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The Three Sisters
last updated 2020-11-08

Corn should be planted first so that it can grow tall above the other crops. Plant seeds for Sister Bean 2-3 weeks later, or at least when the corn is a few inches tall. When the beans are sending out tendrils to climb the corn will be tall enough to support them. Plant Sister Squash seeds 1 week later after the beans have emerged. You don't want the large squash leaves to shade out young corn and bean seedlings before they have time to establish.

For millennia, from Mexico to Montana, women have mounded up the earth and laid these three seeds in the ground, all in the same square foot of soil. When the colonists on the Massachusetts shore first saw indigenous gardens, they inferred that the savages did not know how to farm. To their minds, a garden meant straight rows of single species, not a three-dimensional sprawl of abundance. And yet they ate their fill and asked for more, and more again.

Once planted in the May-moist earth, the corn seed takes on water quickly, its seed coat thin and its starchy contents, the endosperm, drawing water to it. The moisture triggers enzymes under the skin that cleave the starch into sugars, fueling the growth of the corn embryo that is nestled in the point of the seed. Thus corn is the first to emerge from the ground, a slender white spike that greens within hours of finding the light. A single leaf unfurls, and then another. Corn is all alone at first, while the others are getting ready.

Drinking in soil water, the bean seed swells and bursts its speckled coat and sends a rootling down deep in the ground. Only after the root is secure does the stem bend to the shape of a hook and elbow its way above ground. Beans can take their time in finding the light because they are well provisioned: their first leaves were already packaged in the two halves of the bean seed. This pair of fleshy leaves now breaks the soil surface to join the corn, which is already six inches tall.

Pumpkins and squash take their time—they are the slow sister. It may be weeks before the first stems poke up, still caught in their seed coat until the leaves split its seams and break free. I’m told that our ancestors would put the squash seeds in a deerskin bag with a little water or urine a week before planting to try to hurry them along. But each plant has its own pace and the sequence of their germination, their birth order, is important to their relationship and to the success of the crop.

The corn is the firstborn and grows straight and stiff; it is a stem with a lofty goal. Laddering upward, leaf by long-ribbed leaf, it must grow tall quickly. Making a strong stem is its highest priority at first. It needs to be there for its younger sister, the bean. Beans put out a pair of heart-shaped leaves on just a stub of a stem, then another pair, and another, all low to the ground. The bean focuses on leaf growth while the corn concentrates on height. Just about the time that the corn is knee high, the bean shoot changes its mind, as middle children are wont to do. Instead of making leaves, it extends itself into a long vine, a slender green string with a mission. In this teenage phase, hormones set the shoot tip to wandering, inscribing a circle in the air, a process known as circumnutation. The tip can travel a meter in a day, pirouetting in a loopy circle dance until it finds what it’s looking for—a corn stem or some other vertical support. Touch receptors along the vine guide it to wrap itself around the corn in a graceful upward spiral. For now, it holds back on making leaves, giving itself over to embracing the corn, keeping pace with its height growth. Had the corn not started early, the bean vine would strangle it, but if the timing is right, the corn can easily carry the bean.

Meanwhile, the squash, the late bloomer of the family, is steadily extending herself over the ground, moving away from the corn and beans, setting up broad lobed leaves like a stand of umbrellas waving at the ends of hollow petioles. The leaves and vines are distinctly bristly, giving second thoughts to nibbling caterpillars. As the leaves grow wider, they shelter the soil at the base of the corn and beans, keeping moisture in, and other plants out.

Native people speak of this gardening style as the Three Sisters.

_{Braiding Sweetgrass}_ by Robin Wall Kimmerer
⇣ (2) Garden  Setting up the raised beds