The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

The Three Sisters: Poetry in motion

By Justin Newcombe

The Three Sisters of corn, pumpkin and beans are a praiseworthy ensemble.

Each plant provides a service for its companions and could see its farmers through to the next growing 
season. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Each plant provides a service for its companions and could see its farmers through to the next growing season. Photo / Sarah Ivey

One of the many reasons I love the garden is that in gardening, poetry is practical. The Three Sisters could be a play, a poem, a song title, a painting or an opera, but in the garden they're none of these. In the garden the sisters are three companions. Three companions so celebrated, the US Government minted a commemorative coin in their honour. They are pumpkin, corn and beans and together they sustained entire civilisations right across North America for centuries.

So what makes this ensemble so praiseworthy? Firstly, they are, individually, straightforward to grow.

To my mind corn is probably the hardest of the three - or at least that's the one I've had the most trouble with. I can't really explain why, because corn is actually very easy to grow. It will take off all by itself just sitting on top of the seed mix or sown directly into the soil. Just keep watering it. If you feel the need to bury the seeds, make sure your mix has a good deal of drainage. I now add pumice sand to most of my seed mix. Corn is wind-pollinated and water-hungry so likes the company of its own clan and needs protecting from soil evaporation.

This is where the pumpkin comes in. It spreads across the ground quickly, protecting the soil and corn roots from the sun. Pumpkin is another no-nonsense plant which I've had the pleasure of stuffing up, even though it comes up by itself in the compost. If you want pumpkins in any great number or if you get the taste for something new, planting from seeds is a must. Last year I grew Queensland blue which are much drier in texture and are good for roasting. Once the seed has germinated and the first leaves appear, your young plants will motor away.

That brings me to beans. Beans come in all those classic varieties we loved and hated as kids, but there are a lot of fancy varieties around now too. As far as the Three Sisters are concerned, the beans need to have a climbing habit to scale the corn (which acts as a climbing frame) and avoid being smothered by the pumpkin.

This year I'm going to have a go at ANasazi beans which are a drying bean with a climbing habit and an amazing history, but any climber will do. The beans provide nitrogen for the hungry corn, especially in the early stages.

In marginal soil the corn will quickly deplete the soil and stall, so the top-up nutrients the beans provide can prove significant. Traditionally, corn was planted first on mounds about 30cm high and about half a metre wide. The corn was grown to around 15cm, then the beans and pumpkin were planted into the mound.

Each plant provided a service for its companions and if managed properly provide a harvest that would see its farmers through to the next growing season.

The Three Sisters is a beautiful name for a planting system, that in its heyday was the difference between eating and going hungry. Surely, that's poetry in motion.

- NZ Herald

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