The Three Sisters a Foodscaping project

three sisters

Your first ‘foodscaping’ project

So you want to start an edible garden & foodscape your green space? Here’s a great place to start for beginners and professionals alike. Finding a starting point for any project can be tough so here at the Backyard Farmer we have outlined the first project to get you going.

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The three sisters is perfect if your garden is a small space or yard space is limited. It is also low maintenance as the ‘Three Sisters’ utilises something called companion planting.

Companion planting

This technique is where plants are grown close to other plants that can benefit them or each other during their life cycle. Another example of companion planting is mint alongside tomatoes or carrots. The scent confuses insects that feed on vegetables such as alliums and brassicas.

The story of the ‘Three sisters’ and the legends

The Three Sisters legends

If you are into growing vegetables it is likely you have heard about the ‘three sisters’ before. The 3 sisters is a method of growing vegetables that was used widely by the North American tribes, before colonialism.

The three plants used support each other in various ways, the main benefits are added nitrogen to the soil, support for the beans and shade preventing weeds and evaporation around the plants.

A young sweetcorn plant

What are the ‘Three sisters’ plants?

The three sisters are 3 plants:

  1. Pumpkins or squash – whatever type you see fit, mixes are allowed
  2. Green Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) – any form of green beans
  3. Corn or sweetcorn – use one type or vary them accordingly

The tribes of pre-colonial America would use a variety of vegetables within the families mentioned. Different tribes will have had some specific practices but the method is quite flexible overall. This allows for variety which is more enjoyable but also better for our health.

The jobs for each plant allow for a good harvest from each plant whilst remaining relatively low maintenance to keep going.

Pumpkins & Squash have big sun leaves, these leaves provide shade to the base of all 3 plants. This helps reduce weed growth, lessens evaporation of water around the roots and keeps the soil cool.

A bean plant in flower

The Green Beans role is to provide a source of nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is essential as it is a major component of chlorophyll, the compound by which plants use sunlight energy to produce sugars from water and carbon dioxide

Corn provides support & structure for the nitrogen giving bean to grab onto and grow.

Can I plant the 3 sisters in the UK?

Planting the three sisters in the UK is not only possible, the combination thrives in the seasonal climate. The method originated in the pre European North American civilizations, an area with a similar climate to Britain.

Although our native species vary slightly, the families of vegetables used in the ‘Three Sisters’ are available globally, especially in the 21st century. To get a head start, in the cooler months of spring you can germinate and plant your corn inside, transferring outside when its warmer.

Download a .pdf diagram of the ‘Three Sisters’ planting technique

Feel free to take a copy, or to download this infographic of a ‘Three sisters’ planting diagram right here. This simple and informative infographic will help you plan and execute your first foodscaping project.

What type of beans should I use for the ‘Three Sisters’?

The traditional beans for most three sisters planting techniques are ‘Pinto beans’, these beans would have been what was available to most of the tribes across the North American continent. However, the Pinto beans are the same as any other bean in that it returns nitrogen to the soil and climbs.

As long as the species of bean you choose grows by climbing and returns nitrogen to the soil you can use them.

Some beans grown in our 3 sisters set up at The Backyard Farm

What type of corn should I use for the ‘Three Sisters’?

The main types of corn grown these days are sweetcorn, popcorn, flour corn, dent corn flint corn or pod corn. Most people growing the 3 sisters combination will be growing sweetcorn as this is most commonly used alongside the other vegetables grown.

Could I plant dried or fresh corn kernels from food?

Yes you can, if your stuck for some money and have they laying around then its better than nothing. However corn seeds are not very expensive and can be found in any garden centre or online shop.

By buying seeds you also have control over the seed quality, kernels from food stuffs may not be the best genetics for growing.

To get your corn going it needs warm temperatures, around 60f. Any less than 50f will cause the seeds to rot and fail. It is a good idea to start them indoors or in a green house during the colder months in Britain.

Pre soak seeds/kernels for around 8 hours, this will give the seeds a better chance at germinating in the soil. It also saves the soils moisture for growing, once they’ve soaked they’re ready to be planted straight into the ground or germinated indoors.

Soaking dried corn kernels before planting

What squash or pumpkin is used for the ‘Three Sisters’?

Depending on the tribe & time of year would dictate what squash or pumpkin to use. There are so many variations of pumpkins and squash that it would be a huge list to name them all. The important thing to note again is function.

The majority of pumpkin and squash plants have large sun leaves, these leaves are whats needed to provide shade to its sisters. During spring and summer use your local summer squash, and maybe use a winter type if your planting later in the year. Lets not forget, you can always mix and match the types of squash and pumpkin you grow, as long as they provide shade.

Variations of the ‘Three Sisters’

There are 3 distinct variations of the 3 sisters that were used in different parts of pre colonial USA. There was ‘The Wampanoag Method’ which was commonly taught to the first European settlers. The Hidatsa Method which was more suited to the flood plains of Missouri & The Zuni Method from the more arid regions of the American plains. (1)

Three sisters corn, beans & squash recipe

The other great thing about the three sisters is that once you’ve grown everything, you can eat it! Granted you can make what you like either using the produce together or separately OR you can make a stew.

The three sisters stew is one of the nicest most wholesome stews you can eat that doesn’t contain meat or dairy! That’s right, it’s technically Vegan. Don’t let that fool you tough, a three sisters stew is one of the tastiest around. Just check out this recipe with over 5 stars and 1.1K reviews on Google! –

Did you know?

If you haven’t had quite enough information today, here’s some more! Did you know that in South Korea alone, there are more fried chicken restaurants than there McDonald’s worldwide!!

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