Gardening With Kids: How to Grow a Native American Three Sisters Garden

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For thousands of years, native Americans used simple and effective agricultural techniques to grow their food. One of these techniques was translated as “Three Sisters” planting: growing corn, beans, and squash together as these three crops are mutually beneficial and nutritionally complimentary. Planting a Three Sisters garden with your kids teaches them not only gardening but also an important part of American history.

The Three Sisters are pole beans, sweet corn (called maize until Europeans altered the name) and winter squash. The Three Sisters represent perfect companion planting as the corn provides support for the beans and shade for the squash, the squash provides ground cover to prevent weeds and animal incursions, and the pole beans provide nitrogen for all three plants. Nutritionally, the Three Sisters provided native Americans with a balanced diet, with plenty of protein, beta carotene, and fiber.

Planting your Three Sisters garden with your kids is a simple and fun project and can be done in your garden or in a large planting pot. Start your planting project in the springtime after all risk of frost has passed. Choose an area that receives at least 7 hours of direct sun per day. This is a great opportunity to let your children learn about the path of the sun and help in locating the Three Sisters garden. Make sure your soil is rich and light. You can dig in some compost or aged manure if the soil needs it. For each Three Sisters grouping, plant six corn seeds, six bean seeds and four squash seeds. The squash seeds should form a circle around the others. Tamp the soil down firmly and water thoroughly. If you live in an area prone to squirrels and raccoons, sprinkle the top of the soil with cayenne pepper or bloodmeal to deter them from digging up the tasty corn seeds.

Have the kids start a journal for the Three Sisters project and have them check on the progress of the garden every day. They can note the sprouting dates for each crop, the height of the plants at various points and the amount of the harvest. A small digital camera will help with the visual documentation. As the plants grow, the pole beans will begin to wrap their tentacles around the rising corn stalks and the squash will begin to form a cool green protective blanket around the garden.

Your Three Sisters crops will be ready for harvest at different times. You will begin picking beans in 45-60 days. Keep the beans picked to encourage further growth. The corn will be ready in the late summer or early fall. Look for the tassels to darken and dry out. The squash will be ready in early or late fall, depending on the variety. If you want to store the squash as the native Americans did to last them the winter, allow the squash to sit outside (but not in full sun) for a week to develop a hard rind. Store in the coolest darkest place in the house and do not allow the squash to touch each other.

Have the kids plan a harvest celebration when the squash is ready. Plan a feast using the three crops. If you have planted a late squash variety, freeze some of the corn after harvest to use for the feast. Planting a Three Sisters garden is a great way to get kids more connected with their food and their history.

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