Companion or compatible planting is the first step towards understanding plant communities and how designing you garden as a functioning community of plants, that benefit from each others’ company, is a natural model that increases your garden’s vitality. Perhaps, one of the oldest plant communities that we know of is the Three Sisters, beans, corn and squash. It is a First Nations planting method that goes back for several centuries and is often associated with the Iroquois.
Now corn is not often a crop that a backyard gardener, unless the backyard is a good size will plant but it can be a great community garden crop and the sisters can make an excellent shared garden within a community garden.
However, if you have the space or simply want to experiment then the 3 sisters will increase your yield and reduce your labour.
The three plants work together to help one another grow and help the grower get a healthy crop. The beans grow up the corn stalks and provide the nitrogen that helps the corn grow and the squash is planted between the corn rows and acts as living mulch and thereby reduces the need to weed and water.
If you are planning to plant corn then you will need a minimum of three rows (ideally four) of about four feet in length. You will also need to leave a three-foot space between rows.
This minimum space allows adequate pollination for the corn. Corn is pollinated by pollen from its tassels (the tops of the corn plant). Corn usually only produces one or two ears per stalk.
There are basically two types of beans, pole beans and bush beans. Bush beans will stand on their own. Pole beans need support and thus are the beans one would plant with corn. Plant the bean seed at the base of the corn stalk. Beans grow faster than corn so the bean can be planted after the corn stalk has begun to grow.
A winter squash such as butternut is a good choice for the 3 Sisters garden. Squash need plenty of sun and good drainage, space plants at least 3 to 6 feet apart.
The main reason that I am introducing you to the three sisters is to expand upon the plant community concept and to help you understand that your garden will achieve its best results when it grows naturally or at least when the design you choose is modeled on nature and not on an artificial construct.
When it comes to gardening, work and Life itself, we will thrive if we let Nature be our guide and teacher and model our activities after the lessons that nature provides each and every day.
Take a walk in a forest and watch the interaction between the beings who are there; see how the plants work together and observe the birds, insects and other creatures going about their business all intent on their own task but each apart in the Grand Dance that is Nature.
Now take a few minutes and think about your garden, how can you design it so that the dance continues in your backyard with all the performers doing what they do best. A few minutes spent in observation and in recording your observations can enrich your garden and possibly your Life.