Monday, May 23, 2011

The Legend of the Three Sisters

Thyme Square Gardens, Native Corn, Beans and Squash, May 2011

This Legend has been told by the Iroquois Indians and passed down through many generations. It's about the relationship of companion planting and how it has proven itself as one of the most intricate and romantic growing techniques throughout the history of farming and gardening. At least I see it that way and perhaps you may as well after hearing the tale. It's a story of growing corn, beans and squash together as one in unison with each other.Allow me to first share the tale before I share my own adventures growing Three Sisters in my garden. I've found most of the story preserved at the Museum of Natural History by Shelia Wilson, a member of the Sappony Tribe.

The Legend of the Three Sisters

A long time ago, three sisters lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different
from one another in their height and in the way they carried themselves. The little sister
was so young and round that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green.
The second sister wore a bright, sunshine yellow dress, and she would spend many an
hour reading by herself, sitting in the sun with the soft wind blowing against her face.
The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other
sisters, looking for danger and warning her sisters. She wore a pale green shawl and had
long, dirty-yellow hair. There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved
each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.

One day a strange bird came to the field: a crow. He talked to the horses and other
animals, and this caught the attention of the sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and
smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad. Again the crow came to the field to
gather reeds at the water’s edge. The sisters who were left watched his trail as he was
leaving, and that night the second sister, the one in the yellow dress, disappeared. Now
the eldest sister was the only one left. She continued to stand tall. When the crow saw
how she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together, and they became stronger
together again. The elder sister stands tall looking out for the crow to this day.
 Native American Cornfield Beans
After some of our own attempts at growing the three sisters, we've come to terms with the fact that you simply can't change the way the Native Americans used this technique. They had perfected something truly remarkable and in order to reach that perfection in the same way we had to throw out all of our own preconceived ideas and really get in touch with exactly how the Indians grew this way.

The first sister is corn, she grows tall and strong and helps the second sister, bean, by allowing her vines to climb up her stalk. In return, bean gives corn the nutrients she needs to grow. Squash is the third sister and she grows low to the ground, throughout the corn field. Her large leaves help to keep the weeds under control and the soil moist. One of the biggest errors many of us make in our gardens is thinking we have to grow everything in nice and tidy straight little rows. This is exactly what we did in one of our earlier attempts at growing these three companions. Nice straight rows of corn with beans planted beneath it and pumpkins planted here and there .Also in our preconceived ideas, the varieties we chose was a non gmo hybrid sweet corn. We had chosen what is called Kandy Korn because it grows very tall with an extra set of roots at the bottom which we thought would be sturdy for growing the pole beans on. We also chose a heirloom variety of purple beans which we thought would be easier to see in the corn to pick them fresh for the pot. Our pumpkins were the heirloom Cinderella. Several things did not work out. Yes, we ended up with a whole lot of sweet corn, but very few beans. They didn't seem to have the light they needed to take off fast enough. The corn still had a very hard time standing. Every time strong winds blew through the field a lot of the stalks would fall over. The pumpkins didn't do very well either. It was obvious we were doing it all wrong. The whole field was such a tangled mess that if there had even been a bean to pick you were not going to be able to get to it. Then we were trying to walk through pumpkin vines to harvest the sweet corn.

Native Cornfield Bean Pods at the base of the corn stalks.

This is the funnest thing I think I've ever experienced growing the sisters. Lessons have been well learned through a few trial and errors. To begin with we must remember that the Native Americans were growing food to last them through winter. In reality that is exactly what we are trying to accomplish at Thyme Square Gardens. Our goals have been to become as sustainable as possible in order to eat healthy food free of chemicals and hormones. The Indians didn't exactly have freezers or canning jars. They enjoyed eating plenty fresh, but they dried and stored much of the food to preserve it. This is what must be kept in mind when choosing your varieties of seed. There are Native Heirloom corns which can be ate fresh as well as dry well for making your own cornmeal. I'm considering canning some cream corn to put up this year as well as grinding it for cornmeal. I was very fortunate after doing a whole lot of  researching to find corn seed that was a Native Texas Dent Corn. For our beans, it is a must to choose a bean for drying purposes. You simply cannot pick fresh beans out of the three sisters very effectively. Dry beans are wonderful for putting up all year long. We found a couple different ones to try this year. The first one was a heirloom black bean and the second is a beautiful multi-colored Cornfield Bean. For the pumpkins and squash, I've still stuck with my pretty blue pumpkins, which seem to have a hard time against the squash vine borer. If they don't hold up this year I may forsake them for another variety. But the hardiest and tastiest squash we have is the Butternut. Insects don't seem to bother it in the least and it spreads throughout the garden just like I had hoped. And frankly after spending $1.69 a pound, which really added up to 4 bucks for one butternut squash, that wasn't even organic really threw me into growing some of my own. The neat thing about all of this is that all the corn, beans and squash all finish up about the same time for harvesting. It really is a beautiful story.

The first Native American series coin was released in January 2009 and has a reverse side that depicts a Native American woman sowing seeds of the Three Sisters, symbolizing the Indian tribes' contributions to agriculture. It is better known as the Sacagawea Dollar. I found it a very befitting symbol to be placed on a round coin because round circles are how the Native Americans have always grown their crops.
The native people believe, because the Great Spirit caused everything in nature to be round. The Sun, Sky, Earth and Moon are round that the circle represents the circle of life. When they plant their Three Sisters it is planted on mounds in round circles. This is exactly how we planted our Three Sisters here at Thyme Square Gardens and it is the most beautiful experience I have had in gardening. From start to finish we have grown as close to the ways of the Native Indians as possible. Right down to trying to grow the closest varieties to our Native American Texas soil.When you plant your corn in the circle with the beans on the outside of the corn and then the pumpkins on the outside of the beans, everything gets the proper light it needs. With all the high winds we've had this season, not one stalk has blown over. Every sister truly supports the other in so very many ways. Actually the field is even easier to walk through while the pumpkins are still maturing. Every thing seems to cling so nicely on the little mounds. Companion planting is the only way to grow!!

Harvesting this season will be the true test for me. It will be my first time grinding cornmeal. I'm sure I will be blogging my way through the whole experience. In the mean time, I'm staying positive and trying out many new recipes using fresh organic cornmeal I've been able to buy at the market. Here is a fun link I've found with recipes for Cooking with Three Sisters. I want to try them all. I hope you will enjoy them as well.
Happy Gardening!!


  1. I can't wait to see how your cornmeal turns out. Do you have a stone to grind with? You might have a mill locally that could grind it for you. And the green & growing adventure continues!

    Take good care,


  2. Hoping this will post, been having trouble leaving comments.
    Enjoy reading this story, did you ever get a grinder?

  3. Hi Ya'll!! Haven't knuckled down yet and got the grinder, however have looked over several. Sounds like Gander Mountain keeps some in stock and going to go look this weekend ;) xxooxx