The Three Sisters: Planting Corn, Beans, and Squash Together

The Three Sisters companion planting illustration for corn, beans and squash

Treehugger / Lara Antal

This classic companion planting combo encourages each of the three to thrive. Here's why and how to do it.

Companion planting is brilliant. By placing plants together that help each other, we let Mother Nature do some of the heavy lifting in the garden. It is basically creating a beautifully synergistic community of plants.

Perhaps the most classic example of companion planting is known as the "three sisters," which the Farmer's Almanac notes was a practice favored by the Iroquois for centuries before the European settlers came to town in the 1600s.

Who Are the Three Sisters of Planting?

The sisters are corn, pole beans, and squash (traditionally winter squash, but summer squash can work too). According to legend, notes the Almanac, "the plants were a gift from the gods, always to be grown together, eaten together, and celebrated together."

With the corn planted in the center, it offers support for the pole beans. The beans add nitrogen to the soil, enriching it for the other plants, while also vining their way around to hold the sisters together. The large leaves of the squash around the edge shades the soil to keep it cool and hinder weeds and other pests.

How to Plant the Sisters

Cornell University offers these guidelines:

• Plant corn when the ground has warmed and is no longer cold and wet. Iroquois tradition holds that planting begins when the leaves of a dogwood are the size of a squirrel’s ear.

• Soak corn seeds for several hours, but not more than eight hours, before planting. (Soaked seed may dry out quickly, so keep the seeds well watered for the first week or two if the soil is not kept moist by rain showers.)

• Prepare low hills that are 3 to 4 feet apart within and between the rows. Place five to seven corn seeds, evenly spaced to a depth of I to I ‘/2 inches. Cover with soil.

• There are many corn varieties to choose from. Dent, flint, and flour corns are especially suited to this system, while popcorn often does not get tall enough and may be overwhelmed by the beans and pumpkins. If you care to follow Iroquois custom, plant the seeds with kind thoughts three days before the full moon.

Once the corn plants reach about six inches high, plant pole beans and pumpkins (or other squash) around them. Since I don't have any media of the three sisters in my garden, I weeded through a gazillion YouTube videos to find one that is very informative and easy to watch. Here are some plot diagrams from the video to get an idea, with more about them in the video itself below.

three sisters planting

GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley / YouTube /Video screen capture

three sisters planting

GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley / YouTube / Video screen capture

three sisters planting

GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley / YouTube / Video screen capture

And once you've got your sisters all lined up, you can consider finding some friends for your tomatoes and peppers as well!

Sources: Cornell, The Old Farmer's Almanac

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why are corn, beans, and squash called the three sisters?

    The name "three sisters" comes from the Iroquois Native American tribe. The sisters describe corn, beans, and squash because the three plants grow and thrive together better than they do on their own.

  • Which squash is used for the three sisters?

    Winter squash is traditionally used for three sisters planting, but you can also use pumpkin, acorn squash, butternut squash, and other types. Some say pumpkins are too heavy.

  • Can you use zucchini as one of the three sisters?

    You can use zucchini (summer squash) instead of winter squash in your three sisters planting.

  • When should you plant the three sisters?

    Three sisters seeds can be sowed during the spring, summer, and monsoon planting seasons.