This year as a result of lockdown, I’ve been able to spend so much more time in the garden and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I have always been a keen gardener as a child and spent many hours with my father wondering around planting, nurturing, watering and then finally harvesting and cooking the spoils. In another world before ‘The Cooking Academy’ gardening was always my go-to relaxation time far away from the busy world of banking.
So this year I’ve been busy planting all manner of things – l argely from seed, anything I could order on-line and I have been very successful. I’ve also taken a very relaxed and informal approach to gardening, just having a go, planting in whatever space, moving things around and having a bit of fun rather than being conventional.
Whilst doing some plant research, quite by chance I happened to come across a method of planting referred to as ‘The Three Sisters’. It is a system of planting sweetcorn, beans, and squash together in close proximity. Each of the sisters contributes something to the crop growth. Together, the sisters provide a balanced diet from a single planting.
As older sisters often do, the corn offers the beans necessary support. The pole beans, the giving sister, pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three.
As the beans grow through the tangle of squash vines and wind their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the sisters close together.
The large leaves of the sprawling squash protect the threesome by creating a living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist to prevent weeds. The prickly squash leaves also keep away slugs and other pests, which don’t like to step on them.
This method of growing is companion planting at its best, with three plants growing symbiotically to deter weeds and pests, enrich the soil, and support each other.
Instead of our modern method of single rows of a single vegetable, this method of interplanting introduces biodiversity, which does many things, from attracting pollinators to making the land richer instead of stripping it of nutrients. In a sense, we take no more from nature than what we give back.
The history of The Three Sisters
The Three sisters planting method has its roots and has been at the centre of Native American agriculture and culinary tradition. By the time European settlers arrived in America in the early 1600s, the Iroquois had been growing the “three sisters” for over three centuries. The vegetable trio sustained the Native Americans both physically and spiritually.
Legend has it that the plants were a gift from the gods, always to be grown together, eaten together, and celebrated together. The plants were thought to be watched over by the three sister spirits, called the De o-ha-ko or ‘Our Sustainers’ and translates to “life support”. These three sister spirits protect and inhabit the croplands.
- Sister Corn stands tall to guard and protect the crops
- Sister Bean feeds the roots of Sister corn
- Sister Squash, the oldest of the three sisters stays close to earth and encircles the sisters in a protective fashion and uses her large leaves to protect and shade the soil
- Planted together the sisters get their water supply from Father sky.
These three crops also helped provide Native Americans with a nutritionally balanced diet. The corn provided quick energy in the form of carbohydrates. The beans were rich in protein. And the squash helped supplement the diet with vitamins from the fruit and oils from the seeds.
It funny how we think we have developed so much over the centuries in our modern farming techniques and yet here this system demonstrates just how clever and informed the early settlers were and how these farmers knew the importance of all of the components of planting and not just the end result of a crop. They worked diligently to protect the soil so that a good crop would be maintained for years to come, true sustainability in practise – long before our modern 21st Century science.
This year I have enjoyed both the yield from the method of planting, with plenty of beans, squash, in the form of courgettes and the corn that I am yet to harvest, as well as the fun of this ‘random’ manner of planting which turns out not to be so random after all! I’ve learned how nature never ceases to amaze me and just how much pleasure I get from it.
Covid-19 is still with us, I’m back to work but I’m constantly trying to steal time to spend in the my beloved garden which has kept me connected with nature, busy, and mostly sane throughout this unprecedented time in our lives.