Tuesday, January 20, 2009

3 Sisters Method...A Great Way to Garden

Since I posted my tentative layout for this years garden, I've gotten some questions in particular over the 3 Sisters Method of gardening.

I won't usurp the wonderful things you can get from Googling, but I can clear up some of the particular questions.

Yes, it does work with square foot gardening. I've seen some wonderful results and been amazed at how much more efficient it was than either method alone. Combining the orderly nature of SFG and the companion gardening of 3 Sisters is a winner.

For a quick rundown, the 3 sisters method (3SM) is when you plant corn, then when it is six inches high, plant pole beans that use the corn as a trellis. Then, when those sprout, plant squash between the plants to shade the soil. They all work together nicely.

Now, for the biggest question I've gotten. No, spacing isn't set in stone! I went ahead and did some research and found that most of the confusion probably comes from getting multiple answers on the spacing issue. Here are some guidelines that can be made to work for your setup.

1. Corn spacing isn't set in stone at 1 per square foot or 4 per square foot. It is spaced according to the variety. When you see someone using 4 per square foot, they are using it with the short corn NOT tall corn. Likewise with 1 per square it is using very tall and slower varieties.

So check your packet of corn if you are set on a particular variety. Better yet, choose a variety based on what you want the outcome to be. If you're doing like me and trying to go with open pollinated, non-GMO and heirloom varieties, then you are looking at, generally speaking, the wider of the spacing.

I'm using True Gold variety so I'm going to be spacing at 1 per square foot, meaning I'll only get about 16 ears of corn from my 4 x 4 foot plot. That seems very little and it is, but it is a test plot so it is exactly what I need.

2. How many beans can a corn stalk support. Every single tribe seems to have had a slightly different version of 3SM. Some use 2 per, others plant several stalks of corn in a hole and then plant just one bean per risen stalk. The basic method is to planet two beans per stalk and modify that based on the height of your corn variety, the heaviness and vigor of your bean vines and so on. I'm planting big tall corn so I'm planting Chinese Red Noodle Beans and Kentucky Wonder pole beans. Half and half so I can see the effect on the corn.

3. Yes, definitely use Rhizobium Inoculant on your beans! The beans work with corn because they give corn nitrogen from the air and corn are heavy feeders. That will happen faster and with more vigor if you pre-prime the beans with inoculant.

4. What kind of squash and how many? I admit that this is a pure gamble for me because every tribe had their own varieties that they used. I'm going for the long season squash for sure because the last thing you want to do is have to root around the base of your corn and beans every day to find fast maturing summer squash. I'm probably going to do half Waltham Butternut and half Table Queen Acorn squash. They are long keepers necessary for winter storage and long growing season squash that won't need to be mucked about with and endanger my other crops.

5. And finally, how do I plan on keeping it all safe from wind and critters in a raised bed with very loose and rich soil? You are quite right that my rich soil means wind can knock it down easier. So I'm going to leave the hoop frame up! It will mean that most of the corn will be on the inside of the loop and have a bit of bracing that way. Not fool proof but no work involved really. As for critters, I'm going to take a watch and wait attitude. I don't want to put a giant ugly chicken wire box around the whole thing and I do have a lot of stuff planted that should be preferable to critters. Let's see.

So, I hope I answered your questions on the 3 Sisters Method and cleared up a bit of the mud!


Crunchy Christian Mom said...

Do you think the 3S method would work along a fence? I don't want my corn to shade the rest of the yard, so I thought I'd put it, my beans, and some vining squash interspersed along our north fence. I'm hoping if I do two rows of corn, that will be enough to get it to pollinate. Corn, bean, corn, bean, corn along the fence, then corn, squash, corn, squash in front, alternating so the front row doesn't shade the back. ???

ChristyACB said...

I do remember seeing a photo of a similar plot done, but against a sunny side of the house rather than a fence, but also only a staggered 2 deep.

While I don't remember exactly where that was, I do remember that the writer reported difficulty with pollination on the corn, but showed some pictures of how to do it manually.

I'm thinking it all depends on whether or not you're okay with hand pollinating the corn, just to be sure. It sure would be a nice way to take advantage of a sunny area that otherwise wouldn't get much growth and it sure would be pretty!

I'd probably go for it. Please be sure and let us all know how that goes though.