Three Sisters in the Hawaiian Garden: Warm Season Abundance
Updated: Apr 17, 2021
By Nancy Redfeather
Spring is here again, and it’s a perfect time to plant the Three Sisters in your home garden. This year, the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network has an abundance of varieties for you to choose from. This is the sisters favorite time of year. If you plant by the end of April, you can catch the end of the Winter rains to get them up and growing and then start eating them in early to mid-summer! Who are these three lovely ladies? Corn, Beans, and Squash and their companions Tomatoes, Peppers, and Amaranth.
The Three Sisters story comes from an old Native American tale that has been passed on from generation to generation by most of the Tribes in America as a way to explain the importance of these 3 crops for the People. Although we live in Hawai’i and have different stories, such as the story of Haloanakalaukapalili – the Taro, the 3 sisters are also crops that also grow very well in subtropical environments. The “theme” of the Three Sisters Garden is a familiar one for us today: E Hana Kakou: We are stronger when we work together! Here is a link to the Three Sisters Story you might like to share with your children. In fact, this could become a Spring family home garden project (more on that at the end of this blog)!
Planting the Three Sisters & Their Companions
The corn, beans, and squash seeds are planted in the same field together! Each corn stalk provides the trellis for a dry or green bean to wind itself around, and the squash or pumpkins form the understory that decreases weeds, and helps to keep the soil moist as the weather gets warmer.
There are a few ways you could plant this. The traditional way is to make small hills 3-4 feet apart, with 4-5 corn seeds planted 1 ½ inch deep and at least 6-8 inches apart. Usually the corn is soaked for a few hours in water before planting to aid sprouting. When the corn is 8-12 inches high, a green or dry pole bean seed is planted next to each corn plant. Carefully push the seed down into the soil a few inches away from the growing corn stalk. At the same time, plant at least 1 small mound of pumpkins. (3-4 seeds thinning to 1-2 plants) and encourage them to run around underneath, but not climb on the beans and corn. The pumpkin or squash seed could be planted in a little mound in the center of the patch.
Another way of planting would be to create a block of corn in rows and then add the beans and squash seeds as indicated above. Plant a corn seed every 12 inches apart forming a minimum of 4 rows (4x4=16 plants) Corn is wind and bee pollinated and needs close contact for good pollination of the kernels. Of course you can make your block as large as you want!
The 3 Sister’s companions Tomatoes, Peppers, and Amaranth, can be planted in the patch also. These “cousins” are traditionally planted together in the milpa (cornfield). Tomatoes could be planted here and there in the patch instead of pumpkins and let sprawl out across the ground forming a protective ground cover. Peppers could also be interspersed here and there making a really diverse milpa. The tall and upright Amaranth could also be planted here or there replacing a mound of corn or a few plants in a row. Bottom line, the diversity of these 6 crops growing together is natural and will provide your family with a great selection of nutritious foods. Photo credit: Indigenousagroecology.com
Choosing your seeds
This Spring, the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network is offering an array of different corn, bean, squash, tomato, pepper, and amaranth seed varieties to choose from.
There are 3 new Sweet Corn varieties, 2 new Popcorn varieties, and 2 new Flour Corn varieties. There are 8 different types of Pole Beans to choose from, and there are 2 Squash varieties.
There are 5 newly restocked tomato varieties that would fit into this system perfectly, and 4 varieties of peppers! Also, there are 4 varieties of the tall Amaranth whose leaves are used as extremely nutrition greens. Go to the website and read about the qualities of each of these varieties. Then sit down with a piece of paper and plan out your Spring Garden.
HSGN Growers, Jay Bost and Glenn Teves, have joined the Culinary Breeders Network to create a webinar on Winter Squash, it’s lots of fun and very informative! Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec2LNtsbi68
The Passing of UH Corn Breeder Dr. James Brewbaker
The UH Manoa Seed Breeder, Dr. James Brewbaker, recently passed after almost 60 years of corn breeding research and work at the UH farm in Waimanalo in tropical and subtropical corn and other crops. We are all indebted to Dr. B for his tireless work, generous nature, and meticulous breeding program that brought disease resistant corn varieties to all the people of the tropics. This year we are offering new sweet and flour corn varieties that were developed by Dr. Brewbaker, as well as two heirloom popcorn varieties grown by Milk and Honey Farm in Pahoa, on Hawai’i Island. Photocredit: UHFoundation
Tips for Caring for and Harvesting
Corn likes water - especially when it is young - so if your garden soil is dry make sure you give the soil adequate moisture. You could mulch around the hills with leaves or other material to retain moisture. Corn is a heavy feeder so be sure to add a layer of compost to your hills before planting the seeds.
Corn can be harvested around 3 months when the husks turn brown and the silks shrivel. I like to take the outside husk off and dry the corn cobs by hanging them in bunches on my breezy and cool porch. Corn must be thoroughly dry before taking the kernels off the cob in a bowl placed in your lap. When corn is sufficiently dry, the kernels will come off easily by rubbing with your hands. The beans can be harvested when the pods are fully mature. If the weather is dry and sunny you can let the beans or corn dry right on the plant. If not, they should be harvested when fully mature and placed somewhere dry and airy. When it is very wet in our Kona summer I even open the bean pods and remove the beans and put them out to dry. Remember all beans can also be cooked fresh.
Be sure the beans are fully dry before storing them away in your pantry. (see Blog #5 May 2020 for storage tips) Pumpkins will begin turning color and will become mature at 3-4 months. If the weather is dry and you aren’t seeing pest damage, you can leave them in the field, but if not, cut ther as they “cure.”
Sharing the Three Sisters with your Children at Home
If you have children at home, this garden can become part of their educational experience. Below are some links to curriculum and activities for your family.
1. Here is a link to a curriculum for K-12 grade, Generation to Generation.
2. Making Corn Dollies: https://youtu.be/2C1t3UyBFEg
3. Making Cornbread from fresh corn: https://www.thespruceeats.com/corn-bread-recipe-995149
4. Saving seeds from corn, beans, and squash: https://www.seedsavers.org/how-to-save-seeds
5. Making a pumpkin pie. You can leave out the sugar, instead add some maple syrup, and a little coconut milk. Save the seeds, for replanting or wash and dry them and roast them with salt in the oven for a snack! https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/13711/homemade-fresh-pumpkin-pie/
6. You can always add a scarecrow for a bit garden protection! https://youtu.be/L-DZ-YhG27k
The Three Sisters in a Container on Your Lanai
This garden can also be grown in a container. Don’t plant more than 2 corn seeds in a 5 gallon pot, then add the beans seeds when the corn is about a foot high. Plant your pumpkin in a separate pot and let them run around on your lanai. (Even one plant will produce many squashes or pumpkins).
We hope you are enjoying your Spring Planting and the resurgence of the vital life force energies that awaken and begin to grow at this time.