It seemed like a good idea at the time.
As I studied farming methods in preparation for the first year of Belly Acre Farm, I read a number of articles about Three Sisters. As the articles explain, our native American ancestors taught our European ancestors to plant corn, pole beans, and squash together, calling the interplantings Three Sisters, among other variants.
One article by an experienced gardener explained scientifically why the method works. The beans add nitrogen to the soil used by the corn and squash. The corn provides support for the beans to climb. Shaded by the corn and beans so it doesn’t get sunburned, the squash crowds out weeds.
It sounded perfect. Not only would I improve productivity, but I would save time and money on supports for my pole beans. And I’d have at least one section of my garden protected from heavy weeds.
I carefully followed the directions from the article, planting the corn first, in tight hills of four with space between the hills where I planted squash when the corn was the specified height, and finally pole beans next to the corn a little after that.
Maybe I chose the wrong varieties of corn, squash, and beans, but it didn’t work out so well. First, the squash fell victim to squash borers almost immediately. I got only one small picking before the vines died. I tried setting out replacements, switching to canteloupes and watermelons in some hills. All the squash died again, and the canteloupes and watermelons languished. They didn’t die, but they produced very little fruit.
Weeds laughed at the squash and melon ground cover. I struggled to keep the patch weeded, and finding it very difficult to attack weeds without hurting my intermingled crops. In fact, I accidentally killed several bean and melon vines by going after weeds that grew near them.
The corn did well, and I got a normal yield of well shaped ears. But by the time the beans had started producing, the corn crop had come and gone. Corn stalks die quickly after the harvest, leaving brown stalks that quickly lose their strength. Most fell over under the weight of the bean vines, leaving the beans tangled among the melon vines and weeds.
Admittedly, it did take the bean beetles a little longer to find the beans in the Three Sisters than the half runners planted in rows in another part of the garden. But not much longer, and once they found them, they ate just as voraciously. In fact, I’m convinced some of them learned to eat corn and squash. I was chasing bugs all summer.
The Three Sisters experiment succeeded only in increasing convenience — for the bugs that prefer to eat from several families of vegetables.