Celebrate the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

Celebrate the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash
   by guest author Alice Formiga

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According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. This tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations. Growing a Three Sisters garden is a wonderful way to feel more connected to the history of this land, regardless of our ancestry.

Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops domesticated by ancient Mesoamerican societies. Corn was the primary crop, providing more calories or energy per acre than any other. According to Three Sisters legends corn must grow in community with other crops rather than on its own – it needs the beneficial company and aide of its companions.

Three sisters garden cornThe Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sisters spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko, or Our Sustainers”. The planting season is marked by ceremonies to honor them, and a festival commemorates the first harvest of green corn on the cob. By retelling the stories and performing annual rituals, Native Americans passed down the knowledge of growing, using and preserving the Three Sisters through generations.

Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following years corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure.

three sisters garden squasghCorn, beans and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. Finally, squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthful, delicious oil from the seeds.

Native Americans kept this system in practice for centuries without the modern conceptual vocabulary we use today, i.e. soil nitrogen, vitamins, etc. They often look for signs in their environment that indicate the right soil temperature and weather for planting corn, i.e. when the Canada geese return or the dogwood leaves reach the size of a squirrels ear. You may wish to record such signs as you observe in your garden and neighborhood so that, depending on how well you judged the timing, you can watch for them again next season!

seeds for a three sisters garden, historic seeds

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Summer Garden Cornbread
Pumpkin Cobbler
Renee’s Garden Chile

three sisters garden beansEarly European settlers would certainly never have survived without the gift of the Three Sisters from the Native Americans, the story behind our Thanksgiving celebration. Celebrating the importance of these gifts, not only to the Pilgrims but also to civilizations around the globe that readily adopted these New World crops, adds meaning to modern garden practices

Success with a Three Sisters garden involves careful attention to timing, seed spacing, and varieties. In many areas, if you simply plant all three in the same hole at the same time, the result will be a snarl of vines in which the corn gets overwhelmed!

Instructions for Planting Your Own Three Sisters Garden in a 10 x 10 square

When to plant:
Sow seeds any time after spring night temperatures are in the 50 degree range, up through June.

What to plant:
Corn must be planted in several rows rather than one long row to ensure adequate pollination. Choose pole beans or runner beans and a squash or pumpkin variety with trailing vines, rather than a compact bush. At Renee’s Garden, we have created our Three Sisters Garden Bonus Pack, which contains three inner packets of multi-colored Indian Corn, Rattlesnake Beans to twine up the corn stalks and Sugar Pie Pumpkins to cover the ground.

Note: A 10 x 10 foot square of space for your Three Sisters garden is the minimum area needed to ensure good corn pollination. If you have a small garden, you can plant fewer mounds, but be aware that you may not get good full corn ears as a result.

How to plant:
Please refer to the diagrams below and to individual seed packets for additional growing information.

1. Choose a site in full sun (minimum 6-8 hours/day of direct sunlight throughout the growing season). Amend the soil with plenty of compost or aged manure, since corn is a heavy feeder and the nitrogen from your beans will not be available to the corn during the first year. With string, mark off three ten-foot rows, five feet apart.

2. In each row, make your corn/bean mounds. The center of each mound should be 5 feet apart from the center of the next. Each mound should be 18 across with flattened tops. The mounds should be staggered in adjacent rows. See Diagram #1

Note: The Iroquois and others planted the three sisters in raised mounds about 4 inches high, in order to improve drainage and soil warmth; to help conserve water, you can make a small crater at the top of your mounds so the water doesn’t drain off the plants quickly. Raised mounds were not built in dry, sandy areas where soil moisture conservation was a priority, for example in parts of the southwest. There, the three sisters were planted in beds with soil raised around the edges, so that water would collect in the beds (See reference 2 below for more information). In other words, adjust the design of your bed according to your climate and soil type.

3. Plant 4 corn seeds in each mound in a 6 in square. See Diagram #2

4. When the corn is 4 inches tall, its time to plant the beans and squash. First, weed the entire patch. Then plant 4 bean seeds in each corn mound. They should be 3 in apart from the corn plants, completing the square as shown in Diagram #3.

5. Build your squash mounds in each row between each corn/bean mound. Make them the same size as the corn/bean mounds. Plant 3 squash seeds, 4 in. apart in a triangle in the middle of each mound as shown in Diagram #4.

6. When the squash seedlings emerge, thin them to 2 plants per mound. You may have to weed the area several times until the squash take over and shade new weeds.

