Sunday, November 14, 2010

The three sisters garden

I've been meaning to post for ages about my crop rotation system- and hopefully writing this will give me the guilt impetus to put fingers to keyboard- but for the meantime accept that a lot of my vegetable garden design is based on the principles of companion planting. This means putting plants together by matching their needs (eg, acid-lovers), where possible putting two plants with complementary features together (eg, basil and tomatoes), and also considering the order in which plants occupy a bed (eg, putting nitrogen-hungry brassicas after nitrogen-fixing ("making") legumes).

For a couple of years I have been reading about the idea of a Three Sisters Garden, most recently at My Little Vegetable Garden. It's a great example of companion planting, and has its origins in Native American farming. The three elements, squash, corn (maize) and climbing beans were the three major crops of cultures such as the Anasazi. These were not the nomadic "Indians" of the "Cowboys and..." stereotype, but in fact had sophisticated villages, some of which still exist, like these cliffside constructions in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Mesa Verde is a plateau, and is it thought that the Anasazi inhabitants who lived there between 1400-700 years ago (before the majority of European historic buildings were built) made their homes on the cliff sides to maximise the use of the arable land on the top of the plateau for farming. Up there they even had irrigation systems, and the remains of squash, beans and corn have been found in the ruins. It appears that Mesa Verde was abandoned suddenly- in the space of 1 to 2 generations- and its people migrated south, perhaps because of drought.

Anyway, coming back to the Three Sisters, the traditional view is that the three plants- corn, squash and beans- are the sisters, each bringing something into the garden to support the other plants:
- the corn stands tall, and provides a scaffold for the beans to climb on
- the squash cover the ground, shading the ground to keep it cool and smothering weeds
- the beans fix nitrogen from the air into the soil where all the plants' roots can use it
(I read somewhere that sometimes a fourth sister, a flower to attract pollinators, was included)

As you cruise the Three Sisters literature online you'll find various designs of how to lay out the plot. I think a lot of the design has to come from trial and error. I half tried last year, and my corn ended up being smothered by the rampant zucchinis. This year, in the hopes of a more harmonious sorority, I have curbed the enthusiasm of the "squash" sister by demoting it from zucchini to weaker cucurbits like melons and cucumbers (which are not without their own trials). The corn are Digger's Dwarf (so may fail on the tall front, hence the frame below) and the beans so far are Purple Dragon and Sex-without-strings (what a name!) that I picked up from a local school fair. The vibrant green shoots in the background are logan berries which believe that they should be the fourth sister.

So far things are looking ok- though I won't count my sisters until they've fruited!

1 comment:

Maxabella said...

If I had a vegie patch (which I will one day when I solve the birds / bandicoots / other assorted wildlife problem) I would use companion planting. Mostly because it seems like a very sensible approach and partly because the word 'companion' is such a lovely one that the plants can only benefit by association. x

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