Companion Planting: Part 1 – The Three Sisters
One of the more delightful of aspects of gardening is companion planting aka intercropping aka planting stuff that like each other. While it’s common to imagine gardens made up of row after orderly row of the same plants this isn’t always best approach. Yes, there may be math in the universe but when it comes to your garden, nature likes a little chaos. Do away with sterile rows of carrots and embrace the randomness of natural companion gardening.
Simply put “companion planting” or “intercropping” is a method of gardening that takes advantage of natural, mutually beneficial relationships between certain plants. Planting two or three specific plants together can help maintain soil nutrient levels, enhance biodiversity, balance moisture levels, attract or deter certain pests, and ultimately make more efficient use of limited garden space.
With companion planting the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
While some gardeners have the space to spare and prefer entire rows or raised beds of a single crop (usually part of a crop rotation scheme) other gardeners prefer to explore and embrace the symbiotic relationships between certain species. I genuinely think it’s a more natural way to garden as it mimics the biodiversity found in nature itself. It’s a somewhat permaculture method applied to a more everyday backyard garden.
Companion planting allows you to grow more plants in a smaller space. Some plants grow up (corn, tomatoes, beans), some plants grow out (squash, cabbages), and some plants grow down (carrots, radishes, beets).
Special Daniel Thoughts on Companion Planting / Gardening at large:
I’ve always maintained that while gardening is logical it’s not always intuitive. Companion planting is a perfect example of while something may make perfect gardening sense (tomatoes and basil love growing near each other) I wouldn’t naturally arrive at that conclusion on my own (because they both like the same pH levels.) The basic lesson here is simply to read as much as you can about gardening.
Agriculture is the oldest human tradition. It’s what allowed us to move from hunting-gathering and small clans to large civilizations. There’s a lot of learned garden information out there, don’t feel like you have to figure it all out on your own.
Read books, peruse the internet, listen to podcasts, and talk to other gardeners.
Introducing the Three Sisters!
My favorite example of companion planting are the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, & Squash. A common gardening practice among many indigenous tribes throughout North America, the Three Sisters practice has been around for thousands of years. And guess what … it still works!
In Mexico and Central America this method is referred to as Milpa and was extremely popular among the Mayan peoples. An important part of the Milpa technique was growing intensively for 2 years followed by 8 years of fallow which allows the soil to replenish nutrients. With the right cover crops and natural amendments like compost and kelp or bone meal you could probably avoid the break but everyone’s soil is different.
Note: Milpa is more than just a way to grow crops. It refers to a more sacred relationship which binds individuals, families, and communities to nature if not the Earth. It’s part of a broader way in which to grasp our connection to each other and the universe and I encourage you all to read more about the Mayan tradition. It’s fascinating, enlightening, and beautiful.
So How Do The Three Sisters Work?
First off, corn is a Nitrogen-intensive plant. She needs a lot of nitrogen to grow and will seriously deplete the soil if planted in the same place year after year without some intervention. Beans, peas, and other legumes on the other hand are nitrogen-fixing. Her roots host a special type of bacteria that pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere and binds it to the soil so that it can be absorbed by the corn. In turn, the corn provides tall, sturdy stalks which support the beans vines as they climb.
While the corn and beans are helping each other out, squash or pumpkins vines grow and crawl around both plants. Her broad leaves shade the soil preventing weeds from getting the sunlight they need to germinate while preventing evaporation and sealing in moisture. This is called a “living mulch” and it’s magical considering how corn and beans need steady moisture levels.
- Corn – provides a natural trellis for the meandering beans to climb
- Beans – fix nitrogen to the soil and replenish the corn’s appetite for nutrients
- Squash – acts as a living mulch preventing weeds and conserving soil moisture.
If timed correctly and cared for adequately these three sisters will thrive throughout the summer and provide months of produce that frankly taste delicious together (succotash people!)
Planting Instructions for Three Sisters in Your Own Garden:
Listen, if I can accomplish the Three Sisters / Milpa you can too. You could attempt this in a raised bed but it tends to work better directly in the dirt in a gridlike or concentric array for a number of reasons. If you’ve got the yard space and the gumption I’d recommend doing this right in the dirt. (Get your soil tested, another post for another time.)
Layout is key when planting out Three Sisters since spacing, sunlight, and airflow will have a big impact on your yield. Companion planting is about putting the right plants together but also not so close that they crowd and not so far that their benefits don’t actually take effect. Again, lots of differing opinions on layout and spacing so you’ll have to try out different approaches over the years and find what works for you.
Here’s my method:
- Begin with a mound of rich soil about 4 inch high and 14-18 inches across with a flat top of 9 inches.
- Plant 4 corns seeds into this mound each spaced about 6 inches apart. (More on corn another day but generally you always want to plant 4 seeds. “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the soil, and one to grow.”
- Once the corn has reached 4-5 inches (after about 2 weeks) plant bean seeds in the sloping mound surrounding the corn.
- Plant these Corn/Bean mounds every 2 feet in all directions. Corn is air pollinated so the more rows or concentric circles the better your yield.
- A week after the beans have been planted move on to squash. Plant those seeds about 4 feet apart in between the corn mounds. Stagger the squash mounds. You don’t want to plant too many since the squash vines will crawl all over the damn place.
Great I’ve Got Corn, Beans, and Squash … Now What?
Congrats! You’ve made it to a successful harvest. If you’ve been wise and planted in successions you should have a few months of ongoing yield. The real question is what to do with all these veggies.
It’s important to note that not only is the Three Sisters a complementary, sustainable, and compact way to garden it provides a helluva lot of nutrients to us humans. Once again the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Fresh, seasonal corn, beans, and squash are all full vitamins and minerals as well as complex carbohydrates and some essential fatty acids.
Eaten together however corn and beans create chains of amino acids that make up complete proteins. Similar to rice & beans, hummus & pita, soy, seitan, quinoa, and buckwheat, when you eat corn and beans together they make something magical. Squash is rich in a ridiculous amount of nutrients as well so combine all three and you’re looking at a balance, healthy meal.
My favorite way to prepare corn, beans, and squash is as follows
- Sauteé onions, garlic, and ginger.
- Season with any combination of Indian spices (curry, cardamom, any garam masala, etc.)
- Add in beans and corn, tomato, chickpeas, and carrots.
- Halve a few acorn squash and scoop out the seeds (save and those seeds to plant again or bake them for a snack.)
- Spoon the sauteed vegetables into acorn squash halves, top with feta, and bake the whole thing and you’re good to go.
- Nom nom nom