Three Sisters

Last year was our first chance to experiment with gardening in the Southern Appalachians, but the unprecedented drought smashed those plans to pieces.  Fast forward one year and things are once again lush and green. We were able to grow a variety of vegetables to see what does best in this area. Some produced like gangbusters while others never seemed to take off. The ones that excelled will be planted next year in mass, destined to be preserved for winter meals by canning and drying.  The best seeds will be saved for the future, eliminating the need to buy new seeds for each growing season.

My favorite gardening experience this year has been growing the Three Sisters. It’s an ancient native method of companion planting involving corn, beans, and squash. A few seeds of corn are planted in shallow mounds…

 

Beans are then planted beside the corn, and the corn stalks provide structure on which the beans will climb. Beans are also known for pumping nitrogen back into the soil, helping to feed everything growing nearby.

 

Low-growing squash plants are seeded among the corn, which will spread along the ground. Their large leaves provide shade for the roots of the corn and beans, and act as a natural barrier for weeds. Nearby watermelon vines took over before the squash had a chance to thrive, but worked fine just the same.

Most archaeological accounts date the Three Sisters technique back thousands of years in North America.

 

The variety of corn I used is called Cherokee White Eagle. As far as dynamics between sisters is concerned, she is the strongest of the three. Her Cherokee roots date back to this very area well before European contact in the 1400’s. She’s obviously at home here, among the mountains, valleys, clear streams, and massive old trees.

When sudden storms slam into her and lay her flat, it often looks like all is lost. Then a few days later she’s standing straight up again, tougher than before and ready for whatever the world will throw at her.  It’s no wonder her other two sisters look up to her. If a plant is capable of having an old soul, this one definitely fits the bill. Until a few years ago Cherokee White Eagle was only available to citizens of the Cherokee Nation.  Now, anyone is fortunate enough to be able to grow it.

For climbing beans we used two heirloom varieties, Snow Cap and Monachelle Di Trevio. They had no problem twining up the corn, encircling the stalks and tying them together to form a stronger unit. The beans were allowed to dry in place, in their own pods. They were harvested at the same time as the corn, which was also allowed to dry in place. The beans will go into hearty soups and stews and the corn will be ground as needed, to be used for cornbread and grits. All in all, the Three Sisters method was a success. The only changes I’ll make next year will be to add, if I can find them, a much older variety of beans and squash…something the Cherokee would have grown.

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