The earliest guild: corn, squash, & beans (Three Sisters)

by Caroline Brown

Today’s post is written in honor of the earliest Americans, whose agricultural techniques allowed them to survive and thrive in the harshest of natural environments. (Didn’t allow them, however, to survive when European settlers arrived and began disrespecting and destroying their continent like greedy and rapacious madmen, BUT, that’s a rant for another day….)

Permaculture gardening relies heavily on plant guilds, which are natural plant or ecological communities grow well together because each member of the guild supports and benefits the others. North America’s native peoples understood the agricultural concept of plant guilds and used it to successfully grow many types of fruits and vegetables, including the legendary Three Sisters guild of corn, squash, and beans.

A Three Sisters garden is usually a mound of soil with corn planted at the center. Beans ring the corn, and squash is planted at the edges. The corn stalks create a natural trellis for the beans to climb, while the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which nourishes the corn. The leaves of the squash vines ramble around the mound, preventing the spread of weeds and providing shade for the shallow roots of the corn. The symbiotic interaction of the three plants allow them to produce more food using less water and fertilizer.

Plant guilds such as the Three Sisters are the cornerstone of plant ecosystems as well as sustainable gardens. Learn more about how to create a Three Sisters garden here and here. I haven’t used these techniques myself because I’m not gardening food right now in my all-shade yard. However, you can read about the The Food Gardener’s first-hand Three Sisters growing experience here.

Corn photo courtesy of Texas A&M University. Beans and squash photos courtesy of Wikipedia.


6 Responses to “The earliest guild: corn, squash, & beans (Three Sisters)”

  1. Very cool post Caroline – I have two of the three sisters this year. I hope to grow corn next season!

    Hope you’re enjoying the summer!


  2. Hi Caroline,

    I too like the idea of the Three Sisters and have planted a trial patch this year.

    But for whatever odd reason, I feel compelled to respond to your almost-rant about european colonization. I once (and still) held such a condemnatory attitude. But with years I have found many thought pathways that tend to soften it.

    Our ancestors (are you not mostly euro-american?) suffered their own series of conquests and mayhem in the centuries prior to their ex-migration. My celtic (Scots and Irish) ancestors were conquered by the Romans, then by the Anglo-Saxons, then by the Normans. Each one brought massive changes in language, culture, and relative freedom. We were continually pushed to the fringe, or made into slaves. All this time, no matter who the “lord” was, we enjoyed fighting each other and would sooner raid the neighboring clan-group and steal their cattle than fight together against oppression.

    That story I just told, amazingly, fits the native americans very closely, in the times when those same celtic ancestors of mine sailed over here and started raiding indian villages and dispossessing them! The indians frequently fought each other as viciously as they fought the europeans. They were overpowered by greater technology and more organized savagery, just like the historic celts.

    Tolstoy, in War and Peace, imagines history as waves of humans washing one direction or another across continents, like hungry locusts destroying all in their path. Why do they do it? Who is responsible for the murder and grief that results? Their leaders? Their culture? Historical necessity? God? Tolstoy implies that asking that question is futile. Humans ravage and rob each other and always have. What is amazing is that they also love each other, and by and large will tend to live in peace when given half a chance.

    But we ourselves are never innocent, and ought never fix blame. My ancestors were cruel. My relatives fight in Iraq. I myself pay taxes which the government uses to pay them to kill. Much more important, I benefit from the “civilization” so conceived and so deposited at the local Wal Mart and the corner convenience store and gas station.

    Worse, I cannot “opt out” of my culture, any more than the gentle, loving pioneer mother of thirteen children could escape the shared guilt of the native american blood spilled by her pioneer husband’s rifle, in the process of taking the land needed to support her children.

    We may pretend we have that freedom in modern times, but every attempt to do so is fraught with hidden compromises. We denounce cars but drive them. We deplore plasticity but buy it. We shun fast food but are often driven to it. We hate TV but own several of them. We deride the rich but secretly covet riches. We embrace foreign cultures, but wouldn’t choose to live that way. We leave our culture, but then years later return to it.

    Like Tolstoy, I don’t believe we can tell why humans exploit one another, only that they do, and whatever that disease is, we ourselves have it, either in an active or dormant phase, lodged in our deepest selves. That’s my rant.

  3. Hi LateBoy,

    I agree with your argument–in a nutshell, you’re saying that humans are inherently cruel & destructive, regardless of ethnicity. I remind myself of that so that I can stomach the atrocities that humans do to each other and to the planet. (BTW, just to clarify–I’m not even sure what “mostly euro-american” means. Although I was born in this country, that phrase is not an accurate description of my ethnic/cultural background, though I won’t go into the specifics here.)

    Don’t mean I have to like it, though. The thing is, the race (Caucasian, or maybe that’s your euro-americans) that have in recent history done the most warring, enslaving, colonializing, and destroying of other races (e.g native Americans, Africans, Asian Indians, Middle Eastern), have done a lot of their dirty work after proclaiming themselves “enlightened” and under the guise of being “Christian” and promoting “progress.”

    This is progress? American settlers were supposed to be better than Vikings, and they wasted no time pretending that they were and writing and rewriting history so that they looked noble. (And it still goes on today, just look at our “liberation” of Iraq.) This hypocrisy and pretense is what inspired the almost-rant.

    Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your 3 sisters garden.

  4. although i am happy that you recognize the horror of the genocide of the americas, i would ask you to re-evaluate your use of tenses. you say that we are all dead in your post. i am still alive. another point to be made is that the genocide is STILL OCCURRING AND YOU CAN DO SOMETHING TO HELP! if people keep in their minds that it is horrible, but a thing of the past that cannot be helped, then you are still participating in the conquest of this land! we did survive when those madmen took our land, and we are still surviving the rape, murder, forced relocation, reservation diets, boarding school massacres, and every other atrocity that was invented for us. there is so much people on the outside can do to help, please open your eyes to these things!


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