Diagram showing Three Sisters Garden spacing

Links to Legends about the Three Sisters:

1. Bird Clan of E. Central Alabama: The Three Sisters

2. Cornell University Garden Based Learning: Three Sisters Garden- A Legend

3. MN State U: Native American Vegetable Contributions: Three Sisters Garden

References and Further Reading

1. Creasy, Rosalind, “Cooking from the Garden”, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988
2. Dodson, Mardi, “An Appendix to Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources – Ancient Companions. ATTRA: National Center for Appropriate Technology, 2002. Available at http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/complant.html#appCultivation.
3. Eames-Sheavly, Marcia, “The Three Sisters, Exploring an Iroquois Garden”, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell U., 1993
4. Hays, Wilma and R. Vernon, “Foods the Indians Gave Us”, Ives Washburn, Inc. NY, 1973

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Jane Mt. Pleasant of the Cornell American Indian Program 

The “Dirty Dozen” List of Most Pesticide-Heavy Fruits and Vegetables

Original article can be found here.

Dirty Dozen: EWG Releases 2013 List Of Most Pesticide-Heavy Fruits And Veggies

Unless it’s smothered in caramel or part of a sugary pie, we can’t think of many times when an apple isn’t good for you. But the ever-nutritious fruit once again tops a bad-news list that might make you consider it in a different light.

For the ninth year in a row, the nonprofit advocacy agency Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released their Dirty Dozen list. And apples top this ranking of the most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables.

The Dirty Dozen, part of the EWG’s annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, is determined from a field of 48 popular nutritious eats. Even after washing, 67 percent of food samples carried pesticide residues, according to the data the EWG analyzed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

While health-minded shoppers in the past may have balked at the price of some organic produce, the EWG notes a shifting attitude toward shopping. “When given a choice, more consumers are choosing organic fruits and vegetables or using EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to find an easy affordable way to avoid toxic chemicals,” EWG Senior Analyst Sonya Lunder said in a statement. “They want to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables without eating too many pesticides. And they want to support local farms and agriculture that is better for the environment.”

Pesticides have been linked to a number of health concerns, particularly development problems in children. They may also act as carcinogens or disrupt the hormone system in the body, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Of course, pesticide exposure is not a good enough reason to skip fruits and veggies altogether. “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure,” the EWG writes in the Shopper’s Guide. The guide can help you reduce exposure as much as possible — especially if you pick produce from the supplementary Clean 15, “but eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.”

Check out the 2013 Dirty Dozen in the slideshow below. Then let us know in the comments: Will you be going organic?


EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists

Cherry tomatoes


EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists

Hot peppers


EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists

Nectarines – imported


EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists



EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists

Sweet bell peppers


EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists

Kale / collard greens +


EWG's Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen Plus Lists

Summer squash +


Our chickens star in the Mar Vista Green Garden Tour!

2013-04-20 13.25.12Saturday, April 20th’s Mar Vista Green Garden showcase brought over 125 people to our Ashwood Ave. home, most of whom were drawn by our three “plucky” chickens, Original, Extra Crispy, and McNugget. With their moment to shine, the three didn’t disappoint, laying eggs, allowing themselves to be picked up and held dozens of times, and preening around to show off their fine feathers, and generally enjoying all the commotion swirling around them. It was amazing to meet so many neighbors and share ideas and conversations in such a great setting.

IMG951426In the front of our home, my wife, Alicia, greeted everyone with a warm smile and explained the ongoing transformation of our front yard from lawn to edible vegetables and native, drought tolerant plantings. She said our 1964 Aristocrat Lo-Liner vintage trailer even got a few looks and comments of encouragement. The sun was shining brilliantly and our community was definitely showed its best light all day long.

For those of you visitors who didn’t have pen and paper to write down our garden box recipe, here it is for you to print or copy…

You’ll need:

A raised bed. We make them out of Home Depot “seconds” lumber, which can be found in the back corner of most Home Depot lumber departments. This wood is 1/2 to 1/3 of the regular price and they will cut it to size for around 10 cents per cut. We use 2″x6″ pine boards, with 4″x4″ corner posts to hold it all together. If they don’t have a good selection of seconds wood, buying new shouldn’t be much more than $20-30.00 depending on the size you wish to make.

