The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters

From The Perfect Pumpkin by Gail Damerow

An Iroquois legend tells how, when the Great Spirit walked across the earth, corn sprouted from her footsteps, beans appeared by her left hand, and pumpkins grew by her right hand. The Pilgrims learned from the Natvie Americans to grow together what the Natives came to call the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash.

Today the process is called multicropping or polyculture. Interestingly, the sisters not only cooperate with one another to provide a more favorable growing environment for all three, but eaten in combination they provide a balanced diet for humans.

If you sow seeds of all three crops in the same hole together, the faster-growing beans and pumpkins will choke out the slower-growing corn. So give the corn a head start by planting it first; when stalks are about 18 inches (45 cm) high, plant pole beans and pumpkins. Sow the beans at the base of the corn to give them a place to climb, but space the pumpkins as you normally would, to keep them from overrunning the corn and beans. (Warning: Do not plant pumpkins with corn where southern corn rootworm is a problem; the adult version is a cucumber beetle that blemishes pumpkin shells and spreads disease.)

The three sisters work together as companion plants in many ways. Growing wide-spreading pumpkin vines among vertically oriented corn and beans saves space. Cornstalks give beans a place to grow, and shade pumpkins during hot summer days (but die back in time to let in sunlight for the fruits to mature). Pumpkin vines shade the soil to deter weeds, minimize soil erosion, and reduce evaporation of moisture from the earth. Although corn and pumpkins are both heavy feeders, corn feeds near the surface while pumpkins glean nutrients from deeper down in the soil; beans, meanwhile, enrich the soil for future crops. And the three sisters together create an environment that discourages pests: Pumpkin vines repel corn ear borer, and the prickly leaves discourage raccoons from getting into the corn.

Pumpkin Companions

Good: Reason:
Borage, lemon balm Attract bees for good pollination
Clover Keeps down weeds and enriches the soil when strip-cropped between pumpkin rows
Corn, sunflowers Tall plants provide vines and natural windbreak; sprawly vines among tall crops save space and act as a living mulch (but do not plant pumpkins with corn where southern corn rootworms thrive)
Petunias, nasturtiums Repel squash bugs
Radishes Deter cucumber beetles when planted in a circle around each hill, one week before pumpkin seeds or at the same time as presprouted seed
Zucchini Lure squash bugs away from pumpkins
Poor: Reason:
Cucumbers Attract cucumber beetles, which spread diseases from vine to vine
Potatoes Inhibit vine and fruit growth; potatoes become more susceptible to blight
Raspberries Increase pumpkins' susceptibility to blight

From The Perfect Pumpkin by Gail Damerow. Line drawing by Susan Berry Langsten

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More on Pumpkin:

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Herbs and Pumpkins

Pumpkin Sweets

Pumpkin Sprouts

Pumpkin Dessert Recipes

Pumpkin Fudge and More

Pumpkin Traditions

Harvest Tips and Recipes


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