Permaculture Happens: Adapting the Three Sisters

While puttering in the garden the other day, I noticed that a couple of the Kentucky Blue Pole beans has escaped their proper pole, and were vining about the mammoth sunflower planted next to them.


I leaned over to gently unwrap the beans, and return them to the bamboo teepee I’d constructed for them and all their bean friends.  As I did, I had to reach across the sugar pumpkin plant that was sprawling across the base of both the beans and the sunflower.  I suddenly realized that I’d unwittingly created my Sunflowerown version of the classic Three Sisters guild.  Permaculturists suggest planting in communities, or guilds that build a sense of interconnectedness in the garden, moving us beyond the traditional limits of “vegetable gardening.”  The quintessential example of guild planting is the Three Sisters, the Native American triad of corn, beans, and squash.  The corn provides a trellis for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen for the other plants, and the squash, with its rambling ways and spreading leaves, creates a parasol for the soil, keeping it cool, moist, and alive.  I smiled at the little sugar pumpkin hidden in the leaves,  now just hinting at its autumn change from green to orange.  And of course I left the bean where it was.

I have tried growing corn in Seattle, and it always seems promising.  The plants are “knee high by the fourth of July,” grow tassels, and eventually ears.  But it takes a lot of space in a backyard garden, and the corn itself is always mealy; I’ve decided to give up and let the nice people on the sunny side of the state grow my corn, as they do so well, and are now selling at the farmer’s market in beautiful, affordable heaps.

So in my version of the Three Sisters, the sunflower stands as a substitute for the corn, and a very good one, I think.  It is certainly sturdy enough to hold its own against a vine.  And when the center opens to reveal its thousands of seeds, I’ll leave them for the birds.  I love this twining of food/beauty/human/wild.

I’ve plugged it before, and will again:  for the backyard permaculturist there is no better guide than Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden.

For a nice, kid-friendly introduction to a Three Sisters garden, check this site.

There are many myths surrounding the Three Sisters–here are just a couple.

We’d love to hear your ideas for other place-specific versions of the Three Sisters.


  1. Jill

    I love Crow Planet and wanted to use it for my summer writing course on nature writing at MSU. I wopuld love to be kept in the loop as far as your workshops! Thank you!

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