Growing the ‘Three Sisters’
This spring, a group of local media toured the Oneida Tribe’s Tsyunhehkwa Center. Pronounced Joon-henk-wa, the center means “life sustenance” in Oneida and is dedicated to perpetuating traditional indigenous agriculture.
Ted Skenandore, farmer at Tsyunhehkwa, showed us a beautiful example of the companion planting method of the “Three Sisters” in which corn, beans and squash are planted together.
The three plants grow in a special relationship to one another and help each other by maximizing growing conditions. American Indians developed this system to provide food for a balanced diet from a very small plot of land.
"Each of the crops benefits the others," Skenandore said. The tall corn stalks provide a support structure for the climbing beans. The beans return nitrogen-rich nutrients to the soil. Squash provides a dense ground cover that helps retain moisture and shade out weeds that would compete with the corn and beans.
It’s fascinating to see this close up. It means no chemical pesticides, herbicides or petroleum-based fertilizers are used. Companion growing is more labor intensive in the short term, but better for the earth in the long haul.
Sustainable agriculture is a key part of the Iroquois culture. The Oneida Tribe makes its demonstration plots available for visits by community and school groups. Home gardeners are rediscovering the benefits of companion planting for these and other crops. This knowledge, coupled with a long tradition of native folklore, is being used to improve home garden production.
At www.nativetech.org, I found these instructions for growing the “Three Sisters.”
1. In late May or early June, hoe up the ground and heap the earth into piles about a foot high and about 20 across. The centers of your mounds should be about four feet apart and should have flattened tops.
2. First, in the center of each mound, plant five or six corn kernels in a small circle.
3. After a week or two, when the corn has grown to be five inches or so, plant seven or eight pole beans in a circle about six inches away from the corn kernels.
4. A week later, at the edge of the mound about a foot away from the beans, plant seven or eight squash or pumpkin seeds.
5. When the plants begin to grow, weed out all but a few of the sturdiest of the corn plants from each mound. Also keep the sturdiest of the bean and squash plants and weed out the weaker ones.
6. As the corn and beans grow up, make sure that the beans are supported by cornstalks, wrapping around the corn. The squash will crawl out between the mounds, around the corn and beans.