Three Sisters

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A new feature in this year’s Humanitarian Demonstration Garden at Himalayan Institute headquarters in Honesdale, PA was the arrangement of the crops into country zones, designed to model crops and techniques  being employed at the community centers around the world. The “Mexico” plot featured an excellent demonstration of an intercropping system called the Three Sisters.

“The Three Sisters” is the Iroquois name given to a traditional planting system employed by numerous Native North American societies. Three key crops—corn, squash and beans—are planted close together so that each crop benefits from the others.

The spreading, big-leafed squash shades the ground, conserving moisture, inhibiting weeds and deterring pests.

The corn acts as a natural beanpole, while the beans contribute nitrogen to the soil for the other crops to use. Together, beans and corn provide a complete protein. In this photo, you can see the light green leaves of a bean plant growing at the base of the cornstalk.

By strategically planting the crops with the right arrangement and timing, a small three sisters plot is able to provide high-yield, highly nutritious crops with a minimal environmental impact.

At the beginning of the season, corn and squash are planted in groups on interspersed mounds. The mounds allow for a higher planting density and a more efficient use of space.

When the corn is at a certain height, the beans are planted around the perimeter of the corn mounds so that the vines can climb up the cornstalks.

Sunflowers are often planted along the north side of the plot. Sunflower is sometimes called “the fourth sister.”

Heritage varieties of squash and corn provided a beautiful–and tasty!–harvest.

Las Tres Hermanas intercropping system is also being modeled on our demonstration farm at HI Mexico, where all three plants are key sustenance crops.

If you’d like to try a Three Sisters planting of your own, read more about how it is done and about companion planting in general in this publication by ATTRA: Companion Planting: Basic Concepts & Resources.

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