A number of Native American tribes had varying versions of the Three Sisters legend. The Cherokee version was adapted to three women who helped each other on the Trail of Tears. This story which may have some basis in fact was transformed into a lesson the Cherokee used in their agrarian lifestyle once they arrived in Oklahoma. The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee of the Great Lakes region also had a version of this agrarian narrative.
Today, many gardeners still subscribe to the lessons gleaned from this ancient legend. They plant their corn, beans, and squash according to what has come to be known as the Three Sisters planting method.
But what is the Three Sisters planting method, and does it work?
What Is the Three Sisters Legend?
The Mohawk were one of the original five tribes of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. This is their version of the story from “Three Sisters: Exploring an Iroquois Garden.”
Very long ago, there were three sisters who lived in a field. The youngest was so small she could not yet walk; she crawled along the ground, dressed in green. The middle sister wore a bright yellow dress and darted back and forth across the field. The eldest sister stood tall and straight, and her body bent with the wind. She had long yellow hair and wore a green shawl. The three sisters loved one another very much and could not imagine living without the others.
One day a small Indian boy came to the field. He was very handsome and knew the ways of the land. He could talk with the birds and the animals and was straight and fearless. The three girls were very interested in this boy as they watched him use his stone knife to carve a bowl or hunt with his bow and arrow.
Late in the summer of the boy’s first visit to the field, the youngest of the three girls disappeared. She was the one who could only creep along the ground; she could not even stand unless there was a stick she could cling to. But she was gone, and the other two mourned her until the fall.
The Indian boy returned to the field to gather reeds that grew at the edge of a small stream. He used the reeds to make arrow shafts. The two remaining sisters again watched him, fascinated. That night, the second sister disappeared, the one who always wandered hither and yon.
Now there was only one sister left, the one who stood tall and straight. She did not bow her head in sorrow, though she mourned deeply and thought she could not live in the field alone without her sisters. As the days grew shorter and colder, her green shawl began to lose its color and her yellow hair became dry and tangled. Night and day she sighed for her family, but her voice was low like the wind, and no one heard her.
One day in the harvest season, the little Indian boy heard the third sister crying, and he felt sorry for her. He took her in his arms and carried her to his home, and there a delightful surprise awaited her: Her sisters were there in the lodge, safe and very glad to be reunited. They explained that they had been curious about the little Indian boy and had followed him home, and they had decided to stay because winter was coming and his home was warm and comfortable.
The girls also were making themselves useful to the boy and his family. The youngest, now all grown up, kept the dinner pot full, while the second sister, still in her yellow dress, dried herself on the shelf so she could fill the dinner pot later in the winter. The eldest sister was so pleased to be with her sisters again and so impressed with the help they gave the boy that she too began drying herself so the family would have meal to use as the winter went on.
And from that day to this, the three sisters were never separated again.
Does the Three Sisters Method Work for Modern Gardeners?
Does this companion system work for modern gardeners? The simplified answer is no, it has to be adapted to modern techniques and plants. Now translating this ancient legend to reality is a tad more complicated than one might surmise. Timing sweet corn plantings so that they coincide with climbing beans that can be supported by the corn stocks while squash provides a ground cover and nutrients is just fine in theory. It may have been a lot easier for the Native Americans as the crops they grew differed slightly from their modern counterparts.
For instance, the corn they grew was not the sweet corn we know today, but rather a hard and hearty grain that was dried and used for grinding.
Their beans were similar to navy beans or black beans, while modern gardeners tend to grow green beans, string beans, or even sweet peas, all of which have been suggested for this endeavor.
In addition, most of the native tribes planted in mounds mingled into semi wild stump- and root-infested fields, not neatly manicured gardens in defined rows as modern gardeners do. If you are going to try out the Three Sisters, then your mounds will need to be spaced out so that there are three to four feet between them.
The corn, bean, and squash varieties that you plant will depend on the Hardiness Zone in which you live. The best types are corn to use is not sweet corn but dent, flint, or flour varieties. Popcorn varieties are not advisable either as they tend to be inadequate in height to avoid being overrun by pole beans and squash.
On the top of each mound, plant six to 10 corn seeds (check the directions on the seed packet for the recommended space and depth). Climbing or pole beans should only be planted when the corn is about five inches in height, followed by the squash seven to 12 days later.
The native Americans had unlimited space, but you probably do not. Adequate room is not only required for sheer volume of plants but the reality that corn must be planted in a “block” formation for proper pollination, as it is wind-pollinated.
While squash leaves are great for preventing the soil from drying out they can also keep it too moist at times. This type of environment is great for bacterial and fungal issues that readily spread throughout the garden.
The Three Sisters Legend…An Old Wives’ Tale?
The legend of the Three Sisters seems to have been told and practiced by a number of Native American tribes. Today, some gardeners still follow the legend’s prescribed agrarian principles when it comes to planting sweet corn, pole or climbing beans, and squash. While the lessons gleaned from the Three Sisters legend shouldn’t be taken literally, this planting method can be adapted to suit the modern North American gardener.