Planting a three sisters garden is a great way to teach children about companion planting and Native American culture. A three sisters garden is the companion planting of corn, beans, and squash, and was used by the Native Americans for centuries before Europeans landed on their shores. Many Native Americans believe that the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash, were gifts from the Great Spirit, and passed down the knowledge of how to plant and harvest through celebrations and festivals.
The first sister, corn, grows in the center providing a pole for the beans to climb as they grow. Corn also provided most of the carbohydrates in the Native American diet. The second sister, beans, left nitrogen behind in the soil, making the ground more fertile. They also made the corn stalks more stable and less likely to blow over during strong winds. Beans are also very rich in protein. The large leaves of the third sister, squash, shades the ground to prevent the soil from drying out too quickly, and the spiny plants also detour predators from eating the crops. Squash added vitamins to the diet, and its seeds could yield tasty oils.
Instead of being planted in rows, the three sisters garden is planted in a circular form. In early spring the area should be cleared of rocks, weeds, and grass, and then the soil tilled to loosen it. The oldest sister is planted first. Plant the corn a foot to a foot and a half apart in a circular shape. Water the soil well, and expect the corn to sprout in two weeks or so. Once the corn stalks reach 10 inches in height take loose soil and mound it about halfway up the stalk. The beans are then planted about halfway down the mound from the corn. To encourage the beans up the corn gently begin the sprouts first wrap around the stalk. Squash can also be planted now or the gardener can wait for the beans to sprout. The last sister is planted at the base of the mound. The squash will grow both over and around the mound. Turning its vines towards the mounds will encourage its shading potential.
Harvesting the three sisters garden is done in the fall. To harvest the corn, first check the silky threads that protrude out of the ears of corn. When the threads are brown colored and dry the corn is ready to harvest. Remove the corn by holding the stalk just under the ear, and pulling the tip of the corn towards the ground. Gardeners can harvest the beans when they are fresh and crisp or after they dry on the vine. Fresh beans should be harvested when the pods are firm, but before the beans begin to swell. Squash is harvested only after its husk is completely hardened. Use a sharp knife to cut the stem three to four inches above the squash. The squash can be stored for a month or two if laid out in a single layer not touching each other.