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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, February 26, 2024

The Three Sisters: Planting medleys of crops produced higher yields for Native Americans

“The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others.” 

Robin Wall Kimmerer,
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom,
Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

This summer, Ho-Chunk farmer Rita Peters inspired the planting of an Indigenous Garden at the Olbrich Botanical Garden. The garden featured the Three Sisters, as well as other Native staples such as tobacco and milkweed. 

By August, the garden stood well over eight feet tall, and visitors could walk under a canopy of corn with beans dangling between like fairy lights. Pumpkins and other squashes peeked out from the corn, almost playfully. 

If you’re not Native, like most Madisonians or UW Students, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. These three plants, which provide key sources of nutrition for Indigenous people, can be sown together in the spring and will grow in unison, depending on each other for mutual benefits. 

The corn and beans are planted on mounds of soil, with squash sown in between. This Indigenous agricultural technique improves the soil’s drainage and temperature, which allows the corn to begin growth early in the spring. 

The corn shoots up first, climbing tall as beans send roots into the ground. When the beans are ready, once the corn is about knee-high, they begin to twine around the cornstalks, which provide a stable trellis for the legumes to grow upon. In return, the bean’s twining tendrils provide the corn extra support in high winds. 

Beans are a nitrogen fixer. Through a partnership with microbes, they take the biologically inaccessible nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform it into usable ammonia. The bean’s presence, which is possible only through the corn’s support, enriches the soil for future crops. 

The squash lags behind a bit. It sprouts last, sending broad, hairy leaves tumbling between and over the mounds. The squash, though slow, provides an important service; it’s umbrella-like canopy of leaves shades the ground on which the Three Sisters grow, preserving moisture and preventing weeds from taking hold. The squash’s prickly leaves also deter some would-be herbivores like caterpillars or raccoons. 

This style of agriculture is old; Native peoples developed this knowledge approximately 5,000 years ago. It’s also incredibly productive — growing the Three Sisters together allows each plant to produce higher yields than if it was grown by itself. Records from European colonizers describe the shockingly productive agriculture of America’s Natives, which provides all nine essential amino acids as well as complex carbohydrates and fatty acids. 

The Three Sisters are a stark comparison to today’s massive corn fields. Modern organic agriculturalists are beginning to return to older ways, planting crops together in a medley of deliciousness. If you’ve got the time or space, try it in your own garden — you’ll see the Three Sisters in action, and your soil — and stomach — will be better off for it. 

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