The Three Sisters
While most primitive peoples live and have lived a life of subsistence, some fundamental lessons can be gleaned from their experience. Let me first preface this by saying I don’t subscribe to the concept of the noble savage foisted on our students by the education system. That said, I believe that with the uncertainty of the social and economic future we are facing there are lessons to be learned. One of the most important of these is the Three Sisters planting of the American Indian. These three vegetables formed the essential sustenance of these people largely because they were the crops that weathered them through the long winters, provided essential nutrients for the long term, could be planted in the same space year after year, and are easy to cultivate.
Just what are the Three Sisters? They are corn, beans and squash. In modern gardens today we mostly eat for fresh consumption, that is, we grow sweet corn, zucchini, and green beans. For the Indians however, they grew what is today called dent or feed corn, winter squash such as pumpkin, butternut, Hubbard, etc. and they grew a runner type bean. The goal was to produce and harvest a crop for storage without our advantage of refrigeration. Truly, this is what can rightly be called sustainability, in that they were interested in long term survival over the harsh winters of North America. Imagine just how tenuous a hold these folks had on life. If the crops failed during the summer they would starve in the winter, if vermin got into the stores during fall and winter they would also starve. If an enemy tribe raided their village they would also assuredly die. Surely, this is a long way from the idealized existence portrayed of a free, natural, and healthy life of our indigenous people. Theirs was at best a hand to mouth existence haunted by starvation and death at every turn.
Meantime, since I have some dent corn in the form of Early Butler corn which I intended to raise this summer anyway I’ve decided to grow these in the three sister’s environment. I will plant the Early Butler dent corn and when that is about six inches high I will plant some runner beans, followed in one week with butternut squash. As my long-term readership may know I encourage experimenting in the garden every garden year; this year it will be an American Indian three sister’s garden.
Traditionally, the Indians would plant the corn when the dogwood leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear. These gardens were not planted in rows as modern gardeners often do, but in hills. The first thing to do is to prepare the soil by digging a hole about one foot deep, depositing a fish and filling it in. Then the corn is planted. The fish of course is fertilizer for the growing season and the beans will provide the needed nitrogen. Allegedly, this will suffice to ensure all the nutrients and minerals will be available, not just for now, but in succeeding seasons, assuming this routine is kept up.
This is probably one of the most interesting experiments I’ve undertaken in the garden, because it will safely replicate the conditions faced by the American Indian. I shall keep you posted as the season progresses.
Richard of Danbury, D.S.G.