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

 
Posts: 254
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
 
pollinator
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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.

 
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Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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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.

 
Posts: 508
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.
 
pollinator
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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.
 
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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.
 
steward
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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.
 
pollinator
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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
steward
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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.

 
Posts: 231
Location: Dawson Creek, BC, Canada
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All the entires are 3 years old, but it seems the most appropriate.

I've read about mycorrizeal fungi (and I've spelled it wrong, and help is no help) participating in shifting nutrients between trees in a forest (sugar to one tree, something else to another).  Were indigenous peoples of North America taking advantage of certain fungal relationships with plants, possibly without knowing it?

For me, the idea is that we plant corn, and then after a while we plant beans and squash (or gourds).  And then we go away for the summer, finding our food elsewhere.  So the only deer protection three sisters has, is the thorny/rough texture of the vines?  That seems to suggest that some people never did go to other places to find food, that they had to stay at the winter home in order to scare deer away from eating their winter food.

I think something is missing in this.  Deer like to eat corn and beans.

 
Posts: 30
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You have to remember that they where doing thing in non degraded topsoil that was full of goocd microbes and nutrents. They could mine the soil in one spot for years before moving on.
Also deer where quite likley more afraid of humans then they are now.
 
Gordon Haverland
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I think I need more words. 

With respect to whether the beans are giving up nitrogen to the corn and squash, might be mediated by fungi in the soil.  I think some temperate rainforest in BC was examined, and they found fungi channeling nutrients between different species of trees.

---

In terms of deer predation of three sisters plots, I would agree that the deer would like have more to fear from humans then, as compared to now.  But, it is far more likely to find humans now.

As I understand these plots, they were left unattended for the summer and into the fall.  The humans got back anticipating that all of the crops had matured, and dried out (corn and beans).  To get back to the winter home, and find now corn, beans or squash could have serious consequences.

Would they have built fences?  What kind?  My guess is something vegetable.

Salvia seems fairly reliable in that it is quite aromatic, but would that protect a plot?  Something which would be sticky might be effective against deer, because then things could get stuck to a deer, which could result in them making more noise.  What makes the most sense to me, are alkaloid poisons.  The big reason is that animals like deer can become addicted to them, even if only browsing (at first).  While taxine B in yew is extremely potent, it would seem that it has little or no effect on whitetail deer.  Many of the indigenous have a long past with Datura.  I think the alkaloids in that group of plants tend to look like neurotransmitters (or brain chemicals in general).  Shift your perception a little bit with a Datura alkaloid, and then maybe the deer forgets what cyanide, or oxalate, or saponin is about.

 
Posts: 23
Location: Serra de Montemuro, Portugal
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I live in an entirely different part of the world (central Portugal mountain) and the old (and new) folks of my village do a two sisters (sometimes three sisters) with corn and beans and what they say that the system is good especially for the beans. They don't do that for the corn. For some of them, the only reason they do plant corn is to get better beans....They say that one of the reason to do this two sister system is that they need to water less. And off course they also don't need to put poles for the beans (if using pole beans). Anyway I will give it a go using also squash in the middle...
 
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Gordon Haverland wrote:
As I understand these plots, they were left unattended for the summer and into the fall.  The humans got back anticipating that all of the crops had matured, and dried out (corn and beans).  To get back to the winter home, and find now corn, beans or squash could have serious consequences.



I'm no expert in, well, anything, but this wasn't the case at all for the nations in the Northeast.  Of those, I know the most about the Lenape because I have an interest in local history and the Moravian missionaries--for all their faults--kept records that serve as a halfway decent ethnography (for the time).  The roaming hunter-gatherers east of the Mississippi were long-gone by the arrival of corn and squash; the people here were already living a horticultural lifestyle in villages for a few hundred (if not thousand; there's a place on the Delaware river that shows continuous habitation for 10,000 years) years before corn made it here.  I don't know a lot about the cultures and lifeways of the nations of the Great Plains, but I assume that they lived a much different lifestyle before contact, certainly before horses.  They're the only groups I can think of that still lived the nomadic lifestyle up to and past the point of European contact. 

From my understanding, people came and went in the villages here all the time; smaller groups (2-10 people) constantly went off and did their thing (hunting/ fishing/ collecting wild food, collecting materials for crafting, visiting family, trading).  More people (20+) would go to the temporary camps for the big events, like the shad run, but there were always people left back home in the villages.  It was assumed by observers at the time that agriculture was all women's work, but I've read elsewhere that that wasn't the case; the observers were there at the wrong times and only observing the upkeep stuff like weeding anyway, not the clearing, planting, and harvesting.  They also grew different varieties of each plant for staggered harvests and ate them at different stages (baby corn, green [sweet] corn, dried corn [flour, flint, and popcorn]; green beans, shell beans, dried beans; baby squash and gourds, then mature fruits), pretty much like gardeners and subsistence farmers do today--they didn't just set it and forget it and harvest it all at the end of the season like modern ag (though the bulk of certain varieties were strictly for storage, with only the thinnings being used as fresh foods). 

I'm skeptical that anyone would plant a full field and just walk away for a season, expecting it to be there when they returned.  Too much can happen--hail, herds of grazers, drought, insect plague, whatever--and investing that amount of time and resources into something so fragile just to leave and come back doesn't seem like a good survival strategy.  Every pound of seed planted is a pound that could be eaten; they wouldn't give that up so easily.  If you have something you know is going to make big food, you protect that thing (we see examples of it in every indigenous culture the world over; parables against overharvesting and not fouling the land).  Maybe planting small patches of perennial foodstuffs/ self-seeding annuals along established migration routes, but not the kind of annuals like corn and beans that arose from intensive cultivation and need it to thrive.  I don't know a lot about the archaeology, but most of the first-hand accounts and descriptions are from after there was already significant alteration to traditional ways of life because of the European incursion.  A lot of those accounts were written with a certain agenda, or at the very least through a certain lens that distorted everything the observer had no cultural basis of understanding for.  First-hand accounts from actual native people from anywhere but the far West aren't even a completely accurate picture because in many cases, they were already generations removed from pre-contact lifeways and had been forcibly moved through a few different regions/ environments since then.  The Lenape are a perfect example of this; they were forced through a number of unique biomes until they got to settle where they are now, having to adapt their practices to each new place along the way (if they were even given the opportunity to grow food; many weren't).

I would think a nomadic group that grew staples (rather than traded for them) might have a seasonal camp near the growing area to keep an eye on it while taking advantage of the other nearby resources (whatever they might be).  Probably a good place to park the older people and pregnant/ nursing mothers while the more mobile members of the tribe did the big hunting.  That's just speculation based on the smattering of modern and historical anthropology I do know about from National Geographic, though, so big grain of salt. 

I could be totally wrong about all that.  Like I said, my narrow range of focus has always been the Lenape since I'm squatting on their land.  Some of them built walls or palisades around their fields, some didn't; it's hard to say if it was a historical practice for pest control or a reaction to all the war going on all the time, or if lack of fencing meant the village was too new for that infrastructure.  Many of the villages observed in the early Colonial period were closer to refugee camps than stable, there-for-generations settlements because of disease and European expansion along the coast.

One other thing I remember reading about how they grew corn: in the hills, the corn was seeded in clumps so it grew outward like stands of grass, rather than just single-spaced plants.  So, you'd have a clump of like five plants that were each 8-10' tall in some cases.  The dry corn yields per acre were estimated to be better than what European farmers were getting with their plowed rows, and was overall less labor-intensive (though it's very possible the work was just not observed and therefor assumed not to have happened).  They also utilized burning to clear fields, but I don't know if that was an initial thing, or an every year thing.
 
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