The Three Sisters Method
As peak corn planting season comes around, there is some useful information to know before planting.
Monoculture, the growing and harvest of a single crop at a time, may have short term gains, but the long-term downsides can be devastating. Studies have proven there is an increase in pesticide use when only one plant is grown at a time due to the lessened variety of helpful pest-fighting bacteria in the soil. Pesticides harm pollinators, pollutes water, and contaminates our essential life-giving soil.
The age-old Three Sisters planting method is one solution. Developed by Indigenous Peoples of the Americas centuries ago, the practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together is an amazing way to naturally practice pest control, grow healthy food, and keep soil full of nutrients. Let’s look at this heralded, yet vastly under-used method.
There are many variations of corn. Sweet corn is often a favorite. The corn stalk grows tall, acting as a source of support for the beans to do their job. Pole beans, such as Kentucky Runner or Scarlet Blue,
grow upward, pulling nitrogen from the air into the soil, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and boosting soil microorganism activity to reduce pests. Squash plants, such as zucchini, work to keep the soil moist and healthy, protecting the culture in the soil while preventing weeds from growing. Each plant also provides great nutritional benefits, lending to a well-rounded and nourishing diet.
The Indigenous Three Sisters planting method is an example of intercropping, which is the cultivation of multiple crops in the same space. Intercropping not only helps increase yields by making the most efficient use of available soil, it also creates a system of mutual benefit to the plants involved. Structural support, pest control, soil replenishment, and shade are additional functions that intercropped plants perform. Intercropping exemplifies balance, where each plant supports the whole and benefits from the whole. It’s synergistic. This unique farming concept is one that embodies the practice of regenerative agriculture, a way to grow food that focuses on rehabilitating stripped soil or polluted ecosystems through more holistic agricultural practices.
Importantly, the Three Sisters method is one of cooperation modeling, metaphorically, best practices in a movement for regenerative agriculture – reciprocity, intention, and highlighting the importance of diversity with all contributing cooperatively and equally to the health of the whole. As the sister plants come together supporting each other, and not just surviving but thriving in doing so, we humans must act as the sister plants for our own survival and for the sake of humanity on our shared Blue Planet.
Walker, Anthony. March 31, 2016. Growing Native American Heritage: The Three Sisters. Poughkeepsie Farm Project.
April 19, 2022. How to Plant The Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, Squash). The Farmer’s Almanac. Murphy, Andi. November 16, 2018. Meet The Three Sisters. PBS, Native Voices.
Personal Words from the Authors –
Growing up I never really had a passion for plants. They were just another food source, another crop, something that ends up on our table every night. Joining H2OO RAISE changed my entire mindset. I became really interested in plant life and how each plant reacts differently with each other, which was when I learned about the Three Sisters planting method. To imagine how these three crops synergize and actively help each other in tremendous amounts blew my mind! Learning about this gave me a new sense of “realism” about the world, and I realized I wanted to give back and help the Earth just as much as it helps me. – Jet
I first learned about the Three Sisters when I was very young and my mom worked on a regenerative farm. Rambling through the crops and being supervised by farmers when I visited, informally introduced me to many of the practices I study in RAISE today. Years later, when I was helping my aunt grow a home garden during quarantine in the summer of 2020, we planted a bed of Three Sisters, and watching them grow together brought me hope that our communities would come back from the impacts of that year strengthened by our connections with each other. To me, the Three Sisters is an incredible example of an intercropping technique that originates from generations of indigenous expertise, but also a representation of the relationships we should strive to have between each other and with the rest of nature. – Shay
When I was 9 years old and first started to learn about climate action and ocean conservation, the majority of issues discussed included plastic pollution and emissions from transportation vehicles. The information I was learning about the harms of human impacts that my generation was inheriting didn’t include industrialized agricultural practices; it was not a well-known, mainstream, “impact on our oceans and waterways.” I had no idea that our food growing system was playing a profoundly destructive role in the dire impacts upon our planet’s essential life-supporting natural environment. I realized that we must return to a balanced crop-growing system where instead of only taking from the earth, we give back to it while we grow our food. This respect then allows for our sustained life and long-term health. Every nation’s government must prioritize healthy water, soil, air, and climate, including with agriculture, as our generation and future generations depend upon it. The Three Sisters crop-growing method is an incredible example of how working with nature, rather than against it, can result in humans, our plants, and our planet thriving. – Dakota
Just like plants need each other, people need mother nature to survive. There is an intersectionality of issues related to climate change. I was to be married off as a 13-year old child because my family was suffering from poverty and starvation as the climate crisis caused food shortages, poverty and famine, and as extreme weather made it more and more difficult for crops to grow. I did not want this, so I decided to grow food myself. I used containers that l found polluting the environment, and I gathered seeds in trash. My experience allowed me to understand that so many humanitarian problems result from climate change and lack of managing this worsening problem that my generation faces. We can join together to fight against the climate crisis, then we will save many people from problems such as what me and my family endured. As the Three Sister plants come together supporting one another, we humans can learn from our plants and indigenous ways and come together with diversity and purpose. We can work together and support one another to overcome the climate crisis and to prevent more humanitarian crises and harm toward girls and children. – Latifah
Read the RAISE team’s expert-reviewed paper here
Heirs To Our Oceans (H2OO) supports youth in realizing solutions to today’s global challenges. RAISE — Regenerative Agriculture and Indigenous Systems for our Environment – is an initiative of H2OO.
Learn more at https://h2oo.org/
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Meet the RAISE Team!
is a brand new RAISE initiative member living in Arizona, U.S.. Jet, 17 years old, is interested in environmental science and different ways to encourage others to participate in mitigating climate change and promoting healthy agricultural practices.
Sixteen-year old Dakota Peebler, along with her sibling Charley, co-founded youth-led Heirs To Our Oceans in May 2016. Dakota developed H2OO’s “fertilizer initiative,” after becoming aware of the harms of the over-use of chemical fertilizers affecting our coastal marine ecosystems, which developed into H2OO’s RAISE initiative.