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What do we really know about The Three Sisters??  RSS feed

 
Mike Haych
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Location: Eastern Canada, Zone 5a
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Most of the information available seems to be anthropological/archaeological. As a horticulturist, I'm interested in history but I'm even more interested in how things work. I know for instance that a nitrogen fixing cover such as Dutch white clover needs to be cut for the nitrogen to be released. I know that a cover crop such as peas needs to be cut before it goes to flower in order for the maximum amount of nitrogen in the nodules to be released into the soil. I know that if you let the plants produce peas, harvesting the peas also harvests most of the nitrogen. So I started thinking about the legume aspect of The Three Sisters. Is it the same with beans as with peas? It would appear to be - http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_a/A129/:

The amount of nitrogen returned to the soil during or after a legume crop can be misleading. Almost all of the nitrogen fixed goes directly into the plant. Little leaks into the soil for a neighboring nonlegume plant. However, nitrogen eventually returns to the soil for a neighboring plant when vegetation (roots, leaves, fruits) of the legume dies and decomposes.


For The Three Sisters to function as NA first people grew them, you would have to turn in the legume residue at the end of the season and plant again in the same place.

One wonders if NA first people were "fertilizing" as well. Anecdotally, there is Squanto at Plymouth in 1621 and there is a letter the next year which says : "We set last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and pease, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings, or rather shad, which we have in great abundance." Bur elsewhere there is: "The ground they never fatten with mucke, dounge, or any other thing . . . as we do in England." There is also archaeological evidence that the Iroquois and Algonquin practiced shifting cultivation as a result of soil depletion.

If there was shifting cultivation, where do The Three Sisters fit in? Chapter 7 is an interesting read - http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/staffpubs/docs/16671.pdf#page=99
 
Cj Sloane
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Here's a great article by toby hemenway: The three sisters or is it four?

Look at how many interconnections this guild bears. Beans furnish nitrogenous fertility for themselves, corn, and squash; squash shades soil for the benefit of all three; corn feeds the bean-hugging bacterial nodules and creates a trellis for the beans. Three plants, weaving at least eight connections. The Three Sisters guild is a perfect place to begin creating a richly connected garden.
 
R Scott
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They did plant in the same place every year, just like our gardens. I imagine everything was mulched/composted in place.

There are lots of technical details overlooked, like WHEN to plant each-if you just plant them all at the same time the corn will be shaded out but the squash or pulled down by the beans.

 
Terri Matthews
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Location: Eastern Kansas
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Somebody took the time to interview a NA gardener a very long time ago.

The thing is, they moved their gardens from time to time. So, if they did wear down the soil over a decade or so the soil would be rested when they moved their gardens. As for turning the legumes under, she did not. She cultivated with a digging stick: she had no shovel.

The Midwestern Natives were more gardeners than they were farmers. Yes they stored a good amount of dried corn, pumpkin, tobacco, sunflowers, beans, and such but hunting was vital to them. Many American farms relied on one crop but the Native tribes in the Midwest relied on crops AND hunting AND fishing AND trading with other tribes! Their gardens were a PART of their survival only!

However, in "Farmers of 20 centuries" the Orientals DID work the same land for generations. They managed, apparently, by composting EVERY scrap, and then side dressing the crops with compost. The streets were clean because every scrap of straw would be picked up, every rag, and the night soil as well would be gathered and used for the crops. And their soils stayed rich and balanced.
 
leila hamaya
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i always thought sunflowers were the fourth sister. usually i have lived in places where corn doesnt do well, and have used sunflower instead.

this year i am actually in a place where i can grow corn. we have some indian corn growing, we will see how it goes.

and yes agreed about your point about having to cut them down to get the most benefit of the the nitrogen fixing. i think the obvious way is to let some of them go fully, and cut down some of them and quickly mix them under or leave them chop and drop style.
 
R Scott
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What we call thinning is a method of cutting down for nitrogen. I can't remember where I saw it, but they described the three sisters with detail--including specifics on planting what sounded like too many beans and cutting them back at a late stage. The white guy made mention of it because it seemed very wasteful and silly to him.
 
Krystelle Ellaby
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My understanding is that the beans are left to dry on the vine and as the vine dies the roots release their nitrogen. Without the need for digging in or turning over. The dried vines are left to mulch/compost down with the corn stalks etc, on top of the soil. Cucurbits tend to suppress the weeds. Also there are the myriad benefits of any polyculture. The system seems complimentary, wonderfully simple and at the same time complex, building soil, encouraging and not disturbing soil biology, stacking functions and so on.
Disclaimer I live in the subtropics, and not having the seasons North America has, or being very familiar with native American culture, my understanding may be different...
Also: @Terri Matthews, I watched a Toby Hemenway video 'Redesigning Civilisation with Permaculture' where he discussed his opinion on the difference between "agricultural" civilisation and "horticultural" or "gardening" civilisations. He said permaculture was trying to emulate the gardening cultures because basically gardening good/agriculture bad This seems to gell with 'Permaculture One' Mollison & Holmgren's original study of traditional food systems.
 
