The Traditional Relationships between Indigenous Peoples and Our Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, Squash
Companion Planting: A Method of Traditional Agriculture
Traditionally, all three crop sisters are grown together for the benefit of all. The people need all three sisters because corn, beans and squash, eaten separately, each provide only some of the essential proteins required by the human body, but eaten together, they provide the complete spectrum.
While teosinte, a wild grass, is considered to be an ancient wild relative of corn, since corn has been domesticated by the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, it is not able to grow wild but needs human hands to perpetuate itself.
Corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb up where they like to keep warm and dry, while the bean roots provide nitrogen that fertilizes the soil to feed the corn and squash.
The lower, large leaves from the squash vines provide shade to suppress weeds and retain moisture in the soil.
While the three sisters are most often planted together, the planting techniques differ from region to region, nation to nation, and even between families.
Techniques often depend on regional climate and seed varieties. For example, in moist clay or woodland soils of the northern Great Lakes region, seeds are only planted 1-2 inches deep, whereas, in the dry, sandy soils of the southwest corn seeds may be planted 8-12 inches deep. The varieties of the corn seeds of the Navaho and Hopi are adapted to these conditions.
The Hidatsa people are known to plant corn, beans, squash and sunflower in separate hills in the same patch.
Sunflowers are planted first, in raised hills about 8 or 9 paces apart, about 4 inches high and 18 inches in diameter. Three seeds are planted per hill, in the same hole. Corn is planted next, in hills of the same size, spaced 3-4 feet apart. About 8 corn seeds are planted in each hill.
Beans are then planted in smaller hills between the corn hills, with 2 groups of three seeds planted on the south slope.
Squash hills are located around the perimeter of the corn and bean patch. Two pairs of seeds are planted about 12 inches apart on the south slope.
In contrast, the Iroquois’ mounds were about 1 metre wide and one metre apart, with corn, beans and squash planted together in one mound, with the bean seeds planted on the slopes. Hills and mounds, like raised beds, warm the soil quickly in the spring and provide improved drainage for crop roots. In contrast, in the dry desert conditions of the southwest, the Zuni plant in waffle gardens, where the sides of rectangles of various sizes catch and conserve limited rainfall.
Other peoples of the desert southwest dig deep holes and hill up the corn as it grows.
Other Crops domesticated by Indigenous Peoples of the Americas include:
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Sweet Potato