The Three Sisters Garden Guide

The Three Sisters Garden has gained some popularity in recent years and for good reason. Unlike conventional agriculture The Three Sisters Garden works with nature to provide for the crops needs, keep maintanence low, and keep soil fertility up without the addition of chemical fertilizers. It’s was perfect for the Native Americans and is perfect modern organic gardener.

Before the advent of large agricultural equipment these features weren’t just nice and environmentally friendly they were necessary. Imagine gardening without metal tools, sprinklers or hoses, or commercial garden additives nevermind tractors and cultivators. The traditional Three Sisters Garden was easy to grow and provided the basic staples of the Native American diet. Together corn, beans, and squash provided balanced nutrition.

To plant a Three Sisters Garden the traditional way you should prepare a fairly large space. Corn needs plenty of plants in one area as it’s wind pollinated. In some cultures the space was circular to help with pollination. The corn is planted in hills about 5 inches high, 18 inches across and 5 feet apart. The tops should be flat to prevent rain water run off. These hills allow the soil to warm more quickly in the spring and allow for better drainage. Traditionally it was common to add some fertility to each hill like fish or fish scraps before planting. Unless you fish a lot, compost or manure will do for the modern garden. If using manure mix it with the soil or bury slightly so it doesn’t burn the plants. Plant 4 corns seeds in a six inch square in each hill.

Pungo Creek Butcher Dent Corn

Three Sisters gardening often works best with flint, dent, or flour corn varieties as they are harvested at the end of the season. If you choose sweet corn you’ll have to carefully make your way through sprawling squash plants to reap your harvest. Alternatively you can plant sunflowers in place of corn which was also done by some native cultures.

You can find Southern Exposure’s flour, flint, and dent corn varieties here. Native American varieties include Hickory Cane Dent Corn and Cherokee White Flour though other varieties work well too.

Once the corn is 4 inches tall it’s time to plant the beans. This is also a good time to give your patch a good weeding before the plants get large. Then you can plant 4 beans in each hill placing them 3 inches away from the corn plants completing your original square. They’ll use the corn plants as living trellis and provide them with nitrogen throughout the growing season. Corn is a very heavy feeder so sustained nitrogen is essential to a good crop. In choosing bean varieties make sure you purchase pole beans not bush beans. It’s also a good idea to choose native or heirloom varieties unless your using sunflowers in place of corn. Some modern bean varieties have such big vines they can be too heavy for corn plants.

Genuine Cornfield Pole Snap Beans

You’ll also want to consider whether you want green beans or drying beans. Some varieties are dual purpose. Most Native Americans planted and harvested their beans as drying beans so that they could be harvest in the fall and stored for winter use.

You can check out Southern Exposure’s pole beans here.

Once the beans have sprouted it’s time to weed again and then plant the squash. Planting squash too early can shade out beans before they have a chance to start climbing. The squash should be planted in the in new mounds identical to those that were for the corn and beans. Plant three seeds and thin to just two per hill. The squash vines ramble throughout the garden shading our weeds and keeping soil moist. This is particularly advantageous in areas prone to drought because corn also requires good moisture for good harvests. When the squash shows its first true leaves it’s probably time to weed again.

Choosing squash can be difficult because of the variety of options. Any vining plant (not bush) in the cucurbit family will do though most native american grew winter squash varieties and harvested all there crops in the fall for storage throughout the winter. At Southern Exposure our favorites tend to be moschata squash plants. These varieties are more resistant to the squash vine borer and can be harvested early and used in summer squash recipes or left to mature and harvested as winter squash for storage. Some people have also used cucumbers, watermelons, and gourds with great success. Just keep in mind with cucumbers and melons you’ll need to carefully make your way through your patch to harvest while the other plants are still growing.

Tan Cheese Pumpkin

You can find Southern Exposure’s winter squash here. Once again the moschata cultivars can be eaten early as summer squash or eaten as winter squash. These include varieties like Seminole Pumpkin, Tahitian Melon Winter Squash, Thai Kang Kob Pumpkin, and more.

While they are called Three Sisters Gardens many Native Americans included more than just three crops. For instance the Wampanoag people planted sunflowers on the North side of the garden so they wouldn’t shade the other crops but would help attract pollinators. Some cultures also incorporated pollinator plants like bee balm or other crops like tobacco or amaranth which is grown for its edible leaves and seeds.

Growing a three sisters garden can be an easy fun project for the organic gardener. It’s low maintenance and beautiful. Though most people don’t have to grow corns, beans, and squash as staples anymore it can be a great way to keep organic gardening techniques, cultural traditions, and seed saving alive and well.

If you’re having a hard time choosing plant varieties consider Southern Exposure’s Three Sisters Garden Package which includes Bloody Butcher Corn, Genuine Cornfield Beans, and Seminole Pumpkin Squash seeds plus a planting guide.

