The Three Sisters

Not the Central Oregon mountains, but a blueprint for a fun family garden project.

HandsOn1The Iroquois of the Northeast pioneered a legendary planting system known as “the Three Sisters,” in which corn, beans and squash are planted together as a cohort. The idea is that each “sister” has a special trait that contributes to the growth of the others.

Tall corn offers support for the lengthening tendrils of her bean sister, who returns the favor by fertilizing next years’ corn. Meanwhile, back on the ground level, the lush growth of squash vines protect her sisters’ roots from the harsh rays of the sun and invasion by weeds. Below ground, the sisters’ roots grow at different soil levels, reducing competition for moisture and nutrients.

This reminded us immediately of the way our daughters complement each other with their unique talents and contributions. Abby and Mira, ages 5 and 3, fill different roles in our family, much like “The Three Sisters” fulfill different roles in the garden.


One sunny Saturday, our family got to work planting our own patch. We were glad of the opportunity to involve our kids in the process of growing our own food in an easy-to-complete project.

Editor’s note: This is a great summer project, but for best results, start it in early summer. So, clip and save for 2016!

What you’ll need:

fertilized garden beds


garden gloves and trowels


corn, bean and squash seeds

Step 1: Prepare The Soil and Planting Bed

Before we started planting, my wife Hannah had already added compost, tilled, weeded, and formed our garden into long raised beds. I had organically fertilized with a blend of fish meal and bone meal (about 1 cup of each per 10 sqaure foot) and installed a simple drip irrigation system. Having already planted a large patch of corn, we opted to substitute growing tall sunflowers. They would play the same supporting role to the bean sister, yet offer a different harvest of nutritious seeds and pollen for our bees.

Step 2: Planting The Seeds

The large seeds of The Three Sisters are easy for kids to handle, so this is where the girls really got a chance to participate. We put gloves on them, handed them trowels and briefly explained how the plants helped each other grow. We then showed them where to dig holes and shallow trenches, gently helping them shape the soil with our bare hands. We allowed them to sow thickly, figuring that we could thin the seedlings later rather than be too directive.

We helped them cover the seeds with soft soil and all patted the ground firmly with trowels and hands. We had planted only about 10 square feet, much less than the traditional method, but knew that it would soon grow more than we could eat.

Step 3: Watering

The last step is to simply water the seeds. Our littlest one, Mira, loves her tiny watering can, so she was the star of this step. I later gave everything a fuller soaking with the hose and watering wand.

Within a few days the first plump and eager sprouts emerged. We thinned them to one sunflower (or one corn) supporting two to three bean plants surrounded by two to three squash plants. Continue weeding until the squash gets established, and water about twice a week in summer. Harvest occurs as each crop ripens, in mid-to-late summer.

Even if you have only a small patch of sunny garden, this is a simple project you can do with your children. Every kid should know that food comes from the earth, rather than from grocery stores. We also know from experience that the vegetables your kids grew themselves will be much more likely to be eaten at dinnertime.

Robert Litt
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