,000 years ago. It was originally grown for its hard rind — which was used for bowls and utensils — and then for its nutritious seeds. The flesh was bitter, but indigenous people eventually bred squash for better flavor and texture.

Teosinte is the likely wild progenitor of maize (Zea mays). About 9,000 years ago, the Mayan people turned this grass — with its impenetrable 12-kernel seed head — into an edible and adaptable crop. Since then, maize has been bred into dozens of varieties with more genetic diversity than many other plants.

The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is native to Mesoamerica and the Peruvian Andes. Originally a vine with twisted seedpods and small seeds, it’s been selected and bred for larger seeds and bush growth for nearly 7,000 years.

5/1/2018 5:32:38 AM

I wanted to plant the traditional three sisters, corn bean & squash. Was wondering about timing, which to plant first. The suggestion below seems to indicate the corn should be planted first, waiting until it reaches 6" or so in height, followed by the beans ( I have an antique variety, Hidasta Red I hope to grow). When should the squash go in & where in the plant bed. Any suggestions?

2/1/2018 1:47:46 PM

We have successfully co-planted corn with pinto and great northern beans, with squash in nearby mounds, for many years. We have also co-planted these beans with tomatoes. In each case, we use mounded rows, form a valley in the middle with a flat shovel, place compost in the valley, then plant the tomato seedlings (between 6”-10” tall) 18” apart, and then place four beans on the cardinal points around the tomato plant, as well as on four inch centers between the plants. Same with corn, but wait to plant the beans until after the corn has germinated to a height of six inches. All of the species do well, with no pesticides, just a daily scan for bugs, which are dispatched manually with a pair of hemistats. Pick the tomatoes or corn first (in north florida in late May, early June) then let the bean pods dry in the field, but be sure to pick them before the summer rains, or they might begin to sprout on the vine if they get too wet. We grew enough beans and tomatoes last year this way that we do not need to plant them again until next year. They seem to love growing together.

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