Grow Eggplant this Year

With tomatoes and peppers ubiquitous in vegetable gardens, eggplants are often the nightshade left out. But even if your summers are on the cool side or the short side, you too can have homegrown eggplants. On our farm in central Virginia, shorter season varieties are often our best performing when summer is unusually cool or wet, and their faster-maturing fruits are the first to arrive at the table.

Southern Exposure sells four early-maturing eggplants: Applegreen (65 days, green-white skin), Early Black Egg (65 days, Japanese origin, deep-purple skin), Morden Midget (65 days, Canadian origin, deep-purple skin), and Ping Tung Long (62 days, Taiwanese origin, lavender skin).

I’m partial to long skinny eggplants (I like chopping them into thin half-moons), so Ping Tung Long is my favorite. I find that Asian varieties substitute well in Italian and European recipes. The lavender skins darken with cooking to a purple-tan color.

My current favorite eggplant recipe follows: a Sicilian Caponata. Caponata is vegan and gluten-free, and so full of flavor that no one will notice.

Sicilian Caponata

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s blog. Lebovitz requires deep-frying the eggplant in batches. This oven-roasted version cuts the oil somewhat, and is so much easier, and I think tastes just as good.

6 celery stalks
2 pounds eggplant (Italian or Asian types)
olive oil
salt
1 red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced (yellow or white will work but red is best)
1 cup green olives, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup capers, rinsed
1-1/2 cups tomato sauce (as a variation, make a quick, fresh sauce by simmering 3-4 diced Roma-type tomatoes in a small amount of water with salt to taste for 20-30 minutes.)
1/4 cup vinegar (red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey (or to taste)
Chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley for garnish

Roast the Eggplant:
1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Trim the stems off the eggplants, halve lengthwise, and slice into 1/2-inch pieces (half-moons work well for long-types, otherwise 1/2 inch cubes).
3. Toss the eggplant pieces with 1/2 to 1 tsp salt and 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil (it will soak up quite a lot). Spread on a baking dish and cook for 30-45 minutes, until the eggplant pieces are soft (easily pierced with a fork) and the skins have begun to darken.

Assemble the Caponata
1. Boil a medium-size pot of water. Cut the celery stalks into 1/2-inch slices. Simmer the celery until just tender, around 7 minutes. Drain and immerse in cold water to stop the cooking.
2. In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat 2-3 tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring frequently until translucent, around 7 minutes. Add the drained celery, olives, capers, tomato sauce, vinegar, and honey and bring to a low boil.
3. Add the eggplant and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring gently.
4. Taste and add additional salt and vinegar as desired. Transfer to a large shallow serving bowl to cool.

Serving: Allow to cool before serving, or refrigerate and serve the next day (this gives the flavors time to meld). Garnish with the chopped parsley to serve. May also be served as bruschetta — spread on bread slices that have been spread with olive oil and oven-toasted.

Get Your Kids Involved in the Garden!

By Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Depending on their age an interest level involving children in garden activities can be a challenge. Older kids would rather be inside playing video games and young children sometimes do more harm than good in the garden.

However teaching kids to garden is so important! It gives them time to be active and experience nature. It can also be a great tool to teach valuable life lessons. Children who garden develop a bit a self sufficiency, a knowledge about where their food comes from, and patience. They also learn science. They can measure how far apart to plant seeds, learn about the life cycle of plants, find out about how bacteria decomposes compost material, and so much more.

The best way to start your children’s gardening career is to inspire them.

While many young children enjoy being involved in any adult activity for older kids it might be necessary to provide them with a reason to get out in the garden.

A great way to start is read age appropriate books that talk about gardening with them. When I was a child my mom read Little House on the Prairie to me and when we worked in the garden I would pretend that we were pioneers living off the land. You could try coloring books too. They make some awesome garden/nature coloring books that will help with the introduction.

Make gardening their project not just something they’re helping you with. Let them have a hand in planning the garden from start to finish. Ask them what they’d like to grow and let them start their plants from seed. For older kids you can get their input on garden layout too. Make sure they’re involved in the garden’s care throughout the summer and then help them do something with the finished product. You can help them look up a recipe and prepare a meal with what they grew or help them try to sell a bit of produce. When other kids in my neighborhood set up a lemonade stand I set up a tomato stand and I absolutely loved it.

One of the best ways to ensure everyone has a good experience is to make your garden child friendly.

Keep a few child size tools on hand. Trying to use adult size tools can be frustrating for small children. By giving them they’re own set you can help them feel like they’re a real member of your gardening team.

Try to design your garden with distinct paths or raised beds. Paths and raised beds are great for a number of reasons but they can be really handy when gardening with kids. It’s easy to show children where they can walk (or run!) through the garden and where the plants that shouldn’t be stepped on are.

Have a separate kids garden. For children who are too young to differentiate between weeds and crops and what’s ready to be harvested or not, it may be advisable to create a small separate children’s garden. Of course you can still supervise them in your main garden but in this area they could plant whatever they want and go wild without you worrying about your crops.

