The Three Sisters – Companion Planting At Its Finest!

The Three Sisters – Invented By American Indians

The Three Sisters is a Native American Indian planting technique that combines corn, green (pole) beans, and squash in the same area to compliment each other’s basic needs. On arrival in North America in the 17th century, early settlers discovered that several tribes employed this unique garden method and had been doing so for over 300 years.

These vegetables were believed to be a gift from the gods, creating physical and spiritual sustenance. The three were grown, eaten, and honored together.


Corn Sister

Pole Beans Sister

Squash Sister










  • The older sister, corn, acts as a trellis helping the pole beans climb toward the sun.
  • The giving sister, pole beans, stabilizes the corn during high wind and adds extra nitrogen to the soil for both corn and squash. Corn and squash are voracious nitrogen feeders, at least in the pre-fruit development period.
  • The baby sister, squash, always crawls close to the ground providing cover to keep the soil cool and moist, discouraging weed growth, and protecting the sisters against pests that are not comfortable around the huge, sharp leaves and prickly haired vines.

NOTE: Raccoons dearly love sweet corn but, they hate stepping on the sharp squash undergrowth to get to the corn ears.

This threesome provided the Indians with the basic vegetables for their diet, along with meat procured by the hunter-gatherers of their clan.


The Three Sisters How-to

Most gardeners plant The Three Sisters in islands as shown in this picture.

The Three Sisters - Island Method

I use this island method to plant The Three Sisters and, I place 8 to 10 seeds of each sister into their special island.  After the plants get about 6 inches tall, I remove half of them, leaving only the strong seedlings to grow to maturity.

The corn is first to go in the ground.  Check out the how-to for planting corn.

When the corn is about 12 inches high, I formulate a 50/50 mixture of potting soil and dirt, add a few tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer, and use the mixture to bank up the sides of the stalks in each row at least 6 inches…creating hills.

Now, I’m ready to plant the pole bean seeds in the hill banks of each corn island. Here are some across-the-board tricks for planting and spacing pole beans.

As soon as the beans are germinated and pushing up through the ground, I put in my hills of squash between the islands of corn and pole beans.  Need some tips for growing squash?  You can use any type squash, including zucchini and pumpkins.

And, there you have it! A Three Sisters garden that will replenish the soil fertility and thrive…with each vegetable sister supporting her other siblings.


There is a very good reason for using the island approach for the Three Sisters.  If the corn is planted in straight rows, the squash has to be planted between the corn rows and they will not get enough sun – stunting their growth.  The tall corn will shade the squash completely as they reach maturity.  Thus, planting in an island configuration makes it easier to strategically place all 3 plants so that they all get plenty of sunshine.

Some gardeners add a 4th sister…sunflowers or other bee-attracting plants…to help pollinate the beans and squash. The Three Sisters “Plus One” idea was first successfully used by the Pueblo Indians in the Southwestern United States.


The Three Forgetful Sisters

Three sisters with memory problems, who were 96, 94, and 92 years old, respectively, lived together in the same house.




The oldest sister was in an upstairs bathroom filling a bathtub and, as she starts to get into the tub, she hesitates and yells, “Was I getting into the tub or getting out?”








The middle sister yells back, “I don’t know. I’ll come up and see.” She gets halfway up the stairs and yells, “Was I going up the stairs or down?”







The youngest sister, sitting at the kitchen table sipping tea, shakes her head saying, “I sure hope I never get that forgetful! Knock on wood!” Then she raps her knuckles on the table.

Finally replying to her two older siblings, the youngest sister says, “I guess I have to come up and help both of you! But, first I have to go see who is at the front door.”


So much for The Three Sisters, huh?


Have you tried The Three Sisters technique?  Are you utilizing companion planting in your garden?  I am interested in your views so please share them in the comments section or by email:



4 thoughts on “The Three Sisters – Companion Planting At Its Finest!

  1. Greenvee Reply

    We learn something new everyday!! Very interesting. I love gardening and this is a very useful tip. Although I don’t grow corn I will still use this method and maybe adapt it somehow. Not yet sure how but I intend to keep this method in mind.
    And I really love the story about the three sisters at the end!! Great stuff!!!
    All the best

    • Jim Reply

      Glad you enjoyed The Three Sisters! It is interesting to note that, even though this is a new concept for many people, it has been around since the 14 th century. And, it is a very unique way to utilize a small garden space. It’s a win-win situation for all!


  2. Michael Miller Reply

    I am all for companion planting and efficiently using the space around your garden. My wife and I have been gardening around 10 years and I never had heard of this method.

    I am allergic to corn and was wondering what else can be substituted? We planted a 100′ x 40 ‘ garden only to harvest around 10 tomatoes and 20 green beans and peas bevause they got choked out by weeds. I like the idea of using squash as a weed and animal deterrentm
    The two plants that did the best were an acorn and yellow squash plant we didn’t even plant. The compost planted it.

    • Jim Reply

      Wow, Michael…

      No corn bread or corn muffins for you.

      If you have mild symptoms, I bet you keep some Benadryl around at all times.

      Because, corn is present in a lot of processed and packaged foods including deli meat, cereal, jam, bread, salad dressing, canned fruits and juices, yogurt, cheese, and even soda!  Corn can also be found in toothpaste, shampoo, vitamins, makeup, clothing, paint, and, of all things, dishwasher soap!

      You must spend a lot of time checking labels.

      But, to get back to your question about a substitute for corn in a Three Sisters planting method, you could use indeterminate tomatoes.  The kicker is that you would need to stake or cage the tomato plant to reinforce it.  With a cage, the pole beans would have a place to climb happily and the squash can still cool the ground and act as a weed and pest barrier.


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