Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Companion Gardening: the Three Sisters System

As we head into fall and the harvest season, now is a good time to start planning our gardens for next year. These plans can include:

  • Clearing more ground for planting
  • Prepping existing beds for winter
  • Adding slow fertilizing agents such as manure or leaves
  • Planting crops that benefit from cold weather like garlic or winter wheat or rye

However, another item to consider when planning for spring is planting arrangements. Most people who garden are familiar with the concept of crop rotation; simply put, this is the practice of not planting the same crops in the same soil multiple years in a row so as not to exhaust the soil. Companion gardening, the next logical step after crop rotation, is the practice of using of certain aspects and requirements of one plant in order to benefit another plant. 

The most traditional version of this concept is called The Three Sisters Garden utilizing corn, beans, and squash, and this technique was used by American Indians to increase production and protect their crops for many hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The corn stalks would provide support for the beans, the squash would shade the roots of the corn, and they would all protect each other from certain pests.

Two garden layouts for a Three Sisters garden

As a variation on this concept, in our gardens we plant marigolds around the tomato beds to help keep the bugs off, and pungent herbs such as basil and oregano in the same bed as the tomatoes to dissuade rabbits.

There are of course many more combinations of plants that benefit each other than these. I have an old book on the subject that, unfortunately, has lost its covers over time and the title is not printed on the pages, so I can’t pass that information on here. However, a multitude of other resources are available either online, such as Companion Planting: Three Sisters Garden Plans or The Old Farmer’s Almanac Companion Planting Guide For Vegetables as well as in print books, such as Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte or Veg in One Bed: How to Grow an Abundance of Food in One Raised Bed, Month by Month by Huw Richards.

These techniques, ancient on the one hand and proven by western science on the other, can both improve your yield and prevent disease and other damage when applied correctly. 

Good luck, and good gardening.

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