This time of year, between the holidays and any official spring, is when my yearly allowance of gardening enthusiasm is replenished. It is the most inspiring moment, since I get to flip through seed catalogs, and then check the mail box every day until I get to touch the new packages. Then I pull out all of the seeds I saved from the year before, add the new ones to the collection, and meticulously puzzle out when and where each needs to be planted throughout the spring. It is my favorite part of working a garden, until, that is, the garden starts to produce all that good food, then that's my favorite moment.
On top of all the glorious anticipation and excitement, I am currently reading a novel which makes me wish that I had just one green seedling to pet. It is called Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and it's subtitle goes as follows, "Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants". It's a beautifully written book, and Robin balances the elements mentioned in the subtitle gorgeously.
At about the mid-point of the book, Robin brings up the topic of the three sisters garden, one of my obsessions and something I had been desperately hoping she'd talk about. In addition to my intense interest in this garden, she becomes a true storyteller, making the intertwining relationships of the plants so much more significant than anything I'd read before on the very same topic.
"The corn stands eight feet tall; rippling green ribbons of leaf curl away from the stem in every direction to catch the sun. No leaf sits directly over the next, so that each can gather light without shading the others. The bean twines around the corn stalk, weaving itself between the leaves of corn, never interfering with their work. In the spaces where corn leaves are not, buds appear on the vining bean and expand into outstretched leaves and clusters of fragrant flowers. The bean leaves droop and are held close to the stem of the corn. Spread around the feet of the corn and beans is a carpet of big broad squash leaves that intercept the light that falls among the pillars of corn. Their layered spacing uses the light, a gift from the sun, efficiently, with no waste."
- Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Kimmerer
From my own interpretation of the material, here's how I think everything works: one single garden consists of one corn, bean, and squash plant, sometimes more than one, but no large numbers are involved. The seeds are all planted in close proximity, possibly within a mound of earth, as I've read about in other papers, and they are all sown at once. The seeds germinate at their own pace, starting with corn, then beans, and finally squash, each plant allowing the others time to grow a bit before the next emerges. Once the seeds have all begun to grow, the garden is self sufficient, supposedly being able to protect itself from various pests, and being able to fertilize itself thanks to the beans. If more than one garden was needed to ensure a larger harvest, then the planter would only need to allow the beds enough space in between for the squash to comfortably coexist.
This past year, in 2018, I attempted to grow a four sisters* garden in rows. The rows alternated between beans, corn, beans, squash & sunflowers, beans, and so on. The garden was not a particular success, and there were a few reasons for that, all of which come down to the fact that it was overcrowded. The sunflowers took up a lot of space and sun with their large leaves, making it very difficult for the squash below to get fed properly. The underfed squash were varieties which had a tendency to vine, and as a result, they used their abilities to revolt against the greedy sunflowers, climbing them like trellises until they collapsed under the weight. This battling made a tremendous mess, as I'm sure you can imagine, and since most of the crop was more focused on bickering than producing, I didn't get much harvest when the time came.
*A four sisters garden is a slightly different variation of the three sisters garden. The fourth sister is that of a sunflower, and it's job is to attract insect pollinators, which are beneficial to both the beans and squash.
In 2017 I made my first attempt at a coordinated four sisters garden, which sparked several hours of research and extensive remodelling to sections of my garden. The design I used that year was not based in meandering piles of garden or concise rows, but rather a grid system. The idea consisted of several corn plants right in the centre, with beans sown around them. At two of the corners of every square would be a squash plant, and at eight points around the perimeter of the cube there would be sunflower plants.
While great in concept, it never managed to reach it's full potential for a couple of reasons, starting with chickens, and ending in endless weeds. The bed was relatively new, and as a result I didn't get the chance to make a proper fence for it until after the chickens, who lived literally right next to the garden, came and ate all of my seedling sunflowers. I replanted the seeds as best I could, and some even managed to evade the fowl creatures, though there were still those few who became snacks.
The next major problem I encountered came from sister squash; she had a rough year. During my research, I had heard that staggering the plantings of corn, beans, and squash, respectively, would allow for the plants to grow enough that they didn't feel the need to compete at all. Unfortunately, by the time my squash seeds made it into the soil I had missed the almost nonexistent spring rains. I tried to plant the seeds just ahead of a forecasted storm, but it blew off course, and most of the water that I gave the seeds with the hose ran off before it was absorbed enough to make any impact. So, in the end, barely any plants actually germinated, and none ended up growing because the rain still refused to come. It was a dry summer.
Sister squash's primary job in the whole garden is to suppress any weeds that might take over, but when there were no squashes, there was no competition. The weeds did just fine on a no water diet, and so, effortlessly, they took over the whole bloody garden. There were so many weeds that it would've taken days to clear, and even if I did manage to empty the space, it was too late in the summer for my plants to do anything with that little water.
So, having gone through all that, I'm going to try out a different approach this year; namely that which Robin Kimmerer writes about in her book.
Another topic which has been highly interesting to me regarding the three sisters garden is the varieties of plants which can be applied to the different garden designs.
For instance, when I spent a large chunk of time researching for my first attempt of 2017, I read up a lot on the grid design, and I noticed that many of the people who showed an interest chose to use varieties which were somewhat inappropriate. A high level of attention was invested in plants which would require harvesting all throughout summer, such as sweet corn, green beans, and summer squash.
The problem with plants like those in a garden like this is the timing of the harvest. The grid design is very close set, space is monopolized as much as possible, and it's not like the plants grow in such a way that neat paths are easily created. By the time you would need to be able to check the garden daily for harvesting, you would also need to basically hack through a jungle, trampling squash, breaking bean vines, and pushing between corn stalks.
A three sisters garden that's been formed with a grid system is much better equipped to deal with plants which only require a fall harvest. Winter squash, dry beans, and corn for decoration, meal, or popping are the best options. That way, by the time you need to interrupt the architecture of the plants, they're probably done for the year already.
If, however, you don't really eat those fall harvests, it does seem that a more traditional, scattered garden approach would work well with summer crops. Since the more traditional design requires large amounts of space between beds, there is more room to move around without destroying any fragile summer harvests.
So it seems that, depending on your needs and wants, there is a three sisters garden for everyone. All you need to do is play the fourth sister and nurture the plants.