Three Sisters

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Centuries ago, the Iroquois were among the early North American cultures who reaped the magic of a good garden. They discovered… that certain sister plants thrive when grown together. Corn prospers inside a cluster of squash or pumpkins, creating a sustainable ecosystem as beans grow up the stalks for shade, support and protection. The prickly squash also helps deter rodents and deer from munching the goods. These gardens are historically called the Three Sisters.

Today’s gardeners still enjoy the extra productivity that Three Sisters offer. The sisters promote each other’s growth and provide a high yield of healthy food, a beneficial alternative to today’s often low-quality industrial food. Three Sisters gardens can add beauty and offset lifestyle related pollution… and filter air, block wind and build soil.

We spoke with Renee Shepherd, Owner of Renee’s Gardens, in her Felton California office, in the Redwoods. She promotes non-GMO and organic vegetable, flower and herb seeds and is a master gardener. She offers a bit of Three Sisters history.

Shepherd: The Iroquois believed that corn, beans and squash were gifts from the Great Spirit and each watched over by one of the three sisters spirits, which is where the name comes from. And the planting season had a lot of ceremonies to honor them and connect growing with the spiritual life as the plants grew. From a modern point of view, its an ideal combination because the corn provides carbohydrates, the beans proteins and the squash provides vitamins and food and you can press the seeds for oil.

Shepherd sees the Three Sisters as more than just plants in the dirt.

Shepherd: What you learn is how to work with nature and be part of the natural process. And all gardening is like that. Its stewarding the land helping it to be fruitful and putting things back. And gardening is a lot of fun. It’s something you can do all your life and you can learn by yourself from experience or in community with other people. And it gives you a sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency and respect for nature so that you actually are in the moment. When you’re in the garden, you’re interacting with nature the whole time. Taking a hard little seed, putting it in the ground and ending up getting a big huge plant that you can harvest, eat the produce and save the seeds and make the cycle happen again. Its just just being part of the natural cycle of life.

Melinda Myers, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is an award winning author, educator and radio and TV personality. She’s a hands-on horticulturist who has been spreading the good word about gardening for over 30 years.

Myers: These three vegetables provided much, if not all, of the nutrition that these Native Americans needed. And it also helped save the early American settlers. The corn provided support for the beans but the beans also prevented the corn from falling over. The squash growing in between these these two crops, acted as a living mulch. They shaded the soil, preventing the weeds, conserving moisture. The beans fixed nitrogen, they’re a type of legume, back in the soil that was used by the vegetables so that the crop would be ready for next year.

Myers says the Three Sisters gardens are sustainable.

Myers: Sustainable from an environmental standpoint because at the end of the season, those crops could be dug into the ground, adding organic matter which improves drainage and moisture holding ability of soil, adding nutrients for the future crops. Build mounds of soil about 5 feet apart, plant corn, about 4 seeds in each mound. When those plants are about 4-6” tall, you can add beans to each mound. And then plant squash in mounds in between those. And you can grow these three crops together without additional fertilizer, without a lot of extra work.

Myers sees gardening as a metaphor for healthy living.

Myers: One of the things that I like about the Three Sisters is I found that its a fun way to get children involved, adults and communities involved and it’s a very visual symbol of sustainability. And this is a great example of working together, just as the vegetables do, more productive garden, a more productive life and a better environment now and for the future.

Good Dirt Radio encourages you to find issues you care about and get involved. For more on Three Sisters and other eco-living ideas, please visit us at gooddirtradio.org.

With rising food prices and the dollars’ value dropping, growing healthy food is like growing money, an alternative to chemical and oil dependent, industrial food.

I’m Tami Graham and I’m Tom Bartels. Thanks for joining us on Good Dirt Radio, digging up good news…. for a change.