Ecuador Gardening: The Three Sisters - Corn, Beans and Squash

Ecuador gardening: Most indigenous gardens include the Three Sisters, a symbiotic planting arrangement that has been prevalent in both North and South American indigenous cultures for thousands of years. These three crops, when planted together, support each other in many ways.

The Three Sisters are corn, beans and squash. Corn is planted first, placing 3 or 4 corn kernels together in a hole in each mound. About two weeks later, two to three pole bean seeds are planted near the corn and also squash or pumpkin seeds.

The corn is usually planted in short mounds only a few inches tall and twelve inches wide, set about three feet apart. The beans are planted at the edge of the mound and squash is planted in between the mounds. Zucchini is one squash variety that is not recommended.

Benefits of the Trio

The pole bean runners will be supported by the corn stalks. In return, the beans pull nitrogen out of the air and convert it to a form that can be utilized by all three plants. The corn plant roots discharge sugars that feed the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the beans.

Wide-spreading squash or pumpkin vines are very beneficial for the corn and beans. The large-leaved vines act as a mulch, retaining water in the soil and keeping down  weeds, grasses and other plants that compete for nutrients with the Three Sisters.

The outcome of the interactions of the Three Sisters is that planted together, they are all more productive and require less fertilization and water.

After harvesting, the three plants continue to give value, as long as they are left on the ground to return to the soil as decaying nutrients and helpful bacteria.

A Guild Makes Gardening Much Easier in Many Ways

In North America, this green trio is known as a guild in permaculture terms. A guild is any grouping of plants that promotes each other's growth and health in mutually beneficial ways. This propitious plant community makes the gardener's work easier, restores a natural cycle of plant life and offers additional benefits to other plants, humans, animals, birds and insects as well.

North American History of the Three Sisters

The Iroquois Indians of North America believed that the Three Sisters each had a spirit, called the De-o-ha-ko, which watched over them. This term meant "life supporter or sustainer", an apt term for the great value these three plants contribute to humans, themselves and the soil in which they are grown.

The Iroquois began planting the Three Sisters around 1300 A.D., importing the idea from South America.

The Iroquois celebrated the first corn of the season with festivities, rituals and story-telling. In this way, the planting wisdom is passed from one generation to another.

And of course, as legend has it, European settlers in North America were sustained with these edible gifts at the first Thanksgiving feast.

Ecuador Corn Ceremonies

In Ecuador, Gary and I have been invited to several indigenous ceremonies to celebrate the first corn of the harvest. These are usually simple affairs.

Corn is gathered and a meal is prepared in the field. We've been the lucky recipients of feasts that included boiled corn, beans, potatoes and soft cheese, without having to do any of the arduous labor involved. As in other parts of the world, these ceremonies of gratitude have been going on for untold centuries.

Squash seeds found in caves in Ecuador were discovered to be 12,000 years old.

By comparison, corn is thought to have first been cultivated about 2000 years ago.

The information on this page comes from these sources:

Gaia's Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway, page 184.

Eames-Sheavly, Marcia, "The Three Sisters, Exploring an Iroquois Garden", Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, 1993

Hays, Wilma and R. Vernon, "Foods the Indians Gave Us", Ives Washburn, Inc. NY, 1973

Renee's Garden site also has another set of instructions for planting the Three Sisters in your garden.

For yet another accounting of how North American Indians planted the Three Sisters, read this book by Maxi'diwiac , known as Buffalo Bird Woman, a member of the Hidatsa tribe. In the 1800's her gardening methods were written down and provide a fascinating record of Native American gardening techniques. She picked, dried and stored squash blossoms for winter food.

See webpage about Ecuador squash.

This internet article tells more about the North American legend of the Three Sisters from the Iroquois Indians.

Here are two sources of great seeds for planting and eating your own Three Sisters.

. You can order their seed catalog by calling  800-762-7333.

The Fourth Sister, the fourth member of the Three Sisters guild, is found in the Southwest United States. Her presence was very much intertwined in the lives of the Anasazi Indians and her primary influence and benefit is on the insect world.

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