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Logistics of 3 Sisters Garden

 
Brandon Greer
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Location: 1 Hour Northeast Of Dallas
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I've never successfully grown a 3 sisters garden (or anything for that matter), so I don't quite know how it will work out with regard to timing and harvests. As I understand I won't be able to venture into the mix to harvest anything until it's all finished so choosing the right plants and timing them correctly so they all finish about the same time is important.

Really all I know right now is that I am leaning toward Cherokee white flour corn. Some sites say it's 110 to 115 days another site says 120 days.

To my questions:

1. I've read that field corn is left in the field to dry before harvest. If the beans and squash are ready before the field corn dries, can the beans be harvested while leaving the corn in tact to finish drying? Or is that not practical? From what I understand it's just important not to try to harvest until the squash is ready because they don't like being stepped on.

2. Can anyone recommend a pinto pole bean that will go well with the Cherokee white flour corn?

3. When looking at the days till harvest for a dry bean does this include the drying period in the field?

4. I've read to plant the corn first, let it grow to 4 inches then plant the beans and squash. Does this sound about right?

 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Did any Native American actually plant a 3 sisters garden in the way the Internet rumors say they did?
Has any descendent of colonists successfully planted a 3 sisters garden?

I observe plenty of people writing about planting 3 sisters gardens with the crops all jumbled up together. I see few follow-up posts bragging about how successful they are... I have plenty of squash and bean weeds that sprout in the corn patch... One year I let them grow. It was a mess. Not something that I would do to myself intentionally. The vines smother the corn and pull it down. The corn shades out the other crops. The jumbled up mess interferes with weeding and harvest. The squash out-competes the other crops and robs nutrients from them. From what I've seen, I think that most people way over-plant 3 sisters beds.

I know one Hopi farmer. She plants corn, squash, and bush beans in the same field, but not all jumbled up one on top of another... I don't mind growing a row of squash next to a row of corn (6 feet away). By the time the squash reaches the corn patch the corn is far enough ahead to make a crop.

In my climate, I'd put Cherokee White Flour corn at around 120 DTM.

Ease of harvest depends on the size of the planting... Labor doesn't matter in small plantings. I grow around 500 squash plants per year, and 2000 beans, and 10,000 corn plants, so I don't want to fiddle with picking individual pods of beans from off a corn plant. When I plant beans by themselves I can snip off the vines, throw them on a tarp, and jump up and down on them to thresh. I am picking entire plants at once rather than single pods. It's really time consuming to try to pick a cob of corn that is laying on the ground wrapped in bean vines and obscured by squash leaves.

It's straight forward enough to pick beans or harvest squash out of the corn patch if the corn isn't dry yet. Flour corn, dry beans, and winter squash are crops that I typically harvest at about the same time due to frost, so damage during harvest isn't an issue.
 
Brandon Greer
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Location: 1 Hour Northeast Of Dallas
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I certainly can't speak from experience. I can only say that I kinda had hoped the rumors were true...it looks like a cool idea!

Ann Torrence here on this site did make a blog post (http://www.anntorrence.com/blog/2013/11/painted-mountain-corn-for-thanksgiving.html) which seems to record an account of at least moderate success.
 
R Scott
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Those that seem to have success pay attention to timing and maturity for their microclimate. Not planting all at once, but letting the corn get a head start and time the harvest to all be about the same time.

I haven't...
 
George Meljon
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Location: Southern Indiana zone 5b
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Turns out I just discovered a successful 3 sisters farmer this week. She was featured on the INHABIT permaculture movie - Salamander Springs Farm: Susana's Perma-organics.

Permaculture workshop slides 2014 jpg.031 by Salamander Springs Farm: Susana's Perma-organics, on Flickr
 
Ann Torrence
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Location: Torrey, UT; 6,840'/2085m; 7.5" precip; 125 frost-free days
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Beans that don't shatter (spontaneously open) is the key to harvesting this mess. I'm trying a bunch of new-to-me beans from Native Seeds/SEARCH, like this Taos red pole bean.

4" sounds about right. One great thing about that Painted Mountain corn is it can go into 50 degree soil. That gains me a couple weeks on the whole operation.

And Joseph is spot on - I do this in a space about 10x20. If I had to grow for subsistence or market, I would modify it for ease of cultivation, etc. From what I recall about the southwest natives who used similar growing techniques, these fields were planted before the monsoons of mid-summer, but then they went on their seasonal migration to higher altitudes, so the fields didn't get much tending until they cycled back in the fall for harvest.
 
