Three Sisters Agriculture and How it Can Create More Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Written by Laura Braun, ESLLC 2016-2017

To Native American cultures, the three sisters are considered to be maize, squash and beans. These Native American communities discovered that these three crops grow well in native soils and that they support each other in ways that make them perfect to grow together. If taken advantage of, the system that these crops create with each other can make agriculture so much more efficient by minimizing water needed, making fertilizers moot, limiting the land needed to grow these crops and by creating natural environments for beans and squash to grow in areas that they usually couldn’t.

Historically, it was the milpas of Mesoamerica that mainly started to employ this type of companion planting and the Anasazi later adapted this idea for a drier climate. The Tewa and other Southwestern United States tribes often included a “fourth sister” known as “Rocky Mountain bee plant” (Cleome serrulata), which attracts bees to help pollinate the beans and squash. Therefore, this has become an important traditional form of agriculture through out the continent and has been used for 5,000 years. So what makes this microclimate so beneficial and efficient?

The microclimate produced by the three sisters grown together actually favors the survival of the plants. Maize is notorious for sucking the nitrogen out of the soil; beans, on the other hand, supply replacement mineral nitrogen back into the soil: essentially, these are the effects of crop rotation without actually having to rotate crops. Overall, more protein, and energy are produced by intercropping three crops in the same space than that achieved by modern monocultural agriculture.

Furthermore, Maize maximizes photosynthesis and grows straight and tall. Beans use the stalks for structural support and to gain greater access to sunlight. Squash performs best in shady, humid places, and that is the type of microclimate provided by the corn and beans together. Further, squash decreases the amount of erosion that plagues monocultural cropping of corn. Experiments conducted in 2006 suggest that both nodule number and dry weight of beans increases when intercropped with maize.

Thus, this technique eliminates the need for growing poles, fertilizers containing nitrogen (which can end up depleting the soil and putting toxins in our water supplies), anti-weeding chemicals (the squash covers and blocks the ground), the artificial environments for the squash and beans to thrive in, and the need for excess land that would be used if the three crops were grown separately. All in all, the three sisters companion planting can save money on many things and can help to create a more sustainable way to plant these three widespread and in-demand crops. It would be in the United State’s best interest to start to adopt this system because the cons are few and the pros are many.

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Gietl, Bill. “Gardening and Organic.” Pinterest. N.p., 04 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

  1. Kris Hirst Archaeology Expert. “The Three Sisters: Traditional Intercropping Agricultural Method.” Education. N.p., 15 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Revolvy, LLC. “”Three Sisters (agriculture)” on” All Revolvy Quizzes.                  N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.



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