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The Three Sisters - Connecting Land and People

By Ashleigh Smith, True Leaf Market
Photographs courtesy of True Leaf Market

People have been growing plants to sustain themselves, their families, and communities for thousands of years. Before we grew our food, we gathered it. Our dependency on food has created a unique bond between us as people and our environment. Without the ground providing life-sustaining sustenance, our communities wouldn’t be what they are today. Not only do we have a relationship with crops we grow for food, but these plants also have unique relationships with each other that allow them to produce and thrive together. This bond is greatly seen with the three sisters' crops.

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Indigenous Americans have grown corn, beans and squash together. While this practice started in the Eastern Americas, it continues to be used by many tribes. Corn crops play a central role in Native American culture. It is used for food, medicine, and the arts. Its versatility allows it to be used in many different forms. Corn can be eaten fresh or ground into flour and cornmeal. For this type of use, flour or flint corn seeds are best. This allows products like breads, tortillas and tamales to be made, as well as dried corn that can simply be added to soups and stews. Because the kernels can also be stored dry, they can be used throughout the winter. This contributed to the transition from a hunting and gathering culture to one of stability and community building. While corn has many benefits, it does not contain all the essential nutrients we require. However, it is extremely valuable when paired with beans.

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Beans are full of essential nutrients that contribute to a variety of proteins not available in other commonly grown crops. Just as beans provide nutrients to those harvesting them, they also provide nutrients to other plants grown nearby. This is why they are grown next to corn in this three sisters' relationship. Corn requires a lot of nitrogen to grow as part of the grass family. Beans, however, are a type of nitrogen-fixing legume. This means that they interact with natural bacteria found in the soil by transforming nitrogen found in the air into a form usable by plants in the soil.

On their roots, the beneficial rhizobacteria develop in nodules that can appear as bumps or bubbles throughout the root system. Throughout the growing season, this mutualistic relationship results in healthy soil conditions, greater corn production, and happy bean stocks. While corn relies on the beans for nutrients, the beans rely on the corn stalks for support. When growing the three sisters together, be sure to use pole bean seeds for this beneficial relationship. As the beans grow, they require greater access to light. Vertical stalks can provide this to the beans without their own growth being hindered.

You might be thinking, great, everything is taken care of. Both plants have access to nutrients and light. But there is a third sister that plays a very important role in this growing system. To prevent weeds and help cool the ground, squash is grown as a ground cover. The large, broad leaves create a shaded cover that reduces the vigor of competing weeds. Plus, it helps the root area to stay cooler than if the ground were to stay completely exposed to the hot summer sun. This means there is healthier root growth and greater water retention throughout the growing season.

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Winter squash, such as pumpkins, also contribute to a valuable harvest later in the season that provides food security to those who rely on their garden for sustenance all year long. Gourds can also be grown to provide a vessel for functional use around the home. While ground covers are often overlooked, they play a great role in maintaining a healthy growing space during the active growing season.

Throughout each season, it is best to keep your ground covered to avoid problems with erosion while continuing to build a healthy soil environment. Not only can spring and winter water erode soil away, but so can wind. Having a cover crop growing over the soil for stability between growing seasons creates a nutrient and beneficial microbe-rich environment in preparation for the next year's crops. Just remember, ground covers are for the growing season, while cover crops are grown before planting or after harvesting your food crops.

While corn, beans and squash can be grown on their own, they are stronger and more productive when they work together. This relationship was not only recognized in indigenous culture for its functional significance but also for its symbolic importance. The Iroquois people recognize the three sisters as both “physical and spiritual sustainers of life.” They are believed to be special gifts from the creator that connect people to the land. Learn more: www.trueleafmarket.com.

Ashleigh Smith is the Managing Editor at True Leaf Market with a bachelor's degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University - Idaho. True Leaf Market is a nationally certified organic, non-GMO seed and horticultural company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The True Leaf Market staff specializes in supplying a large selection of conventional, heirloom, and organic seeds to home gardeners everywhere. Learn more about our seeds, supplies, and other growing ideas: www.trueleafmarket.com.


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