UF Hack: Three Sisters Growing Method

Grow several crops in a small space while building up your soil using this traditional companion-planting method.

by Elizabeth Adams

Corn, beans and squash are a traditional companion-planting triad. 

Elizabeth Adams

Don’t overcrowd your plants: This is a word of advice many urban gardeners would prefer to dismiss given the small amount of earth they have to cultivate. Planting multiples of the same type of plant too close together puts many gardens or small plots at risk, as the wrong types of vegetables planted too tightly in a small space are susceptible to diseases and insect infestation and must compete for nutrients in the soil.

However, some combinations of plants thrive when grouped together, sharing a single square foot of space willingly. Companion planting is a reliable gardening method for urban growers who are determined to maximize small spaces or square-foot gardens. Growers must approach companion planting strategically as some combinations of plants will fail to form a mutually beneficial relationship. Three plants historically known for forming this type of bond are mainstays of the traditional Thanksgiving feast: beans, corn and squash.

Long before the Colonists cultivated first farmlands of the New World, Native American tribes were mastering the art of horticultural efficiency by planting the “Three Sisters” in one mound. In this symbiotic relationship, each plant contributes an essential function: The corn stalks provide climbing support for the beans, the beans draw nitrogen into the soil for the nitrogen-greedy corn, and the squash does its work on the ground, cooling the soil and retaining moisture. Small-scale gardeners can replicate the Three Sisters method by planting all three plants, or even two of the combinations, into one mound of soil.

Also, considering the beneficial relationships binding plants in the Three Sisters method, gardeners limited on space can observe the qualities of their plants as they mature to more strategically companion plant in their garden. Squash roving across the garden bed can provide cooling of the soil at the base of taller plants, such as beans or tomatoes. Beans can boost nitrogen in areas where soil is deficient or plants need an extra dose. Corn can substitute as a natural climbing apparatus for climbing vegetables that would otherwise hog precious garden space. Thinking strategically about placement and designing a garden based on mutually beneficial relationships is the best way to maximize a small gardening area naturally—not to mention for free.

Subscribe now

About the Author:Elizabeth Adams is a freelance writer based in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. In addition to gardening, cooking and homesteading, she loves riding horses, practicing yoga, and spending time with her French bulldog Linus and husband Shawn.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *