The Three Sisters, Beans, Corn and Squash!

By Nan

cornNative Americans all across the USA planted these three crops for a very good reason. By combining them in there diet they had a base of complete nutrition. It is not just any kind of beans. corn and squash. You need to grow mature dry beans, corn as a grain and winter keeping squash. String beans, sweet corn and summer squash will not do. Neither beans or corn develop protein until fully mature and dry. Summer squash has almost no calories and not that much in the way of vitamins. Both corn and beans contain Amino Acids which are the building blocks our bodies use to assemble protein. We need about 4 or 5 times as much corn in our diet to balance with dry beans.

Early European settlers learned about The Three Sisters from the Native Americans. This combination almost certainly helped them to survive too. Today we know more about why this combination works so well. The bottom line is that it still is a very good basic diet, and works just as well today as it has for centuries.

Native Americans needed nutritious foods which store well and provide calories protein and vitamins. Agriculture provided a foundation while hunting and fishing complemented their diet. Most people would rather have plenty of meat or fish every day, but we can live well on mostly The Three Sisters. As any hunter or fisherman knows, you can spend all day out there and come home empty handed. The Three Sisters you can grow in your garden. They store well so they are available as you need them.

Beans and Squash both have to be grown in full sunlight all day long. They must not be shaded by trees or buildings. Corn must be grown in blocks of 4 or more rows for the best pollination. Tall corn and pole beans will also shade the area to the north. To grow a balanced amount of The Three Sisters we only need a single wide row for squash so arrange your garden so that it is along the side toward the south.

The runners from the squash will need lots of room so allow at least 6 feet of garden space on both sides of the row of hills of winter squash.The row or hills of corn closest to the squash will have full sun all day long, You can plant pole beans among that one row of corn when it is 4 inches high. The rest of your corn crop should be in at least 3 more adjacent rows to the north side of the first row so it will not shade the beans growing up on that first row of corn.

So which way is south? A simple way to tell is notice where the sun rises and sets on the horizon. Stand in your garden area with your arms out straight to each side. Turn your head to the left and have that arm pointing toward where the sun rises. Now turn your head to the right and have that arm pointing to where the sun sets. Look straight ahead, and that is south.

Planting Instructions for our 3 Sisters Collection

three sisters

Click for full sized image…

With a string measure – 6 – 30′ rows running East to West. The rows should be 3′ apart and the last row must face toward the South.

Next – Make 10 hills that are 3′ apart in each row.

Fertilize – Heavily under all hills, taking care to work the fertilizer into the soil.

Plant – 5 Corn seeds in each hill after the soil has thoroughly warmed. In the 6th row, when the corn is 4” high, plant 5 pole bean seeds around the corn in each of the 10 hills.Weed throughly before planting beans.

( Be sure this row is facing South to get maximum sun exposure).

Measure – 6′ from the corn and bean row and plant 10 hills of squash seed. Use 5 seeds per hill and make hills 3′ apart.

Allow – 6′ of garden space on this side of your squash row as well.

Note: You have enough seed in this seed collection to plant a 33′ by 33′ area. If that is too much garden space plant 5 hills in each of the 7 rows instead of 10.


  1. Excellent. As a vegan, I am a true believer of the 3 sisters plus potatoes. Thank you for the layout for the garden. I liked how you laid out the vegetables as the three plants grown on same hill does reduce the amount of sun reaching the squash and some of the beans. I think I will go with your plan this year.

  2. Here’s a question for everyone. What is the best Squash to grow for this? I mean varieties.

    Thank you

    • Donna in Mn says:

      I have had acorn and butternut squash because they store longer in a cool place- about 3-4 months. I make squash bars, squash bread, squash pie, (substitute squash for pumpkin pie) and added squash to extend my spaghetti and lot of other recipes for it.

    • Baby blue hubbard and sweet dumpling-both are super sweet, store well- I like them because they both small 1-2 pounds at most – I don’t need or want a 10-15 pound squash. Both are heirloom so you can save seeds just plant two beds on opposite sides of garden.

    • EzMan, the hubbards and pumpkins store the longest. The rule of thumb is the harder the shell the longer the storage life. Start the season with acorn and spaghetti-up to 2 months, moved on the the butternut style-up to 4-5 months, and then toward the hubbards-5-7 months. There are many more varieties. These represent the more popular ones.

  3. JP in MT says:

    Just another example of how I’m going to have to learn to like squash.

    • KS Judy says:

      Do you like sweet potatoes? Or pumpkin? The three are interchangeable in any recipe. I like my squash (or sweet potato) the best simple; bake, a pat of butter, a sprinkle of salt, and maybe a pinch of sugar depending how naturally sweet the squash is.