Brandon Greer
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Ann Torrence wrote:Beans that don't shatter (spontaneously open) is the key to harvesting this mess. I'm trying a bunch of new-to-me beans from Native Seeds/SEARCH, like this Taos red pole bean.

4" sounds about right. One great thing about that Painted Mountain corn is it can go into 50 degree soil. That gains me a couple weeks on the whole operation.

And Joseph is spot on - I do this in a space about 10x20. If I had to grow for subsistence or market, I would modify it for ease of cultivation, etc. From what I recall about the southwest natives who used similar growing techniques, these fields were planted before the monsoons of mid-summer, but then they went on their seasonal migration to higher altitudes, so the fields didn't get much tending until they cycled back in the fall for harvest.


Do you know if rattlesnake beans shatter?
 
Ann Torrence
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Brandon Greer wrote:Do you know if rattlesnake beans shatter?

Nope, haven't tried them yet. Maybe you will and report back!
 
Selina Rifkin
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I did grow corn and beans together and while the deer got my corn - and there was plenty for them to get - the beans were very successful. I waited until the corn was a foot or so high before putting in the beans. I used speckled cranberry beans. http://www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/bean/Bean-Speckled-Cranberry-OG.html They a big, tender beans and the pods are gorgeous when they are young. I waited for them to dry (the deer apparently didn't care for them) and shelled them in fall. I'm going to try adding squash this year.
 
chad Christopher
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Coming from the region that three sisters originated, yes its very doable in the right climate. A common mistake is to use intensive gardening methods when trying to achieve a three sisters planting. Will not work, Intensively, the tree sisters systems where small scale, cleared forest openings, roughly planted, with tons of fish, on charcoal rich forest floors. And guess where you peed. Keep in mind also, the indigenous seeds. If you want to make a three sisters garden, i recommend this native American seed collector, breeder, and expert, http://goodmindseeds.org/
 
Alder Burns
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I have had success with three sisters gardens, and derivations on them, in Georgia for years. The main point to bear in mind is that the goal was durable, storable produce for winter use and beyond....in other words dry corn, dry beans, and hard-shelled winter squash. Yes, it grows up into an impenetrable jungle....that's the point.....the space is fully occupied, "stacked and packed", giving weeds minimal opportunity to get a foothold. You go in and harvest everything at once after first frost kills all the green growth down. The corn must be planted first, and I would say it should be a foot or two tall, before adding the others....but this is in the South with plenty of growing season....perhaps it needs to be closer together in time further north. The danger is the bean vines, or even the squash, overwhelming the corn before it gets a chance to grow up. Even later on, vigorous bean vines can break down the corn. So you need good old heirlooms with stout tall stalks....things like "Hickory King" or "Sweet Bay". Wimpy 5 foot sweet corns or short hybrid popcorns and such like won't do. Layout helps too. Don't plant the corn in rows. Plant it in "hills"....that is, groups of 3-4 stalks together, then leave 3-4 feet of space either way to the next hill. The bean vines tangle the stalks together and make a strong support. If your beans look extra vigorous and likely to break the corn down, tying the cornstalks together near the top, sort of like a tipi, adds extra strength.
When you have it down, it's a fun design to play with, changing spacing, planting times, and adding or substituting other things.... Largely it's a matter of architecture, and similar plants can be added or exchanged as desired. Sunflowers, especially the tall ones, might have been used traditonally, and fit in very well, making a stronger support for beans than corn does. Vining cowpeas do as well, or even better (especially far South) than ordinary dry pole beans....they seem more tolerant of rain and humidity as they are maturing. The ground cover can be just about any cucurbit, although most of the others (melons, etc.) need to be harvested fresh which means thrashing in there to pick them. So plant them along the edges of the patch. Sweet potatoes are another possibility....... The Central American version of this idea is called milpa, and just about everything went into it....tomatoes, peppers, and such, and tropical perennials like banana and papaya and sugar cane, which eventually filled up the space while the annuals went on to a new plot......
 
Brandon Greer
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Thanks for all the latest replies. Great info!

