“Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash”
(Adaptable for any grade level)
Corn, pole beans, and squash (including pumpkins) are three New World crops that
complement the needs of one another both in the garden and in the nutritional content
of a meal. In addition, these “Three Sisters” have a rich historical meaning among
the Iroquois and other North American tribes. Thanks to techniques such as this
one, the Iroquois were able to live in a sustainable manner on the land for over
1000 years. European settlers learned this method of planting from Native American
tribes such as the Iroquois; this helped to enable their survival and became a key
part of the story of the first Thanksgiving. Planting these three crops together
in a school garden can offer diverse, interdisciplinary learning opportunities for
students of all ages.
The Three Sisters method represents one form of companion planting, which means
that these three partners benefit one another in many ways. Pole beans seek out
something to climb, and corn plants serve this purpose. In turn, bean vines benefit
the corn plants by helping to stabilize them during heavy winds, such as Florida’s
frequent tropical storms. Squash leaves tend to be large and prickly, offering shade
for the soil, allowing it to retain moisture, and shading the ground, which lessens
weed growth and protects all three crops from certain predators such as raccoons.
Beans are necessary because their roots provide a “home” for a particular kind of
bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and changes it into a form useable for
corn, which like all plants, requires nitrogen. This vital function – nitrogen fixation
– can enable plants to be grown in the same patch of ground for multiple years.
When to Plant in Florida:
Pole beans and snap beans can all be planted in Central Florida in February-March
and in September. Sweet corn can be planted in February-March and in September.
And most summer and winter squash can also be planted in February-March and in September.
(Check the growing season information available from seed companies before buying
seeds.) This compatibility in planting seasons offers teachers the option of planting
in the spring or the fall and still harvesting before school gets out for the summer.
The number of days each crop needs before maturity ranges from 45 days (with certain
beans) to 105 days (with some winter squash). Planting times should be spaced out
so that the corn will be tall enough for the pole beans to climb when they are ready
Growing a Three Sisters garden can inspire investigations of Native American lifestyles,
folklore, agriculture, and nutrition. The Iroquois believed that these three inseparable
sisters would grow and thrive only if planted together in mounds. Alice Formiga
The Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit,
each watched over by one of three sisters spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko, or “Our
Sustainers". The planting season is marked by ceremonies to honor them, and a festival
commemorates the first harvest of “green” corn on the cob. By retelling the stories
and performing annual rituals, Native Americans passed down the knowledge of growing,
using and preserving the Three Sisters through generations.
This tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread
among Native American farming societies, is a sophisticated, sustainable system
that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations…. According
to Three Sisters legends corn must grow in community with other crops rather than
on its own - it needs the beneficial company and aide of its companions.
Excessive cross-breeding of beans and genetic modification of beans and corn threatens
the continued existence of the heirloom varieties of these crops. By selecting heirloom
varieties, gardeners aid in their protection. This choice offers students multiple
lessons about genetics, plant diversity, and ecosystem protection.
Corn, beans, and squash complement each other, with corn providing carbohydrates,
beans offering protein, fiber, vitamins A and C, and with different varieties of
squash offering an array of vitamins and minerals including vitamins A and B6 and
potassium. Students can learn about human nutritional needs and about meals that
create a complete protein chain in the way that corn and beans can.
For detailed information about how to grow a Three Sisters garden, please consult:
Students can design and plan their own Three Sisters garden mound, building upon
one of the many design suggestions available on-line. One plan is to create a mound
at least eight feet in diameter in a space that receives at least six hours of sunlight
daily, planting corn in the center, encircled by pole beans, with squash planted
at the periphery of the mound.
Activities during growth period:
Irrigation, thinning, forms of natural pest control
Harvest season activities:
Harvest season activities including making a Three Sisters stew, researching foods
eaten at the first Thanksgiving and preparing some of them, and composting
Additional resources on Three Sisters gardens: