The Three Sisters Garden

Volunteer hours at the garden are Wednesdays from 4-6 pm and Fridays from 9-11 am  

This article was written by Robert Gourley as a part of a English 2010 service learning course. Thanks Robert for all your help.

During the summer block of 2023, I had the great opportunity to participate in a service learning activity at the UVU GRIT garden. Over the course of the semester, the class and I were able to help prepare the GRIT garden for growth and helped other volunteer students and workers plant seeds. We learned about dirt, vegetables, and planting, and even met a few friends along the way, such as a Pinacate Beetle a.ka, a stink bug!
A couple weeks into our work at the garden, after we cleared up a few rows of pesky weeds and laid down mulch, Austin – a worker over at the UVU GRIT Garden– said he wanted to plant a Three Sisters Garden. Though we learned a lot about gardening, I had no idea what a Three Sisters Garden was, so after a long day of nodding my head and playing along, I went home and researched. Then, I became enlightened.

Long before the Europeans settled in the Americas, the indigenous people of the land, such as the Iroqoius and Cherokee, had already developed efficient food systems, and the Three Sisters was one of them.
According to the USDA, Native American tribes named this vegetable garden combination the Three Sisters because the “corn, bean, and squash... nurture each other like family when planted together.” Corn was not only a great, starchy source of food, but an excellent pole to support the beanstalks, and the bean roots stabilized and helped provide extra nitrogen to the soil surrounding the garden. But where did the squash fit in this garden set up?

A website named Renee’s Garden says that the squash has shallow roots, which act as a living, insulating mulch for the garden’s base. During seasons of hot and dry weather, the squash’s big leaves provided shade to both vulnerable new sprouts and developed stalks in need. And at the end of a growing season, the squash’s extra residue would help build up a natural organic matter in the field, helping enrich the soil when growth was less active, and the ground was recuperating its nutrients.
However, the Three Sisters Garden was more than just a good gardening practice. The three vegetables, corn, beans, and squash, each represent important parts of the diet. Corn is a starchy plant that can be made into flour or eaten raw or cooked, and offers healthy carbohydrates. Beans provide the amino acids and proteins a corn-only meal would lack, and squash brings both flavor and a healthy dose of oil and vitamins to the table. Each of these vegetables are versatile in their own right, but when harvested and eaten together, they make a delicious and nutritious meal.

Traditionally, native peoples planted the Three Sisters throughout the hills, allowing them to intermingle and spread, but the space in the GRIT garden was limited. I came in a few days later and found that Austin had planted the vegetables in two rows, three stalks of corn wide with beans spaced evenly throughout the rows and the squash at the ends. This technique saves space and can easily be replicated in small gardens. If you want to grow the Three Sisters at home, here’s how:
1.) Plant one to three corn stalks in the center of the garden. Make sure they are planted during a warm season. Corn does not last long in the frost!
2.) Once the corn stalks have grown 3-4 inches tall, plant beans evenly at the bases of the corn.
3.) One week later, or after the beans have emerged, plant squash on the edge of the garden, around the beans. Make sure the squash leaves do not cover any corn stalks that are less than 5 inches tall.
If you want more guidance, want to meet your experts in the field, or learn more about gardening in general, come by the UVU GRIT garden.