What is a 3 Sisters Garden?
A "3 sisters" garden is composed of corn, pole beans, and squash. These three vegetables are grown together in one space and compliment each other. Corn grows upright, providing a pole for pole beans to use as a trellis and grow on. Pole beans put nitrogen into the soil, feeding the heavy feeders, corn and squash. Squash grows along the ground in-between the corn and pole beans. Once established, the squash acts as a ground cover, keeping moisture in and preventing weeds from popping up.
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The Three Sisters Garden Story (leave this 3 spelled out for SEO)
It was an early Native American tradition to plant corn, beans, and squash together in one mound. The Native Americans referred to this symbiotic growing relationship as the three inseparable sisters who thrived when they were close to one another. The benefits of this tradition, along with other companion planting, continues on today.
How to Grow a 3 Sisters Garden in Zone 3
Growing a 3 sisters garden in northern growing zones is not always easy to do. Corn, pole beans and squash all tend to need over 60 days to reach maturity, and that is only in ideal growing conditions where the temperatures are warm and the soil stays warm at night. A cold snap will slow down growth significantly.
After many years of failure, I found a few tricks that helped. Keep in mind Google says I have only 57 frost free growing days, so I need to have a few tricks up my sleeve.
Use black plastic mulch to keep your soil warm - Corn, squash and pole beans all grow best when the soil stays warm, especially at night. The black mulch helps soil heat up more during the day and keeps that heat in at night. I did have to use a soaker hose underneath to water it well. The good news is that I didn't seem to have to water it more than once every 2 weeks.
Start the corn and squash indoors - I had heard is said that corn can not be transplanted. Well, I had 100% success transplanting my corn. I also had many people message me that they have been starting their corn indoors with great success for years. Some were market farmers who have been doing this on a larger scale for upwards of 20 years. I start squash in peat pots to help avoid transplant shock. You can find my indoor seeding dates here.
Choose corn, squash, and pole bean varieties that have the fewest days to maturity you can find.
Use a poly tunnel for the first 3 weeks these plants are outdoors - Open up the ends when the days are warm and close it up at night.
Plant corn in blocks of at least 3 x 3 - Corn is pollinated by pollen landing on the "silks" around it. Each kernel is attached to a string of corn silk. Corn ears to the outside of the block that you plant will often be missing kernels because they are not pollinated thoroughly as the plants in the middle. Always plant corn in blocks, not rows.
Starting the corn indoors also gives it a head start so that as soon as the beans sprout, they can begin using the corn as a trellis. When I planted corn and beans from seed outdoors at the same time, the pole beans grew much quicker than the corn.
Read my blog post on How to Build Row Covers to build generic, cost effective hoops over your garden bed that can then be used as a poly tunnel.
To find more plants that grow well together and benefit one another print out my free Companion Planting Guide.