The Three Sisters: what an ancient agricultural technique can teach us about community

By Ingrid Steinberg OCTOBER 7, 2020

Growing the Three Sisters

For thousands of years Indigenous Americans have honed an agricultural technique whereby corn, beans, and winter squash are planted in close proximity to one another. The corn, beans and squash, also known as “the Three Sisters” rely on one another for their development and growth. Traditionally, Indigenous women make mounds in the ground and plant the three seeds in carefully arranged proximity, setting off a series of reciprocal relationships between humans, plants, bacteria and other microorganisms, and the soil.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer describes in her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, once full grown, the corn can stand eight feet tall. Wrapped around its form the beanstalk twines itself – never interfering with the corn’s growth. At the foot of the corn the squash plant spreads its broad leaves in a green carpet. You can tell they are sisters, says Kimmerer: “one twines easily around the other in relaxed embrace while the sweet baby sister lolls at their feet, close, but not too close — cooperating, not competing.” (132)


The corn supports the bean plant, which needs something to wrap around, and the wide squash leaves protect the earth from the sun, preserving moisture and preventing the growth of weeds. If you keep your gaze above the ground, the bean plant may look as though she is free-riding on the corn and the squash. However, a different story presents itself if you look below the ground. The corn’s roots are shallow, and are first to capture moisture from rain or irrigation, but the bean plant captures water that sinks below the reach of the corn. Meanwhile the squash plant is able to extend roots opportunistically from its stem as it rests on the earth’s surface, feeding on moisture from both the corn and the bean roots. The bean plant provides an additional service with its roots: the roots accommodate a bacterium needed to produce the nitrogen fertilizer essential for all three of the plants’ growth. 


When the corn, beans, and squash are ultimately harvested, they together provide a nutritionally well-rounded and tasty meal for the harvester.


The lessons from this story are both practical and metaphoric. From an agricultural standpoint the companion planting technique stands in stark contrast to the violence of the industrial monoculture methods of farming typified by corn farming, where corn is grown in uniform rows, fed with synthetic fertilizer, protected (and made poisonous) with pesticides and presumably, wasting any irrigation that falls below its shallow roots, and resulting in the degradation and erosion of the soil. Once harvested the monoculture corn is not typically eaten by the humans who grow it, but fed to livestock in an environmentally expensive and far less healthy cycle of growth and consumption. 


Metaphorically, the Three Sisters are like people working together for a common end. They each bring different talents and gifts to the table. Seen from one angle, the gift of the corn appears more significant than those of the beanstalk — but this bias is corrected when we look beneath the soil and find that the bean plant is working quietly out of sight to provide an essential nutrient without which none of the plants can grow. As Kimmerer says: “being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts.” (134) 


As Resilient Palisades’ Community Teams have begun to form, I have been privileged to work with numerous talented and enthusiastic Palisadians who are coming together to grow something new in our community. I have been struck by the diversity of personalities, interests and skills among this group. Some are like the corn, heading determinedly in a straight line towards a clear goal, others are the social fabric, twisting like the beanstalk around the members of the group in a great warm embrace, and still others are working hard behind the scenes, quietly providing their expertise and assistance without which none of the other work will be successful. When I came across the story of the Three Sisters, I was reminded of the beautiful work of our community and of how each of us contributes something invaluable to the whole. I look forward to sharing the harvest with you all. 


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