By Susan Littlefield

The garden sister trio of corn, beans, and squash was originally cultivated by Native Americans, who realized that interplanting these crops (all also native Americans!) provided a sustainable system that benefited each vegetable and enhanced the long-term fertility of the soil. According to Iroquois legend, three sister spirits watched over these edible gifts from the Great Spirit. Growing your own three sisters garden is a way to connect to the heritage of our land's native cultures and reap the same growing rewards for your crops. It's also a fun garden project to do with your kids or grandkids, one that opens up many avenues of exploration for curious minds.

Better Together

While you can, of course, grow corn, beans, and squash separately, when grown together in the same plot the plants provide each other with mutual benefits. The corn stalks provide a support for pole beans to grow up. The beans, which are nitrogen-fixing legumes, enhance the fertility of the soil over time as their root residues decompose in the soil. Vining squash plants act like a living mulch, their large leaves shading out weeds, and their prickly leaves can help deter hungry interlopers like raccoons and deer eager to feast on ears of corn or succulent beans.

Interestingly, the three sisters combo is a nutritional powerhouse as well, providing a balance of protein and complementary amino acids, carbohydrates, and vitamins. With a little culinary creativity, you can come up with a delicious stew brimming with corn, beans, and squash -- but feel free to add in other veggies like another American native, the pepper!

Here are just a few of the many varieties of corn, squash, and beans we offer that hold lots of delicious possibilities for three sisters gardens!

'Blue Lake FM1K' Pole Bean (63 days) - This prolific climber sets dark green, straight, 6-inch, stringless pods from the base to the top of the vine.

'Kentucky Wonder' Pole Bean (65 days) - This widely adapted variety is one of the best for home garden growing and cans or freezes well.

'Christmas' Pole Lima Bean (88 days) - Attractive red speckled beans can be used at either the green shell stage or dried. They turn pinkish brown when cooked.

'Acorn or Table Queen' Winter Squash (80 days) - The pale orange flesh of this dark greenish black squash is tender, sweet and dry.

'Pink Banana Jumbo' Winter Squash (105 days) - Banana-shaped, grayish-green rind turns pink at maturity. Light orange flesh is thick and fine-grained with a delicious sweet flavor.

'Pencil Cob' Corn (100 days) - Plants of this open-pollinated variety grow 5 to 6 feet tall with 2-3 ears per stalk. Ears are surrounded by a thick tight shuck.

Tips for Growing the Three Sisters

Wait for Warm Weather: All of these crops are warmth lovers, so wait until all danger of frost is past and the soil is nice and warm before planting. While you can start squash seeds indoors in individual biodegradable pots about 3 weeks before the setting out date, these plants are not easy transplanters, and when direct-seeded in warm soil, plants grow quickly and often overtake transplants. Corn and beans should be direct seeded as well.

Prepare the Soil: While beans will provide soil nitrogen in succeeding seasons, make sure your corn has plenty for the first year by mixing in compost and a slow-release organic fertilizer before planting.

Plant with a Plan: There are no hard and fast rules here, so feel free to come up with your own design. But one plan that works well is to alternate hills of squash plants with hills of combined corn and beans. Start by planting hills of 8 corn seeds in a 6-inch square, with 2 seeds are each corner. Space these hills about 5 feet apart in the row, with 5 feet between rows. Thin seedlings to the four strongest, leaving one in each corner of the square. When the young corn plants are about 4 inches tall, plant bean seeds between them, thinning to 4 plants. In between the corn/bean hills, plant hills of squash at the same time you plant the bean seeds. Plant 4 seeds and thin to the 2 strongest seedlings per hill. Include at least 4 rows in your planting in order to get good wind pollination of the corn plants.

Help Plants Along: Direct your young bean seedlings to the base of the corn stalks as the plants grow. The squash leaves will help to shade out weeds as they grow, but keep down weeds around young plants and conserve soil moisture by spreading an organic mulch such as straw or weed-free hay around plants. This will also reduce the likelihood of rot on the squash fruits by keeping them from sitting directly on the soil.

Watch for Pests: Common troublesome pests on squash include squash bugs and squash vine borer. Check for masses of the distinctive shiny, oval, copper-colored squash bug eggs on the undersides of leaves and crush them to nip problems in the bud. Some types of winter squash such as Hubbard are especially attractive to squash vine borers. If these insects are troublesome in your area, grow less appealing butternut squash.

Corn earworm bedevils gardeners across the country. Foil this pest by dripping a few drops of vegetable oil in the tips of ears with an eyedropper as soon as the silks begin to brown. Help keep your beans disease-free by not working in the garden when plants are wet.

Question of the Month: Harvesting Winter Squash

Q: How do I know when my winter squash is ready to harvest?

A: Pick your winter squashes when they have fully developed the color for their particular variety, when the rind is hard enough that you can't dent it with a fingernail, and when the stem turns hard and begins to shrivel. But be sure to harvest before the first hard frost. Cut squashes from the vine, leaving 2 inches of stem. For the longest storage, cure squashes in a warm, humid spot for about 10 days, then store at about 50 F.

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