Grow a fort! Create bean teepees and leave an opening as a door or set up tunnel trellises like those made from cattle panels. When the plants are mature the kid’s will have a shady little retreat. This is a great process to involve kid’s in too.

Plant fragrant varieties! Kids love to smell plants and it doesn’t just have to be flowers though those definitely work. As a child my favorite parts of my grandmother’s garden were her patches of mint and creeping thyme. Other great options are sage, basil, or rosemary.

Let them graze! If there’s fruit or veggies they want to munch while they meander around the garden let them go for it even if you wanted to harvest them for later. You’re cultivating a love for healthy food straight from the earth. 

Teach them about local wildlife.

Have them help make or at least fill bird feeders. There are many easy bird feeders that can be quick children’s projects. For example putting strings on a few pine cones and then coating them in peanut butter and rolling them in bird seed.

If the bird feeder was a hit you may also want to try a bird bath. They’re fun for kids to fill up and watch birds in or if you’re ready for a challenge try making your own.

Insect hotels and pollinator or butterfly gardens are also fun projects for kids that can really help local pollinator and beneficial insect populations which helps you and your children have a more successful garden.

With any of these projects helping the child identify and learn about what species are visiting can be rewarding. For older children a kid’s guidebook to local birds or insects might be a great option.

Pick projects that are easy for kids and peak their interest.

Many children are easy to get excited about projects but for some picking up plants from the hardware store and popping them in the ground just isn’t that cool. Teach them how to start plants from seed and they’ll be in awe about how big their plants are by the end of the summer. For and even better effect take photos along the way for you to look back on together. You could also choose fast growing crops like radishes for added excitement.

Plant a themed garden. Pizza and salsa gardens seem to be popular but there’s plenty of other options. You could plant a garden as habitat for a specific species or try a rainbow (plants with every color) or alphabet gardens (plants with names starting with every letter of the alphabet). Another great option is a fairy garden or garden they design for one of their favorite book or movie characters.

Especially if you have multiple children or a child’s friends over making concrete stepping stones can be a great project. They can personalize a stone and help you create a pathway that will preserve memories for years to come. For more crafty garden project ideas try browsing Pinterest.

Assign age appropriate tasks. It’s frustrating to try to get kids who can’t reliably tell the difference between a tomato seedling and a dandelion to weed the garden. However even for kids who are too young to weed without tearing up the garden or can’t be trusted to harvest on their own can be given a small watering can to help water the plants. They can also help with processing food once it’s harvested. Many people probably remember sitting on the porch shelling peas or shucking corn as kids.

For those trying to garden with very young children you may just have to have them sit beside you or ride in a backpack to get some fresh air and take in the sights and sounds while you do the gardening.

You can also make sure to include some fun easy to harvest crops in your garden. Plants like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are always a big hit as long as you don’t mind missing a few! If you have loose soil carrots, radishes and other root crops can be fun for kids to pull. Gathering potatoes after an adult forks them up can be a good option too. Other large fruiting crops like beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers can be a good job for children as long as they’re gentle enough.

Many children also enjoy planting large seeded crops like sunflowers, squash, and cucumbers that are easy to hold and place. You could also have them try planting garlic or potatoes. My favorite for kids to plant is onion sets because they can plant them anywhere in the garden and they can be harvested as green onions if they end up in a tight space.

If they like planting you can consider introducing them to seed saving. My favorite plant to start with is sunflowers. It’s a lot of fun for kids to remove the seeds from the sunflower head in the fall and then you can remind them of their hard work when they plant them in the spring.

Let them get dirty.

Know that children are going to get way dirtier than necessary in the garden. If you’re worried about it you may want to set a few pairs of clothing aside just for “garden days.”

Teach them about compost. It can be fun for kids learn about how a compost pile breaks down. Let them hold the earthworms. Invest in a thermometer and teach them about how compost heats up. They’ll be amazed.

Another fun project is teaching them to make compost tea and fertilize the plants with it. They can go wild mixing and then you can show them how to apply it to certain plants. For older kids it could be a great science lesson about plant nutrient requirements.

Keep your kids safe.

Obviously backyard gardens are generally pretty safe places. However there’s a few things to ensure your children have a safe gardening experience.

First take the time to teach your children to properly use tools. Learning things like not leaving a rake on the ground tines up seems simple but can save little bare feet.

Also be aware of anything toxic. Young children have a tendency to put things in their mouth. Be sure to watch them if there’s garden amendments or toxic plants like rhubarb leaves within their reach. Also if you use any powdered amendment (even organic) be sure children aren’t breathing it in.

In today’s world there’s a severe disconnect between children and nature. They don’t get outside enough. They have little education about plants, wildlife, or where their food comes from. Gardening with your kids is one of the best ways to fix this. Gardening with kids affords them so many great opportunities and though it may be stressful at times it certainly won’t be dull. Even if they pick your unripe strawberries or “weed” out the peppers you just transplanted it’s still worth it. They learn and grow and might even remember to thank you later (probably not).

Saving the Past for the Future