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Three Sisters Companion Planting Method

Companion planting is a useful gardening technique of growing certain veggies together to take advantage of their natural tendencies and relationships. This is an idea that has been practiced for centuries, and most famously with the “Three Sisters” method. Watch our video where Tricia shows how easy it is to plant using the Three Sisters method.

Companion Plants in the Three Sisters Method

The three sisters is a combination of these three plants working together:

  • “Sister Beans”–deposit nitrogen from the air into the soil, in a form that the plants can use.
    • Plant pole beans such as Blue Lake, Scarlet Runner, or Italian Snap, NOT bush beans.
    • Make sure to inoculate your seeds with nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium bacteria, such as the Garden Combination Mix.
    • The beans will use the corn as support, so wait to plant the beans until the corn is about knee high.
  • “Sister Corn”–provides support for beans vines to climb upon.
    • Plant your favorite sweet corn, dent corn, popcorn, or even a combination.
  • “Sister Squash”–shades the ground with its large leaves to provide a good growing environment for all the sisters.
    • Squash can be winter or summer types, or a combination of both.
  • Sometimes a fourth sister is included: either Sunflower or Bee Balm. This sister also supports the beans, lures birds away from the corn with their seeds and attracts insect pollinators.

Garden Layout for the Three Sisters Planting

There are many variations on a Three Sisters garden layout. But all of them plant the sisters in clusters on low, wide mounds, rather than a single row.

The Wampanoag Method

  • This method is the best known because it was the planting method that the Iroquois taught the early colonial settlers.
  • It is best suited to regions with wet summers.
  • Planted in mounds to reduce rotting

The Hidatsa Method

  • From the northern plains, used by the Hidatsa, Mandan and Arikara peoples who planted along the floodplain of the Missouri river
  • This is where each Sister is planted staggered in small blocks

Zuni Method

  • This is best for arid regions.
  • Very different in that it is not planted in mounds rather in a large square with the edges mounded up to keep any water in the planting area

Layout for the Wampanoag Method

  • Choose a spot that has at least 6 hours per day of direct sunlight.
  • Soil should be rich in organic matter and free of stones and weeds.
  • Build each mound so that it is 4" tall, and 18" diameter at the base, with a flat top that is about 10" across, see Figure 1.
  • Space mounds so their centers are 4' apart.
  • You can plant your garden as soon as the night temperatures are consistently above 55°F, and not later than June 1.
  • Plant the corn on the flat part at 6" spacing, see Figure 2.
  • On every other mound, alternate with squash instead of corn, planting squash in a triangle pattern at 4" spacing.
  • If including sunflowers or bee balm, plant those on the north side of the garden.
  • Once the corn is at least 4" tall, plant the beans around the slopes of each corn mound. Planting the beans a few weeks after the corn ensures that the corn stalks will be strong enough to support the fast growing beans.

Layout for the Hidatsa Method

  • Planted in a large block with mounds of corn (see Figure 3 and 4) and beans planted on the south side of their mound, 6 seeds in total (see Figure 5).
  • Squash plants are place in mounds spaced 4' at center, located on the south, east and west section of the block, see Figure 3.
  • Plant sunflowers on the north side of the block, see Figure 3.

Layout for the Zuni Waffle Garden

  • Requires significant space since each waffle is 12' by 12'.
  • Corn is planted in the center of each square, and plant 4-8 seeds to create a thick stand.
  • Sunflowers can be planted around the edges of the waffle
  • Squash is planted in each corner and in the center of the waffle (see figure at right).
Plant a Three Sisters garden this year, and grow organic for life!

Resources

The Three Sisters

11 comments

  • Pete, It is always a good idea to rotate locations for planting. Maybe not as critical for corn, squash and beans, but if you can move locations it is a good thing to do. Corn will deplete your soil of nitrogen so you would want to put in a cover crop in fall or supplement the following year with nitrogen.

    Suzanne
  • Can the three sisters be planted in the same spot year after year? Most corn growers say to rotate but maybe adding nitrogen can make this sustainable. How was this done year after year traditionally? Thanks in advance.

    Pete C
  • Beverly, The corn is planted in a series of mounds that have 8 plants per mound. That way you will get good pollination within the mound of corn. The diagram shows 4 mounds per row, but that is not set in stone, more of a guide. The beans are planted between the corn mounds so the beans (pole) can climb up the corn stalks and if you inoculate your beans with rhizobia bacteria, they will also fix nitrogen and help to feed your hungry corn. The squash is planted on the outsides to shade out the soil and help conserve water. The sunflowers can be planted in a row on the north side, so they do not shade out other plants (if you plant tall sunflowers). But really you can put them anywhere, just added to help attract pollinators to the area. The charts are only guides, you really can make it bigger or smaller. Hope that helps. But it is only a guide and you can make it what you like for your space and needs.

    Suzanne
  • Hi, I’m VERY new to gardening; planted one last year, but needless to say a few things went wrong, namely my squash never grew, I was told to hand pollinate but saw very few male all of the yellow squash flowers were female so I’m told; zucchini squash never appeared; got just one or two cucumbers maybe 4" long. Got no tomatoes from the vines I planted, but actually got sqads of bell peppers and a few of the long yellow ones from the vines I planted. So, if I understand I may be more successful if I use the three sisters or 4 if using sunflowers. I’ve seen numerous diagrams—all sort of confusing. The Hidatsa on this page seems to be the one suited to my garden size (and my ‘expertise’). I’m a little confused though. My plot is probably 12′ × 12′ with six long mounds of dirt. So using the Hidatsa would I plant one sunflower seed at the end of each of the six rows; then come back and plant 4 corn in the middle rows leaving off the first and the last row, then go back at the first row and place 1 squash, 4 bean 1 squash; then repeat the corn in the middle leaving off the first and last rows, and then repeat to the end??? Do I have the correct interpretation of the diagram? I need all the help I can get, and would appreciate any help you can give me. THANKS MUCH!

    Beverly Butler
  • Rochelle, you just need to give your corn the spacing it needs and the same spacing on the outside of the corn seeds. There is no set size, you can make the mound bigger by planting more corn seeds.

    Suzanne
  • What should the seed spacing be for the Hidatsa corn mound and the diameters of the mound?

    Rochelle
  • Ryan, if you look in the article, each method specifies what area and growing conditions are best suited for arid regions, wet regions…

    Suzanne
  • Which one would central Texas be best suited for?

    Ryan
  • Don’t forget that the seeds of winter squash are edible, and are a complete protein on to themselves. Further processing corn into hominy makes vitamin B3 available to human digestion.

    Charles Stevens
  • I have found that it is best to plant the corn and squash first by about 1-2 weeks to let it grow and get established prior to planting beans. Maybe my Ozark ground will reflect different results than other soils, I’d rather plant them all at the same time.
    The corn needs to attain a certain height before the bean grows up it’s sides.
    Similarly, the squash needs to become established because pole beans will grow along the ground and that which is upon it. This chokes off the vines because bean “tentacles” wrap around the vine quite tightly. Give the corn and squash time to get established by 1-2 weeks prior to planting beans and your squash will cover the dry summer ground and cover over weed growth. The beans will fix N2 into your soil. Also make sure to run your corn stalks through a chipper shredder and replenish your ground.

    Andrew Hill
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