Thursday, November 3, 2011

Permaculture Guilds and the Legend of the Three Sisters

A central idea in permaculture is capitalizing on mutually beneficial combinations of plants, we call these combinations 'guilds'. Examples of guilds include: Carrots-Tomatoes-Basil, Radish-Cucumber-Strawberry, and the classic Three Sisters Guild (Corn-Beans-Squash). These guilds not only help eachother grow by providing structure and/or nutrients for eachother, but they also protect eachother from pests and help to keep more moisture in the soil during hot weather and drought.

The Iroquois Nation that thrived on the east coast of pre-colonial America believed that corn, beans and squash were precious gifts from the Great Spirit. Their planting season was marked by ceremonies to honor the sister spirits and thank the Earth for providing them with fertile soil in which to cultivate this ancient gift. By retelling the stories and performing annual rituals, Native Americans passed down the knowledge of how to grow and honor the Three Sisters from generation to generation. Now it is up to us to continue using these gifts.

What's the Big Deal?

Corn provides natural structure for bean vines to climb, and in turn the bean vines help to strengthen the corn stalk in the case of high winds or a storm. The Beans fix nitrogen into the soil by absorbing it from the air (Nitrogen makes up about 3/4 of atmospheric content) and releasing it from the root system. The Squash and Corn both LOVE Nitrogen-rich soil and will produce more edible harvest when it is readily available. The squash also plays a critical role. The roots of the squash plant are shallow but spread wide, they deter weeds from growing with their large leaves and roots that absorb much of the surface nutrients and most squash vines have thorny protrusions which deter animals from approaching the corn and beans. The Squash also provides ground cover that helps to keep moisture in the soil by shading the top layer and absorbing most of the sunlight. When grown together the three sisters produce nearly 50% more than when grown separately.

In addition to the benefits in your garden and for the plants themselves. The nutritional benefits of the three sisters is a tri-fecta of healthy goodness! The corn provides carbohydrates, the beans are rich in protein and the squash is high in vitamins and minerals, and the squash seeds can be pressed for oil as well!

Planting Instructions

Plant corn 2ft apart, when they reach a height of 1ft plant beans from seed, or when the corn reaches plant bean starts directly at the foot of the plant, 2 bean plants for each corn plant (using a variety of beans will further deter pests). Plant the squash starts between corn plants when the corn is 1.5ft tall (this is to ensure that the corn still gets enough sunlight because the squash leaves grow very fast and the leaves tend to get large quickly and have the potential to smother smaller corn plants.

Try this in your garden and experience the wisdom of the Iroquois in your garden! Grow your own!

1 comment:

  1. My first introduction to the Three Sisters came in searching for native recipes. I love that you touched on the health benefits of these plants, in addition to the history and permaculture theory behind the planting. Would love to see some links to recipes as well in your posts, since one of the great benefits of permaculture gardening is good food, and one of the problems folks like me have is in how I use what the garden yields, in season, to create great food!