John Polk
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My understanding is that the beans are left to dry on the vine

Correct. In fact, everything was pretty much left on the plant.
The 3 sisters were all winter food.
Corn and beans were dried for winter use. The squash was only cut once its growth was finished.

For proper saving of seed for any of the 3, it is necessary to let the fruits finish their maturation on the growing plant.
In its final spurts of life, an annual plant is transporting all of its energy to the seeds.
This stored energy is used by the seed in the spring time, once the weather has turned, to bring that seed into a new life form. Seeds collected 'before their time' (ie, an unripe fruit) will not have the vigor as a seed collected at its prime.

 
Krystelle Ellaby
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I wonder if 'mucke' specifically means human manure? In which case were the early Europeans flinging the contents of their chamber pots over their fields? And were Native Americans, individually digging holes and burying their waste, the way wilderness hikers do (should). I'm just speculating. Both systems would fertilise...

I'm just wondering if the notion that Native Americans Don't Use Poo is just ethnocentric "I haven't seen them do it, therefore they don't do it".
Much like Europeans decided that Australian Indigenous People Don't Farm. Problem was, the British Men spoke to Indigenous Men. Indigenous men wouldn't discuss Women's Business with any man for many cultural reasons. Even (especially) aristocratic British men with shiny uniforms, who regarded brown men and white women as their inferiors, imagine how highly they regarded brown women. (One of the many cultural reasons is that digging sticks really can hurt!) Indigenous agriculture was passed down from Aunties to daughters. (Aunty is an Indigenous respectful word for any older woman, related or not.) It was very strictly Not Mens Business. Mens Business was to go off and hunt or fish with spears or boomerangs depending on the culture. Women provided the bulk of the diet with net-caught fish and tubers, nuts and other foods. They managed the land rather than just randomly "gathering". A lot of knowledge was lost when Europeans asked the wrong people the wrong questions. (And then wiped out and displaced the people who had the precious knowledge.) Very much a case of "They don't do it the way I do it, therefore they don't do it. "

P.S. I'm a WASP and "Some of my best friends are white males" I'm not "male bashing" just 1800s British racist sexist bashing. It's a shared history and a shared responsibility... Also I went completely off topic and started ranting. I apologise.
 
William Bronson
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If one allows the beans to mature and dry on the vine isn't the bulk of the nitrogen going into the seed, with little left in the dead plants?
 
Krystelle Ellaby
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William Bronson wrote: If one allows the beans to mature and dry on the vine isn't the bulk of the nitrogen going into the seed, with little left in the dead plants?

Some is sent to the fruit, but there are nodules on the roots where a symbiotic relationship between soil microbes and the plant fix the nitrogen. Some of the nitrogen is absorbed from the air. Some is absorbed from the soil. These nodules release a lot of nitrogen when they decompose.
Just pruning a nitrogen fixing legume tree or vine causes roots to die off and the nitrogen to be released into the soil. This works best if the right bacteria are present, so some people swear by inoculation, others prefer to utilise native legumes. There are loads of articles on the interwebs.
My personal opinion, (the way I see it, this is what I think, ymmv, etc), is that someone somewhere inoculated the soil at some time. Especially if you live in an old agricultural/market garden area (I do). Livestock and Produce/feed Trucks driving through agricultural areas can spread weed seeds and diseases like Foot-and-mouth, I don't see why good bacteria wouldn't travel the same way. Also, imported seeds/beans in earlier centuries would not have been very clean and definitely not fumigated/irradiated, neither would livestock, livestock feed, imported farm equipment and imported farmers. I'm assuming the proper bacterias made it to the Americas and other colonies (I'm in Australia). So I don't bother to inoculate for my own garden. However, I would probably inoculate when propagating seeds sown in trays using a commercial potting mix that may not have live microbes in it. The mix I use at work and home is enriched with worm castings, manures etc, and not treated, so I'm sure it's full of life and has been exposed to bacteria at some stage. I'd be interested to know if hot composting kills soil microbes or helps them. I'll do a search on permies to see if anyones talking about it.
 
John Polk
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William Bronson wrote: If one allows the beans to mature and dry on the vine isn't the bulk of the nitrogen going into the seed, with little left in the dead plants?

I have read that if the plants are allowed to complete the cycle of going to seed, and you remove all of the seed, you have removed about 90% of all the nitrogen (and other nutrients). That 90% figure seems a bit high in my opinion. Regardless of what the actual value is, it seems apparent that without the fruit, less than half of the nutrients remain after harvest. Even those nodules have sent most of it to the seeds. The carcass of the plant has very little nutrient value for the soil after it has expended everything towards the seeds. Most annual plants are this way - they give up everything to further the next generation.

 
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