Companion Plant The Indigenous Way: Three Sisters

April 18, 2023

What is Companion Planting?

Companion planting is basically the symbiosis of gardening. If you are unfamiliar with symbiosis, it is the relationship between two organisms of different species. In the world of gardening, this relates to the relationship between different foods and how they are cleverly planted in order to productively benefit each other. 


Who are the “Three Sisters”?

Traditionally, the “Three Sisters” consists of a combination of corn, beans, and squash. However, in some instances, people have substituted peas instead of beans and pumpkins or even watermelons instead of squash. Regardless of which combination you opt for in your garden, it is important to remember the universal reason in which this practice exists - because it works! 

The relationship between these three “sisters” is beneficial for all involved. A combination of tradition and ingenuity come together in order to more efficiently grow these crops. When planted properly, these three “sisters” grow better together than they would if they had been planted separately. Essentially, they become a family, hence their name. 

This ingenious practice (of planting the crops in a way that they all benefit each other) is dated all the way back to at least the 1300s. It is known to have been practiced by various nations, though primarily practiced by the Iroquois / Haudenosaunee Native tribes, as all three of these sister crops are native to the Americas. 

In fact, this harmonious relationship between crops has proven for centuries to be both favorable and advantageous among people, so much so that it is still practiced today. Originally, this method began out of necessity for the native peoples. While machinery that exists today was not available centuries ago, they were required to handle all land preparations entirely by hand with primitive tools. In addition to this, the amount of cleared land available was extremely scarce, forcing the Native American peoples to make the most out of what land they did have. This birthed the idea to plant three compatible plants in the same area - the original trio consisting of corn, beans and squash. 

At Tocabe, we pride ourselves in making such ingredients readily available to you. Check out our Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace online now to try some of our amazing products such as tepary beans and red corn. 

Heirloom Black Tepary Bean | Shop Tocabe Indigenous Food

Heirloom Shelled Whole Red Corn – Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace


Reap What You Sow

In order to reap the benefits of your harvest, you must sow properly. This begins by fully understanding how these crops work together in a harmonious fashion. The Haudenosaunee originated this method and gave it the name of the “Three Sisters”. Traditionally, the Haudenosaunee would plant all three types of seeds together in the same mound. By elevating the mound, it would provide a natural form of drainage to prevent the roots from becoming flooded with water. This was especially important because the Haudenosaunee occupied the Northeast region of the United States and Canada, which received an excess of rainfall. 

Conversely, in the Southwest region, the Navajo Nation tended to plant the Three Sisters in separate fields and utilized wider plant spacing in the dryer farmed areas in order to maximize limited water. 

Native people discovered that by planting their three preferred crops (corn, beans and squash) together, they would thrive off of one another and help aid in their survival. Corn naturally grows into a tall, upright position which allows the beans to grow upward around the corn stalks. Without the tall corn stalks, the beans would grow outward and likely be smothered by the squash vines, which grow into a sprawling-outward position. 

Additionally, the bean plants provide nitrogen which naturally fertilizes the soil. The beans also protect the corn plants during strong winds by providing extra stabilization. Squash plants produce large leaves which naturally shade the soil and aid in retaining moisture and simultaneously preventing weeds. 

All three plants (corn, beans and squash) are sensitive to both frosty climates and transplanting. Transplanting refers to when you originally have a crop planted in one space and then move it to another space. It is because of these outcomes that the temperature and original placement of your plant truly matter in order to reap the benefits of your three crops. Furthermore, it is most advantageous to sow directly into the soil around the time of your last frost date’s departure. 


Additional Benefits of Companion Planting

  • Companion Planting produces healthier crops which serves as a natural pest repellent, eliminating the need for pesticides. 
  • Bean blooms are filled with pollen which attracts bees. The bees, in turn, benefit all three crops.
  • The bean plants grow upward around the tall corn stalks, which make the beans more easily accessible to harvest.
  • Squash yields prickly leaves which ward off wandering animal pests.
  • Three Sisters is also referred to as “stacked gardening”, which refers to using three layers in order to fill your available plating space. This maximizes your gardening space in order to produce the most plentiful harvest possible. 

Our Indigenous Roots Run Deep

We, at Tocabe, are part of the Osage Nation. We use our Native American roots to help educate people on Indigenous culture. 

To us, ingredients do not just make the food, they tell the story behind it. Our process involves sourcing our food from Native places first and local places second. It is our commitment to buy from Native and Indigenous producers as much as possible. By doing so, we help support business and infrastructure development. 

You, too, can help support these Native and Indigenous businesses today by stocking your pantry with our delicious ingredients. Accessibility to these high quality ingredients is extremely limited based on location. However, thanks to our Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace, you now have access to these items simply by the click of a button! 

Indigenous Pantry Food Staples – Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace

We want you to experience these delicious, Indigenous foods today… straight from our hearts to your kitchen. 

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