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The simple beauty of The Three Sisters garden

Posted 1/22/2009

By Leslie Allen

Last summer I had the opportunity to visit the Midwest for the first time. I travelled to Decorah, Iowa, to attend the Seed Savers Exchange annual conference. Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom and heritage varieties of fruit, flowers and vegetables.

While there I discovered the many variations of Three Sisters gardens that Native Americans grew throughout the United States. The Three Sisters garden is a special way of growing corn, pole beans and winter squash, and its first use can be traced back to the Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee as they referred to themselves, is comprised of six nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. The people of these nations lived primarily in the northeastern United States and were successful farmers. One of their lasting contributions to American agriculture is the Three Sisters garden.

The Three Sisters garden is special because the plants mutually benefit each other as they grow. The corn provides a living trellis for the pole beans, the pole bean roots have beneficial nitrogen-fixing bacteria that provide nitrogen to the soil and the squash provides living mulch. The three plants create a synergy that produces a greater yield, increased nutrition and more food calories than if only one of the crops was grown alone in the same space.

The Haudenosaunee did not have sophisticated testing equipment to teach them about nitrogen-fixing bacteria or how mulch conserves water. They discovered that beans increase the yield of corn through trial and error. They also found through observation and experimentation that the third sister, squash, not only helped retain soil moisture and suppress weeds, it’s prickly leaves and stems deterred some critters from raiding the crops.

While I learned about this incredible agricultural ingenuity, I learned that it was shared by many Native American nations. As popularity of the Three Sisters garden spread across the U.S., its arrangement varied in different regions. The original layout of the garden was in a circle with corn and beans together in one hill and squash planted in alternate hills. But native people living on the Great Plains planted the garden in a rectangle. In the Southwest, a cross was the preferred garden design.

Southwestern tribes even added other sisters (and brothers) to the plant mix. The most popular addition was a variety of peppers. Some ethnobotanists call the addition of the pepper as the "spicy brother." The Anazasi added a fourth sister — the bee plant or Cleome serrulata — to improve pollination of the beans and squash.

The addition of these plants underscores the importance of the original trio of plants to the health and nutrition of Native American people. Succotash, a traditional Eastern U.S. dish, is comprised primarily of Three Sisters plants. In the Southwest, tortillas are made from corn, and spicy bean and squash stew is a winter staple.

As you consider what to plant in your garden next year, take a look at growing a Three Sisters garden. You may discover a connection to your garden that has deep roots in American tradition and history. If you want to grow some of the same varieties as Native Americans, check out the Seed Savers Exchange Web site.

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