Companion planting is the simple gardening theory that certain plants grow better when they are planted close to others. For instance, tomatoes grow better when planted closer to onions and peppers than they do when planted close to corn. And for some reason sage does not mix well with onions. Some plants provide nutrients that their neighbor plant needs, and others act as a natural pesticide, warding off insects and animals. Identifying friendly companion plants can make your gardening endeavor more successful—you improve the use of space, reduce the number of weeds and garden pests, and provide protection from the elements. In the vegetable garden, all this adds up to the best thing of all: increased yield.
Native Americans practiced a form of companion planting called the Three Sisters, planting corn, beans and squash together. Today gardeners still stand by this method and reap the benefits. There is a lot of intriguing Indian folklore surrounding the Three Sisters – who they were and how they came to be represented by corn, beans, and squash. Whatever the origins, the Three Sisters, when planted together, support each other -as all good sisters do- and each contribute something unique to the planting:
The Corn: As older sisters often do, the strong corn stalks offer the beans needed support.
The Beans: The giving sister, the beans pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three. As the beans grow through the web of squash vines and climb their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the sisters close together.
The Squash: The protective sister, the sprawling squash, uses her large leaves as a living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist and preventing weeds. The prickly leaves also keep pests away – they don’t like to step on them.
Here is a quick how-to on creating your own Three Sisters Garden
Before you get started, be sure you select pole beans rather than bush, and trailing summer squash instead of compact varieties.
Work a generous amount of compost into an area of the garden that receives full sun. Use a hoe to form a flat-topped hill 10″ tall and no smaller than 4′ in diameter.
In the center of the hill, plant four corn seeds 1″ deep and 6″ apart in all directions to form a square. Cover with soil and water well.
When the corn plants get several inches tall, it’s time to plant the beans and squash. Plant four bean seeds 6″ from the base of each corn plant and 1″ deep. Finally, plant four or five squash seeds in a circle around the perimeter of the hill surrounding the bean and corn plants. As the corn and beans grow up, you want to make sure that the bean vines are wrapping around the cornstalk. The squash will crawl out between the mounds, around the corn and beans.
A Three Sisters Garden is the perfect example of companion gardening—planting vegetables, in this case corn, beans, and squash, that provide nutrients and protection for other plants around them.