Alder Burns wrote:I have had success with three sisters gardens, and derivations on them, in Georgia for years. The main point to bear in mind is that the goal was durable, storable produce for winter use and beyond....in other words dry corn, dry beans, and hard-shelled winter squash. Yes, it grows up into an impenetrable jungle....that's the point.....the space is fully occupied, "stacked and packed", giving weeds minimal opportunity to get a foothold. You go in and harvest everything at once after first frost kills all the green growth down. The corn must be planted first, and I would say it should be a foot or two tall, before adding the others....but this is in the South with plenty of growing season....perhaps it needs to be closer together in time further north. The danger is the bean vines, or even the squash, overwhelming the corn before it gets a chance to grow up. Even later on, vigorous bean vines can break down the corn. So you need good old heirlooms with stout tall stalks....things like "Hickory King" or "Sweet Bay". Wimpy 5 foot sweet corns or short hybrid popcorns and such like won't do. Layout helps too. Don't plant the corn in rows. Plant it in "hills"....that is, groups of 3-4 stalks together, then leave 3-4 feet of space either way to the next hill. The bean vines tangle the stalks together and make a strong support. If your beans look extra vigorous and likely to break the corn down, tying the cornstalks together near the top, sort of like a tipi, adds extra strength.
When you have it down, it's a fun design to play with, changing spacing, planting times, and adding or substituting other things.... Largely it's a matter of architecture, and similar plants can be added or exchanged as desired. Sunflowers, especially the tall ones, might have been used traditonally, and fit in very well, making a stronger support for beans than corn does. Vining cowpeas do as well, or even better (especially far South) than ordinary dry pole beans....they seem more tolerant of rain and humidity as they are maturing. The ground cover can be just about any cucurbit, although most of the others (melons, etc.) need to be harvested fresh which means thrashing in there to pick them. So plant them along the edges of the patch. Sweet potatoes are another possibility....... The Central American version of this idea is called milpa, and just about everything went into it....tomatoes, peppers, and such, and tropical perennials like banana and papaya and sugar cane, which eventually filled up the space while the annuals went on to a new plot......


According to what you've written here, I may have planted my beans too early. I planted when the corn was about 4 to 6 inches inches tall. Now that the beans have sprung up I am worried. They are now about half the height of the corn in just a few short days.

Currently, I have everything planted in mounds with 4 ft center-to-center spacing for the corn and one bean for every corn planted halfway down the same mound. The squash, cucumber and watermelon mounds are staggered in between the corn mounds. The cucumber and watermelon are only planted around the far edges because I anticipate harvesting those before the rest is ready.

I planted 4 Cherokee White Flour corn seeds per mound(replaced my Ried's Dent Corn) and GaGa Hut Pinto Pole beans in the inner parts and Rattlesnake Beans around the edges so I could pick some greens throughout the season.

So I wonder if I should remove the beans and start again when the corn is taller. What do you think?
 
Alder Burns
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If you have seed to spare and don't mind the sacrifice, try both and more! Pull up a few hills worth of the beans and wait and replant. On some of the hills, nip out the growing point of the beans when they start to vine, which will slow them down while the grow a new tip out from lower down. And leave a few just as you have them to see what happens! Each design, and each combination of varieties, will be subtly different. If you have access to them you could poke some tall sticks in and train the bean vines onto these and then they can go back to the corn as it overtops them......
 
Deb Stephens
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Purple-podded pole beans do really well in my area -- hold on the vine and stay tender even when huge (because I didn't see them). The young ones are great fresh, but if you're after dry beans, these stay zipped shut and won't even self sow readily in spring if you miss a few at harvest. So... I'd say they are not prone to shattering. Tepary beans are just the opposite. Nice little beans, but they pop open the second they get dry.
 
chad Christopher
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Since there is a new spark, amaranth, sun choke, sun flower all work as the trellises. Most squash, small cucumbers, nasturtiums, work. Hawaiian woodrose if you want a littlembit of medicine. It is not necessarily the exact corn squash bean system that made the 3 sisters. But the IDEA. Anywho. It is a great system, but not a business plan. I view 3 sisters as a novelty moniker. The same way every permaculture home has a herb spiral. But i highly respect the 3 sister methodology.
 
dan collins
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Location: Nova Scotia
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Is the squash element of the three sisters meant to provide the beans protection from invasive deer?

I came to this conclusion this summer from observing a 3 sisters garden on a hillside swale. Lots of beans, some corn with the odd pumpkin sprouted (survived/ never watered) during our dry spring/summer. With no protection from deer, a group came along and wiped out all of the exposed beans but those under the pumpkins canopy flourished. The corn became stunted and didn't seem appealing to them. For the last month the beans within the pumpkins canopy provided a good yield with a continual nightly deer presence.

Any thoughts?
 
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