The three sisters in my garden

By Jack Elliott
Rainy River correspondent

Before the colonization of North America by Europeans, Indigenous agriculture was wide spread but did not resemble the vast intensive agriculture of today nor the settled agriculture of many European cultures. Certainly agriculture of some Indigenous cultures like the Mayans was intensive and the settlements were permanent. But many North American tribes were nomadic or semi nomadic with locations that followed seasonal game and local food gathering like wild rice in the lake Districts of Northwestern Ontario and Minnesota.

However, three of the crops that were cultivated extensively were corn, beans and pumpkins or squash. Collectively they were known as the ‘three sisters’ because of the way they were produced. These three very different species were interplanted and provided the following benefits.

First once planted the crops could basically be left to grow and mature without further attention requiring little labour and fitting well with the semi –nomadic and seasonal migration of the people. Agronomically, the corn provided a stem for the climbing beans while the beans as a legume fixed nitrogen from the air into the soil to benefit the corn. The pumkin/squash vines spread throughout the patch as the season progressed shading the ground and surprising weed growth while allowing the corn to benefit from conserved moisture while the vines themselves benefited from a central deep root system.

Indigenous Tribes used this agricultural practice in much of eastern and central North America to produce food staples. Corn, beans and pumpkins (squash) were interplanted to produce crops that required a minimum of care while tribe mem- bers seasonally migrated to other areas for other food gathering activities. – Jack Elliott photo

As the crops matured the pods on the bean plants were suspended up on the corn stalks where they could mature and dry without rotting. This could be important in years of wet fall weather. Harvest would be made easier by frost killing back the vines exposing the pumpkins and beans as well as drying down the corn. Early snow would not destroy the corn or beans.

But does it work? I tried it this year and it does work. I planted my corn early and cultivated it a bit after it sprouted. Then I planted the beans in the corn row when the corn was up a few inches. And the squash I planted along the north edge at the same time as the beans. I admit I did a wee bit of hoeing as sisters Two and Three emerged, but soon tired of that, turned on the sprinkler (drought…remember?) and left things be.

The beans thrived and since they were a bush type rather than a climbing pole bean, they spread out on the ground and did not climb the stalks, but the vines were long and lanky and provided and abundance of wax beans. I’ve eaten my fill and then some.

The sweet corn is now ripe and delicious. So far the skunks, raccoons and other garden pirates have not found the patch.

And the squash is trailing all over the patch, up and through the fence, into my neighbour’s yard, covered the bordering shrubs and running interference with my lawnmower. Looks like lots of flowers have set so keep an eye on the patch and help yourself to some squash come September courtesy of The Three Sisters