Earth Week Day 1 Continued...

The Three Sisters Garden

I was in college, volunteering with "Tamales y Bicicletas" when I first heard about the Three Sisters Gardens. They are a grassroots nonprofit, that is dedicated to strengthening Latino and immigrant communities through bike projects, green farming, cultural empowerment, and environmental justice. They were starting their garden projects for the year and I remember hearing them talk about the Three Sisters, well, I'm one of three sisters so was instantly intrigued. I've always enjoyed gardening, and been curious about indigenous traditions, so learning about this brought together three of my favorite things (family, gardening, traditions). That summer went quickly, and all of a sudden it was 4 years later, and I was in Senegal, West Africa with the Peace Corps learning about different sustainable gardening and agroforestry practices and the Three Sisters came up again. This time, I started researching it and analyzing it and experimenting with it. Many of the people in the community in which I lived already knew that these 3 plants grew well together, but I explained WHY they did. Most of the time the women humored me by listening, but just knew it to be so. Since returning, I've planted this combination only twice, once with great success and once with less. But I talk and think about it often. In the Farmer's Almanac it gives this explanation of how the sisters provide such a balanced diet and coexistence for each other:

  • "As older sisters often do, the corn offers the beans needed support. 

  • The beans, the giving sister, pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three. 

  • As the beans grow through the tangle of squash vines and wind their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the sisters close together. 

  • The large leaves of the sprawling squash protect the threesome by creating living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist and preventing weeds.

  • The prickly squash leaves also keep away raccoons and other pests, which don't like to step on them." 

I love this explanation, and I relate it back to my sisters and I frequently. This planting holds a special place in my heart for that reason, and it's complex history.  Many sources say that it originated by the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee people in the Northeastern part of todays United States. However, I have heard of the Anishinaabe planting this way in the upper midwest, and the Tewa in the American southwest, and the Mayan in Southern Mexico. Either way, it's been an important way of planting to create a full diet for civilizations for thousands of years. Today, it is still used by many, it's now a commonly taught practice in Permaculture teachings, in my Peace Corps training, and in community gardens as a prime example of companion planting.  I will end this by giving you three resources you can use to learn more or plant this yourself this year. 

Additional Resources for Indigenous cooking:

Information about native foods of Minnesota:


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