Vegetable gardening, though not for everyone, can be a very therapeutic endeavour. Planting the seeds, harvesting, and then being able to enjoy the resulting food on your plate is rewarding in itself. Then there is the physical health benefit of the exercise and fresh air. As a gardener, each year I like to plant at least one ‘fun crop.’ Some examples are: white pumpkins (ghostly), swan gourds (you can hang them as birdhouses), or colourful Indian corn (to hang as an autumn decoration). This year’s fun crop is a combination of corn, beans, and squash, traditionally known as “The Three Sisters.” According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans and squash are the three inseparable sisters, complementing each other as they grow. Native Canadian farmers of the eastern woodlands grew them as a sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet. The Iroquois (including those in our region), believed that corn, beans, and squash were gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of the Three Sisters, called the De-o-ha-ko. The corn stalk provides a natural pole for the beans to climb. Their vines actually help to stabilize the corn stalk. The mature squash vines and leaves act as natural mulch, shading out weeds and holding in moisture. The beans fix nitrogen in their roots. If the plant is recycled into the soil, the nitrogen will feed the corn stalk for the following year. The spines of the squash vines are a deterrent to animals. The Three Sisters also complement each other nutritionally; corn provides carbohydrates, dried beans are rich in protein, and the squash are rich in vitamins and minerals.
How to plant Make several mounds of soil, each about two feet in diameter. Incorporate some well-composted manure or other commercial fertilizer into the soil. Plant two or three corn seeds per mound, and a few bean and squash seeds around the periphery of the mound. For the bean crop I used scarlet runners and for the squash, jack-o-lantern type pumpkin seeds. Any kind of winter squash will work.
How not to plant They say “experience is the best teacher” and I have certainly learned from experience on my first attempt to grow the three sisters. As I did not do any how-to research before beginning the project, I made the mistake of planting all three types of seeds at the same time. Common sense could have told me that the corn should be established first so the beans would have something to hold onto. So, be sure to plant the corn a couple of weeks ahead of the others seeds; the corn plant should be at least four inches tall before planting the beans and squash. Cultivating is still important at this point, but once established, this planting becomes a maintenance free crop. Enjoy!