What is the Three Sisters Planting Method? This Century-Old Technique Will Help Grow Fertilizer-Free, Healthy Plants

Three Sister Planting method is an ancient practice that allows you to grow and harvest long-lasting, pesticide-free crops in any size of garden

Raised beds with vegetables growing in the sun
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Three sister planting method is a type of companion planting, where you can grow different plants together, to increase soil fertility and to confuse pests, and insects, keeping them from damaging the crops. This concept was used thousands of years ago, long before chemical fertilizers and pesticides were used.

This is a great way to promote crop productivity by harnessing the natural benefits of soil/plant systems. It can lead to healthier plants and vegetables, as it reduces or even removes the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. If you're ready to convert your backyard into a nutrient-rich, greenscape, then this method is a must-try.

What is The Three Sister Planting Method?

Three crops planted together

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For any modern garden, it is always healthy to have a wide variety and combination of plants and vegetables growing together. This allows the soil to remain fertile and visually too, makes the garden look rich and lush.

'The Three Sisters Planting Method is an old, Native American method of companion planting in which corn, beans, and squash are interplanted together,' says Kat Aul Cervoni, landscape designer and founder of Staghorn NYC and The Cultivation by Kat. 'The idea is that the three plants provide support for one another, like a family, to help each other thrive.'

What Plants Specifically Work in This Technique

A squash planted in the garden

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'The Three Sisters Planting Method fosters a symbiotic relationship between corn, beans, and squash,' says Reese L Robins, gardening expert at Just Pure Gardening. 'The corn provides a natural trellis for the beans to climb, allowing them to reach for sunlight and optimizing vertical space. In turn, the beans, with their nitrogen-fixing abilities, enrich the soil by converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by plants.

'The squash acts as a living mulch, suppressing weeds and conserving soil moisture,' says Reese. 'This dynamic trio not only enhances biodiversity but also reduces the risk of pest infestations through the mutually beneficial relationships among the three crops.'

'Traditionally, this method uses corn, beans (pole beans), and squash, such as pumpkins only,' says Kat. But if you wish, you could add a fourth sister, which is sunflowers. These are other climbing supports for the beans and attract pollinating insects.

If you're wondering how to plant a modern garden that is self-sufficient and also sustainable, the three-sister planting method is a winner. This method maintains the fertility of the soil. Each vegetable draws on a different key nutrient to maintain growth, avoiding any major competition, and each helps the other in different ways.

Is it difficult to set up Three Sister Planting?

'The initial setup may be labor-intensive, as careful planning and spacing are required to ensure each plant receives adequate sunlight,' says Reese. 'Creating the mounds or hills for planting and coordinating the specific placement of corn, beans, and squash can demand more effort compared to conventional planting methods.'

'Additionally, due to the interdependence of the three crops, a precise arrangement is crucial, making the setup phase more intricate,' says Reese. 'However, with proper management, the benefits far outweigh these initial challenges, making it a sustainable and rewarding gardening method.'

The good news is that 'this is a very effective form of companion planting and is great for producing a high yield of vegetables even in a small amount of space,' says Kat. So a small lawn to a terrace garden can work where interplanting techniques usually prove successful.

What tools do you need for this method?

Before you begin this urban gardening practice (which of course has roots in ancient traditions!), make sure you have all the right equipment.

'Equipping yourself for the Three Sisters Planting Method demands a set of essential tools that ensure a seamless gardening experience,' says Reese. 'Begin with a reliable garden hoe, indispensable for crafting the necessary mounds or hills where your seeds will find their home. Precision is key, and a set of trustworthy hand trowels becomes invaluable for planting and managing the spaces between your crops.'

'Consider investing in a pH meter, a wise choice for monitoring soil acidity and maintaining optimal conditions for your crops,' says Reese. 'A high-quality watering can or hose with a gentle spray attachment is crucial, particularly during the critical germination period, ensuring consistent moisture for your growing plants. To add to your toolkit, garden stakes, and twine prove to be practical assets, aiding in the marking of planting locations and providing essential support for tall corn stalks.'

3 products for Three Sister Planting Method

Aditi Sharma Maheshwari

Aditi Sharma Maheshwari is an architecture and design journalist with over 10 years of experience. She's worked at some of the leading media houses in India such as Elle Decor, Houzz and Architectural Digest (Condé Nast).  Till recently, she was a freelance writer for publications such as Architectural Digest US, House Beautiful, Stir World, Beautiful Homes India among others. In her spare time, she volunteers at animal shelters and other rescue organizations.