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Heirloom Crop Varieties for a Three-Sisters Garden?

Posts: 26
Location: Wisconsin
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Hello, I started my first garden last summer, and I enjoyed it a lot. I want to try having a three-sisters or four-sisters garden next Spring. I'm a bit of an amateur historian, and growing heirloom crops, especially those grown by Native-Americans, are interesting to me.

I've read up on it, and I'm looking into traditional Ho-Chunk/Winnebago planting methods and varieties. I live in ex-Ho-Chunk territory. So far, hours of internet-searching hasn't revealed anything about their traditional agricultural methods other than that they planted corn, squash, and beans.

Since I live in southern Wisconsin, varieties like Mandan Bride, and Oneida White are potential candidates. I don't know if Oneida white is sold outside of the Oneida community. I would like to plant Cherokee Trail of Tears beans if they taste like black turtle beans (my favorite type of beans).

Have you tried to grow a three-sisters garden yourself?

What heirloom varieties of corn, squash, and beans have you had the most success with?
Posts: 150
Location: 48°N in Normandie, France. USDA 8-9 Koppen Cfb
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Hi Phil,

A few years ago I came across a download on the ATTRA website about companion planting. By chance its Appendix  'ancient companions'  inspired me to try out the 3 sisters for myself. In trying to track down that pdf link for you, I found instead, its 2016 update Here
The update now contains even more good info about companion planting, biopesticides, interplanting etc and the original appendix about the 3 sisters with its suggested heritage breeds, and garden layouts.

Links I found mentioning Ho-Chunk
but no planting diagrams unfortunately

My own experience:
2016 I trialled a 2m x 2m(6'x6') plot, using the Hidatsa Garden Design (check out that document for layout) I grew Hopi blue corn on 4 mounds, Sibley storage squash on S E and W sides, a 'butter bean' type bean I bought from my local market and along the North side, Sunflowers.
I started all the crops inside. Straw mulch was applied to the plot and the plants transplanted into compost mounds as per the instructions, after the last frosts (mid may here in Normandie) We have have a lot of mice and vole activity - I didn't think the seeds would survive their foraging, plus the Hopi blue needs a longish season and our first frosts can be as early as mid October.   after initial 'watering in' everything was left to do its thing. This was probably one of the most productive little plots in our garden. In full sun, at the highest point of our property, It needed no weeding due to the squash going berserk across the plot (and then some), no watering (the plot is the driest part of the garden) and at the end of the season it was such fun discovering the ears of corn and the abundance of squash. The beans weren’t successful, few pods and few beans in them - I put that down to them being of dubious origine.  Plus, my timing was wrong - they outgrew the corn and got lost I think.

2017 we extended the plot into an L shape measuring 5m on its two long sides and 3 m on each of its short sides. Same Hidatsa layout - Hopi Blue Corn, Sibley squash (ditto) but left the beans out. Once again, no weeding, no watering after the initial ‘watering in’, and a bounteous crop - we ate the last squash in July the following year.

Also, in 2017, Different plot, full sun, 4m diameter circle, planted to Wampanoag design. This was grass lawn when we started: we aerated with a broadfork, laid cardboard and thick straw mulch, planted into compost mounds. Once again, lush growth, good yields with absolute minimum input of energy and water.

2018, tried painted mountain corn on mounds with squash and beans. Would not do that again! This variety of corn has such genetic variation, with small and tall plants, that in our climate, it needs planting as a block for self support. Many of the stalks were blown over by the wind, and though I did get a yield (which was an absolute joy opening those ears and discovering the diversity of colour) the plants were no way as strong and productive, with patchy pollinisation, and the squash struggled too. I can’t compare directly with previous years as I changed the plot. it was sunny and sheltered.

2019 I took a break from corn and planted squash on their own -they really struggled in the heatwave.

2020 I’m going back to 3 sisters +sunflowers! I’ll be growing Hopi blue corn, Sibley storage squash and Czar runner beans (seeds from a 3 year old volunteer plant). Czar is a variety that can be picked young as a runner bean or if left, produces an ‘almost as big as a butterbean’ dried bean.  I’ll be starting the corn and squash under cover, and direct sowing the beans, once the frosts are over. Will also try blocks of Painted Mountain interplanted with scarlet runners and a squash around edges.

My takeaway is that with the right heritage breeds, the 3 sisters guild is well worth planting - even on a small plot. There’s a synergy that takes my breath away. It never ceases to amaze me that despite the corn growing so tall, the squash find enough light to flower, fruit and ripen  - plus they crowd out the weeds :o)

In the absence of any Ho-Chunk planting diagrams, Phil, perhaps try out the different layouts in that ATTRA pdf and see what works for you?
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