Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Growing 'The Three Sisters' - part 1

We grow squash, sweetcorn and climbing beans together in a circular bed. These three vegetables are The Three Sisters – the basic food crops grown by the native American tribes. Traditionally they are grown together – the squash leaves shade and protect the soil; the bean roots fix nitrogen in the soil; the corn stalks provide support for the climbing beans; and after harvest the corn cobs, squash and dried beans provide food for the winter months.

The sweetcorn that we grow isn't strong enough to support vigorous climbing beans, so a teepee of sticks is needed – but this ancient crop trio makes a dramatic display in our garden each year. And there's a bonus – we grow The Three Sisters on a mound of part rotted garden compost, after the crops are harvested (or the next spring) we dig out the contents of the mound and spread it onto the vegetable beds. The two year old compost, enriched with nitrogen from the beans, is dark and crumbly – perfect for conditioning the soil.

Here's part 1 of Magic Cochin's method of growing The Three Sisters . . .

Create a pit (it doesn't have to be circular, but this does have
advantages later).
If you're starting from scratch this will be hard work but worth it! In
the second year this will mean digging out the beautiful well rotted
compost, and the sense of achievement will out-weigh the hard graft!

Fill the pit with the contents of your garden compost bin, including grass cuttings, hen muck, straw and wood shavings. Mix it well – hens are very good at this – do you know the Scottish reel
'Hens March on the Midden' ? I came across it when my hero was the fiddler Aly Bain (rather than Donny Osmond like my peers) – I never mastered the fiddle but could just about play it up to speed on the tin whistle. Here's another great fiddle player Dave Swarbrick playing Hens March on the Midden with Simon Nicol on Guitar – a wonderful musical description of the under-gardeners compost turning technique.
(It's best if you can listen to the music and watch the under-gardeners 'on the midden' at the same time!!!)


Pile up the contents of the pit to make a low mound and cover with a layer of soil. Place a glass cloche (or a plastic sheet) on the top to help to get the mound to heat up.

Meanwhile, plant seeds of squash, sweetcorn and climbing beans so they are ready to plant out, I usually aim to do this at the end of May.

Part 2 to follow soon . . .
Planting out The Three Sisters


  1. The cards and seeds arrived today, thank you so much, they are as lovely as I had anticipated.

    I recollect seeing Carol Klien doing something similar in her Devon Garden;she attributed the method to native American Indians.

    She certainly got good results, I will be interested to see how your version works out.

  2. Celia this is wonderful. I've tried something similar here by substituting the corn with sunflower because we don't get a long enough or hot enough growing season to grow corn. This is really a great post with some excellent information. Thank you!


  3. I'm absolutely fascinated and want to try it immediately! My purple podded peas are making good progress. I might be brave enough to post about them one day.

  4. The good old circle technique! Much-favoured in the tropcs is the pawpaw circle, with small cucumbers in their dappled shade.
    Yesterday, I planted out some snow pea seedlings in a circular tub, but I'll have to construct a climbing support for them!
    (And the other Diane is on the button with sunflowers for her climate. Russian Giants are good for this.)

  5. Those look like really happy hens, doing what they love most! I am going to try the 3 sisters this year, I think I will wait until the corn has got a bit bigger (maybe 2ft tall) before I plant the climbing beans underneath them. I wonder if there is enough light underneath a block of corn to sustain a squash as well? I'll give it a go anyway.

  6. That is so interesting and your hens look really happy:-)
    Looking forward to seeing the other parts.

  7. Celia you are a neverending fountain of knowledge! Thanks so much for this idea, it's something I'm definitely going to keep in mind. I'm horribly behind, I haven't even started my squashes off yet, but this is a great idea for next year....or possibly even this year if I 'cheat'...

  8. Hey, I didn't know you were into the tunes! Cool! Aly Bain's a lovely player, though I don't know the English/Scottish/Shetland stuff nearly as well as the Irish, so haven't listened to as much....

  9. Hi Celia

    I have my seedlongs for this project and just need to remove the dead box hedging and dig the pit.

    Your instructions have come just at the right moment for me. Thank you so much!

  10. I'm also planning to plant a Three Sisters garden, for the first time. Your technique looks interesting...

  11. Hi Zoe - hope you enjoy growing the seeds.

    Diane - Sunflowers sound a great idea, and that reminds me I haven't sown the sunflower seeds yet!

    Gina - If you have the space this is well worth a try - it makes quite an impact!

    Dinahmow - I don't know if The Three Sisters were ever planted in circles, but you're right circular plantings are traditional all over the world.

    Hi Matron - I wouldn't plant the squash too close to the corn.

    Alison - this must be the under-gardeners favourite garden task!!!!

  12. Thanks for the Three Sisters explanation ---
    This is the year I'll be trying it!


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