20130408_170103Once you have your box made, place it in a sunny spot in your garden and cover the bottom with a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard. There should be no dirt showing through. On top of the cardboard, add a layer of alfalfa, approximately 4-6″ thick, then a layer of straw up to the level of the top of your planter box (break it apart from the bail and spread it loosely). You can get alfalfa and straw at any feed supply store. Here in Los Angeles, we drive 15 minutes up the coast to Malibu Feed Bin, located at the corner of Topanga and Pacific Coast Highway. Sprinkle some blood meal AND bone meal, which you can find in any garden center or nursery, on top of the straw. No exact measurement, we simply sprinkle in a couple of handfuls of each. Finally, top everything off with a layer of garden soil. This can be dirt from your garden or a purchased bag, and you want to cover the straw so none is showing. As you apply the soil, the straw will compact down; however, don’t feel you have to add lots of dirt as you only need a few inches of it for planting purposes. Now, give the whole thing a good watering for 2-3 days so everything can settle in for a productive growing season.

Acquire your plantings or poke some holes for seeds and get to work! If using plants already in pots from your local nursery, dig down INTO THE STRAW AND PLANT THEM DIRECTLY IN IT. Once in, just move a little bit of soil to fill in the top to stabilize your seedling and give it a little drink of water. You may want to add a pie tin filled with beer at this stage to control slugs and snails. And that’s it! Water daily or run your drip irrigation lines into the box and watch in amazement as your vegetables take off like nothing you’ve ever seen.

2013-04-20 13.35.59As for you prospective chicken farmers, we can only say “do it!” We had zero experience when we took the plunge in May of 2012 and have never regretted introducing them into our lives. We will have lots more to say on the matter in future posts, but just know it is NOT that difficult and the rewards in eggs and experience are more than worth the effort. Feel free to contact us via e-mail at idenchasy@gmail.com if you want to connect and share chicken tips and tricks.

Visit: Growing Your Own Greens

One of our very favorite sites is Growing Your Greens, featuring John Kohler, who provides easy to follow videos on how to do all kinds of things in your garden. He obviously focuses on vegetables, organic urban gardening, and things you can eat, but most of his principles can be applied to just about anything that grows.

About Learn Organic Gardening at Growing Your Greens

Growing Your Greens is the most watched gardening show on youtube. It’s a fun and enlightening show on how to grow food at your home and beyond. John provides you with tips and tricks as well as shares his experiences growing food at his urban homestead. John is dedicated to helping you sustainably grow your own food in your front yard and beyond. Don’t forget to subscribe to keep up with all the latest episodes.

Visit Growing Your Greens YouTube page here.

Visit Growing Your Greens Website here.


Meet Our Chickens at the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase on April 20th!

April 20th is the date to mark to come to our neighborhood and see all the amazing gardens our fellow neighbors are cultivating. It’s the 5th annual Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase, which includes approximately 100 gardens all over Mar Vista showcasing vegetables, plants, flowers, chickens, rainwater reuse, sustainable practices of all kinds, and more! Here’s a video of Ian and his chickens, one of the many stops along the way and featuring an “egg-stra” special treat for those stopping by…

Welcome to our urban farm.

2012-12-12 13.51.45As in, literally, a project to turn our property into a living, breathing, working farm.

A few short years ago, we got tired to spending too much money at our local Whole Foods Market for healthy produce and watching our unquenchable lawns drink us into the poor house. At the urging of our good friend, Betty, we built a couple of planter boxes to attempt to grow some vegetables, converted our front yard to low water succulent plants, and tried our hand at shopping yard sales and thrift stores to find items on the cheap instead of paying retail at our local Target and Costco.

And while it hasn’t been easy, and we have yet to replace our trips to the grocery store, we have certainly gained much more than a few tomatoes, summer squash, and lower water bills. Our experience in cultivating our tiny, 120×40 foot Mar Vista property has brought us in touch with our land and given us appreciation for what’s been lost in the modern era of convenience, speed, and over stimulation brought about by our technology driven society. In fact, we’ve met hummingbirds that now regularly visit our plants for a drink of nectar, bees cruising through our lavender, worms toiling beneath our soil, and Monarch butterflies nesting in our milkweed as they migrate south. In early 2012, we welcomed our first chickens – Original, Extra Crispy, and McNugget – to our family and they’ve rewarded us with dozens of eggs and morning wake up calls no alarm clocks can match!

It is our hope that this site will bring as much, if not more, information and advice than we can dispense so that our urban farm can become even more productive in the years to come. Please do not hesitate to leave your comments, questions, and tips on this site and we welcome you to come and visit if you’re in our neighborhood and say hello to the hens, who now crave as much attention as most children.

Ian, Alicia, and Kealii
Urban Farmers, Mar Vista, CA