University City

Planting the Three Sisters offers convenience, nutrition

The writer is Southeast Test Gardener for Organic Gardening Magazine.

Now that Tax Day has passed and Earth Day is here, it’s time to plant summer crops in University City gardens.

To celebrate America’s contribution to the world of vegetables, why not plant the Three Sisters, grown here for thousands of years by Native American gardeners?

The Three Sisters are corn, beans and squash. As still grown today – from mountain coves back in the Great Smokies to desert mesas in the Four Corners country to tropical hillsides in the Maya homelands of Mexico and Central America – the Three Sisters are a wonder of ecological agriculture.

Traditionally, the three are planted together, not in separate rows. The classic way is to make low mounds a couple of feet apart, then plant seeds for the three plants in each mound. The corn, sometimes planted earliest by a week or two, grows up to create a living trellis for the beans. The beans naturally enrich the soil with nitrogen to help nourish the hungry corn. And the squash rambles across the space between the mounds, smothering out the weeds.

At harvest time, there’s a second helping of balanced benefits. The protein and nutrients from the corn, beans and squash seed, eaten together, are of higher quality than those of each eaten alone.

Superficially, this resembles “companion planting,” in which gardeners use a list to select crops to grow together. For example, a gardener might grow onions and carrots together, because one supposedly helps repel insects and diseases that hurt the other. Similarly, you might avoid planting onions and peas together, since they’re said to be antagonistic.

Unfortunately, there’s not much solid scientific support for that practice, at least for one that relies on the lists available online and in best-selling books.

In contrast, the traditional Three Sisters approach to mixed plantings makes sense, both scientifically and practically.

Diversity is a hallmark of stable ecosystems in temperate climates such as ours in the Carolina Piedmont. For instance, our natural forests are a mix of oaks, sweet gums, maples, pines and other kinds of trees.

The Three Sisters mimic that diversity. Corn, a member of the grass family, has very different growth patterns and nutrient needs from beans, a member of the clover family. Squash, part of the cucumber family, has a third set of contrasting adaptations. The practical part is equally important. Since the three are afflicted by different diseases and pests, it is like a form of crop insurance: at least one is likely to make it to maturity.

Planting the Three Sisters is fun, too. For a garden-friendly local version, I suggest an old-fashioned “roasting ears” corn variety, such as Trucker’s Favorite, though Silver Queen sweet corn will do. Select a vining squash. My favorite is butternut, which naturally resists one of the banes of Carolina gardeners, the squash borer. My favorite bean is called a half runner. It naturally climbs halfway up the corn stalk, perfect for Three Sisters planting. Kentucky Wonder also works; just be sure to choose a climbing bean, not a bush type.

You don’t have to plant a fish with the seeds, as the New England Native Americans taught the Pilgrims. Just prepare the area using basic food gardening techniques, including a helping of compost.

When we would plant the Three Sisters at the Urban Ministry Community Garden, we sowed in mounds, then gently pressed the seed into the soil with our feet, “dancing them in” while chanting: “The Earth is our mother, we must take care of her – hey, nah-nah, hey, nah-nah, hey, nah-naah.”

Fortunately, University City is a reasonably tolerant corner of Charlotte. Front-yard farms, though still not common, are a growing part of our landscape. Whether it is the Three Sisters, a simple old-fashioned vegetable patch or a collection of containers and “raised bed” planters, planting some food in your yard is an ideal way to celebrate Earth Day.

To make the Three Sisters, or any food garden, more attractive, simply add flowers to the mix. My favorite additions to the Three Sisters are easy sunflowers, such as Autumn Beauty, and Tithonia, or Mexican sunflower.

A fine point for master growers: Wait on planting cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and okra until the soil warms up a bit more, later this month or around the first of May. For sweet potatoes, real heat lovers, I wait even longer, until late May or early June.

Make a note

• An Earth Day shout out to Garinger High School teacher Andrea Hendee and her Green Team of students, colleagues and community supporters. On April 21 they planned to bring gardening back to Garinger, including restoration of the school’s long-neglected greenhouse. That’s an Earth Day inspiration if there ever was one.

To learn how you can help, contact Hendee at or 980-343-6450.

• The annual “Can You Dig It?” community garden tour, sponsored by the county health department’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coalition, is coming up May 5. To learn more, contact Megan Dean at

or 704-336-5336, or visit