The Three Sisters

It is warming up – time to grow the Three Sisters. They are an integral part of the summer vegetable garden. A number of tribes were gardening here long before Europeans showed up, and grew what they call the Three Sisters.  Last week I posted my Top Ten Tips for Vegetable Gardening Success.  I suggest you give that a quick read if you get a chance.

The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters live together and help each other not just survive, but thrive. Corn, beans, and squash are the Sisters, and each gives something to and receives from each of the others. This is an example of a family behaving in a non-dysfunctional fashion. First I will introduce them, then I will discuss options.

Corn and beans. No shouting about “Mom, she’s touching me!” These Sisters get along well together.

Sister Corn

Corn. One of the economically most lucrative of all the New World plants “discovered,” it has a definite place in the summer garden. It’s place in the Three Sisters is to provide tall stalks for the beans to climb. Corn is a considered “heavy feeder” meaning it takes a great deal of nitrogen fertilizer out of the soil. [But really it feeds itself with photosynthesis – the nitrogen is the vitamin that helps it grow strong.]

Sister Bean also helps by attracting pollinators to the garden.

Sister Bean

The Bean Sister helps the Corn Sister by taking inert atmospheric nitrogen and turning it into soil fertilizer. All members of the bean family do this via special bacteria-filled nodules in their roots. (The bacteria get a place to live and sap to eat while they fix nitrogen to help the beans thrive.) Don’t plant bactericidal plants, such as marigold, near your beans.

Sister Squash helps shade the soil and reduce evaporation.

Sister Squash

The third Sister is squash. Sister Squash shades the soil, keeping it cooler, moister, and weed free. Sister Squash also benefits from the extra nitrogen fixed by Sister Bean’s bacteria. Don’t like to eat squash?  Squash has many tasty siblings, including watermelon – varieties below!

Which Varieties?

Bean Varieties

You could grow virtually any climbing bean with your corn. Scarlet runner, lima, fava, lentils, black-eyed peas, garbanzos, all dry beans, do well in the heat. Try the Southwest native, the tepary bean. Cultivated since the time of the Hohokam Indians, tepary beans mature quickly and are tolerant of heat, drought, and alkaline soils. They are also a relatively small bean and cook quickly.

So many beans to choose from!

If you grow beans, also grow some of the herb epazote. A few leaves of this Mexican herb added to beans as they cook helps break down some of the enzymes our digestive tracts can not. Think of epazote as a natural “Bean-O” plant.  Here’s a YouTube I made about preserving the herb epazote.  Here is more about growing and saving seed of epazote

Squash Varieties

Most members of the squash or cucumber family love warm soils. Cantaloupe, honeydew, musk melon, crenshaw melon, casaba melon, some varieties of cucumber, lufa (for sponges), summer squash, zucchini, winter squash, and dry gourds such as bottle gourds all thrive in the summer garden.

A little squash for making pie and eating the seeds, also called pepitas. Photo courtesy of All-America Selections.

The squash family has separate female and male flowers. This means you will need to plant several plants so there are plenty of both flowers available at the same time. Bees are the natural pollinators, including solitary, bumble and honey bees. If you do not find bees in your garden, you may need to do the pollination yourself, using a small paintbrush to collect and distribute pollen. Flowers only last a single morning, so early is best. Pollen may become in-viable (un-alive, dead) at temperatures above 85 degrees.

Cucumbers tend to have narrow vines.

Beware of squash vine borers, a caterpillar that gets into larger diameter vines — those over a half-inch in diameter. Plant narrow-stem varieties or wrap larger stems with foil to keep the borers out. Petroleum jelly smeared on stems also keeps the female moth from laying her eggs on the stems.


Corn Varieties

As I always say, “Plant what you like to eat.”

After the Three Sisters, there are many other summer vegetables you can plant. But that will be have to be a future post.

Pests on Your Plants?

Maybe you need to entice some more insect eating birds to your garden.  This free class can help!  Sat 22 April.

Hummingbirds pollinate plants but did you know they also eat insects? Learn this and more in my free Bird Gardening class. Click on the image to register.

The Southwestern Deserts are home to many local native birds, including shy pyroluxias, sweet phainopeplas, and the charming lesser goldfinches. Our landscapes, done right, can invite these natives into the city, as opposed fostering non-native species and driving natives towards extinction. Preregister for the free class today.


Need Southwest Vegetable Garden Help?

May I recommend my book?  The Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Guide offers not just growing guides but some of the latest varieties – including ones specifically for raised bed and container growing. Price is what you would pay on Amazon – only when you buy from me you get a signed copy!soule-books-buy

From the review:

In this updated 2nd edition of Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening, you’ll find much-needed advice and practical tips on growing an edible garden, no matter which part of the southwestern US you call home.

Growing in the Southwest isn’t easy. It’s either too hot or too cold and often very dry. The region hosts a range of soils and climate conditions that can be difficult for a gardener to navigate. That’s why this region-specific garden guide is a must-have for every Southwestern gardener!

Botanist Dr. Jacqueline Soule simplifies the ins and outs of gardening in the Southwest and serves as your guide to success. Regardless of whether you’re tending an in-ground plot, a small container garden, or a series of raised beds, Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening is an invaluable resource.”

Profits from the sale of this book go to the Arizona-based Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.




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