Tag Archives: corn

The Three Sisters Garden Guide

The Three Sisters Garden has gained some popularity in recent years and for good reason. Unlike conventional agriculture The Three Sisters Garden works with nature to provide for the crops needs, keep maintanence low, and keep soil fertility up without the addition of chemical fertilizers. It’s was perfect for the Native Americans and is perfect modern organic gardener.

Before the advent of large agricultural equipment these features weren’t just nice and environmentally friendly they were necessary. Imagine gardening without metal tools, sprinklers or hoses, or commercial garden additives nevermind tractors and cultivators. The traditional Three Sisters Garden was easy to grow and provided the basic staples of the Native American diet. Together corn, beans, and squash provided balanced nutrition.

To plant a Three Sisters Garden the traditional way you should prepare a fairly large space. Corn needs plenty of plants in one area as it’s wind pollinated. In some cultures the space was circular to help with pollination. The corn is planted in hills about 5 inches high, 18 inches across and 5 feet apart. The tops should be flat to prevent rain water run off. These hills allow the soil to warm more quickly in the spring and allow for better drainage. Traditionally it was common to add some fertility to each hill like fish or fish scraps before planting. Unless you fish a lot, compost or manure will do for the modern garden. If using manure mix it with the soil or bury slightly so it doesn’t burn the plants. Plant 4 corns seeds in a six inch square in each hill.

Pungo Creek Butcher Dent Corn

Three Sisters gardening often works best with flint, dent, or flour corn varieties as they are harvested at the end of the season. If you choose sweet corn you’ll have to carefully make your way through sprawling squash plants to reap your harvest. Alternatively you can plant sunflowers in place of corn which was also done by some native cultures.

You can find Southern Exposure’s flour, flint, and dent corn varieties here. Native American varieties include Hickory Cane Dent Corn and Cherokee White Flour though other varieties work well too.

Once the corn is 4 inches tall it’s time to plant the beans. This is also a good time to give your patch a good weeding before the plants get large. Then you can plant 4 beans in each hill placing them 3 inches away from the corn plants completing your original square. They’ll use the corn plants as living trellis and provide them with nitrogen throughout the growing season. Corn is a very heavy feeder so sustained nitrogen is essential to a good crop. In choosing bean varieties make sure you purchase pole beans not bush beans. It’s also a good idea to choose native or heirloom varieties unless your using sunflowers in place of corn. Some modern bean varieties have such big vines they can be too heavy for corn plants.

Genuine Cornfield Pole Snap Beans

You’ll also want to consider whether you want green beans or drying beans. Some varieties are dual purpose. Most Native Americans planted and harvested their beans as drying beans so that they could be harvest in the fall and stored for winter use.

You can check out Southern Exposure’s pole beans here.

Once the beans have sprouted it’s time to weed again and then plant the squash. Planting squash too early can shade out beans before they have a chance to start climbing. The squash should be planted in the in new mounds identical to those that were for the corn and beans. Plant three seeds and thin to just two per hill. The squash vines ramble throughout the garden shading our weeds and keeping soil moist. This is particularly advantageous in areas prone to drought because corn also requires good moisture for good harvests. When the squash shows its first true leaves it’s probably time to weed again.

Choosing squash can be difficult because of the variety of options. Any vining plant (not bush) in the cucurbit family will do though most native american grew winter squash varieties and harvested all there crops in the fall for storage throughout the winter. At Southern Exposure our favorites tend to be moschata squash plants. These varieties are more resistant to the squash vine borer and can be harvested early and used in summer squash recipes or left to mature and harvested as winter squash for storage. Some people have also used cucumbers, watermelons, and gourds with great success. Just keep in mind with cucumbers and melons you’ll need to carefully make your way through your patch to harvest while the other plants are still growing.

Tan Cheese Pumpkin

You can find Southern Exposure’s winter squash here. Once again the moschata cultivars can be eaten early as summer squash or eaten as winter squash. These include varieties like Seminole Pumpkin, Tahitian Melon Winter Squash, Thai Kang Kob Pumpkin, and more.

While they are called Three Sisters Gardens many Native Americans included more than just three crops. For instance the Wampanoag people planted sunflowers on the North side of the garden so they wouldn’t shade the other crops but would help attract pollinators. Some cultures also incorporated pollinator plants like bee balm or other crops like tobacco or amaranth which is grown for its edible leaves and seeds.

Growing a three sisters garden can be an easy fun project for the organic gardener. It’s low maintenance and beautiful. Though most people don’t have to grow corns, beans, and squash as staples anymore it can be a great way to keep organic gardening techniques, cultural traditions, and seed saving alive and well.

If you’re having a hard time choosing plant varieties consider Southern Exposure’s Three Sisters Garden Package which includes Bloody Butcher Corn, Genuine Cornfield Beans, and Seminole Pumpkin Squash seeds plus a planting guide.

Sustainable Agriculture Research Stations

Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip.  Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.

North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.

There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.

A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.

Jeanine is the co-author of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. Her blog about the work at the Mountain Research Station is a great read. She’s a dedicated outreach person, and besides giving talks at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, she regularly speaks at many conferences, including this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 11-12.

A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.


Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!

Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.

Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years.  He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.

Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!

Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials.  Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!

Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.