    • tommy2rs says:

      Try Curried Squash Soup. Or Empanadas (think baked fried pie with a pumpkin or squash filling), tastes like pumpkin pie. Or even make smoothies, biscuits, cookies, puddings or ice cream with a fall flavor theme. I detest veggies as a rule but even I’ll eat these.

  4. I have been wanting to do the 3 sisters plan before but doing them all together would take up too much space. I like this layout. I will try it this year.

  5. CA Rebel says:

    The Three Sisters are planted together, the corn stalk provides the pole for the beans to grow up, the squash provides ground cover to hold in moisture. These are planted in a circle, not a square. Seed Savers and Southern Exposure each have sets for sale.

  6. patientmomma says:

    I Am Planting 3 Sisters Next Week. I Got The Blue Maiden Pkg From JedediahFisherseeds, Which Is Especially Pkg For 3 Sisters Method. I Like Your Squash Separation, Better Than The Recommended.

  7. Goatlover says:

    I’ve got the Three Sisters planting going in my garden NOW since I am in Florida. I have an awful time growing squash, but can grow a nice pumpkin—so pumpkins it is! My corn patch is 4 rows wide by about 40 plants long….one or two pole bean plants next to each corn plant, and maybe a dozen or so pumpkin vines started wherever the corn didn’t germinate… will be a beautiful sight when it’s all full-grown!

  8. Texmexmix says:

    I planted all 3 in a 10’x4′ garden. 3 in line. Didn’t do to bad. It was to hot for the squash over summer-fall but had plenty of beans & small Indian corn. Yellow corn grew but not as well as Indian corn.

  9. mindful patriot says:

    Thank you, Nan, for describing the process step by step. I appreciate it. Am now encouraged to give it a go!!

  10. Chuck Findlay says:

    There has been a lot of cold and way too much snow this year, I’m looking forward to getting the garden going. not that I’m going vegan as bacon is the perfect food and I will NEVER give it up.


  11. CountryVet says:

    There is a additonal benefit to this planting technique. Last year I ran a trial and planted 3 “sets” of 3 sisters with the only variable being the type of squash that I used. All produced well, BUT I noted that the more vigorous the squash vine the taller and more productive the corn in that group was. I planted butternut, baby blue hubbard, and Chicago warted hubbard. The “warties” tried to take over the world ( and produced a volume that I am still amazed by)- They had the tallest corn, with the baby blue in the middle and the butternut the shortest. All of the squast outproduced the same variety planted by itself. There is evidendly some sort of growth hormone that is shared by their root systems that has a synergistic effect. I was disappointed in the storeage qualities of the “warties”
    but worked great for dehydration and canning. These were MASSIVE squash with tremendous flavor. My best storage sqaush to date are the butternut, the Hopi and the Georgia baker (was not tested in the 3 sister planting). I have some of all 3 still sitting in baskets in my dining room with no signs of detrioration. I was not impressed with the baby blue at all on any of my parameters.

    • CountryVet says:

      As an interesting point, it was HOT here this past year, I did not get the Hopi and the Georgia baker out until late and did NOT expect them to do anything. They produced well in spite of that so both would be worth conisderation for those in hot areas. We water with soaker hoses under shredded paper mulch. Squash were planted 8″ apart, 3-4 plants to a group in a raised bed, 3 corn plants to each group in the center, 3 bean plants. The “warties” innitially overran the beans, but as the squash died out, beans came on n the fall.

  12. plantlady says:

    If you plan on using grain corn (dried for flour or meal) as a diet staple, you MUST be prepared to nixamaltize it to make the niacin available to your body (preventing pellegra, a devastating vitamin deficiency), enhance the protein, add calcium, remove aflatoxins likely present on the seed coat and improve flavor. A simple process that will save your life! Look it up, memorize the process and stock up on slaked lime…you will be so glad you did!

    • riverrider says:

      i was wondering if anybody would bring this up. corn in its natural state was not used by indians or anybody else. they used lye, lime and other chemicals to literally change the molecular structure of the corn and make it useful for nutrition. man was not evolved to eat corn, neither have most animals. could be a cause of obesity? diabetes? cholesterol? makes you go hmmmm.

  13. Beans provide the Niacin and the rest of the amino acids for protein. That is why the Native Americans combined them sucessfully for centuries.

  14. Don’t forget the pretty step-sister!! If you’ve read Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, you’ll know that is Black Oil Sunflowers. They were a very critical part of the diet. The reason they get left out is because the other plants don’t grow well together with them (hence why I call sunflowers the step-sister). Instead they were grown as a border plant encircling the rest of the garden, helping to make a bit of a living fence, both against animals and weeds.

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