Companion planting is a technique used especially in organic gardening in which different crops are cultivated together because they aid their fellow plants in some way. Classic companions include carrots and onions because they repel each other’s pest insects, or basil and tomatoes, with the basil acting as a pest repellent and flavor enhancer for the tomatoes. Another one of the classic companion collections is corn, beans, and squash.
For those who paid attention in history class, this combination might be familiar because it was used by agriculture-oriented Native Americans who called it “the three sisters.” In this arrangement, each member of the trio does work for the others. Beans fix fertilizing nitrogen into the soil. The corn stalks supply stakes for the beans to climb up. Squash plants have big leaves that cover the soil to protect it from the scorching sun, eroding rain, and troublesome weeds, and they have spiky leaves and stems to deter pesky animals like raccoons.
In other words, planting these companions together helps each of them thrive and cuts down on the work a gardener has to do.
How to Prep the Garden
While we generally picture rows upon rows in fields when growing corn, that’s not often what we are going to do in the home garden, particularly a small suburban plot. Instead, we want to grow something more like a couple dozen stalks. That’s no problem.
To prep a smaller garden for the three sisters, create a bed that’s at least four feet long by four feet wide and about one foot high. A fairly standard raised bed might be four by eight feet, which would accommodate for two plantings.
If the soil isn’t especially good, it can be amended with some wood ash from the fireplace to enrich it. It’s important to be aware that wood ash raises the pH of the soil, but it does add quality nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. If the soil is mildly acidic, a couple of pounds of ash worked into each four-by-four-foot square should be good.
How to Plant the Three Sisters
After any threat of frost is gone, at the center of the four by four square, the corn should be planted in a circle with a two-foot diameter, leaving roughly a foot of planting space around the circle. The corn seed should be planted an inch deep and 10-12 inches apart, equaling around six or seven stalks for each planting circle.
After the corn has been given a couple of weeks to grow and the stalks have reached about half a foot tall, three or four beans should be planted around each stalk. These can be green beans, but traditionally, these would be beans for drying and storing.
Roughly a week after the beans have been planted, it’s time to sow the squash. Typically, these will be autumn squashes, with the hard shell, and like the beans, they can be stored for winter nutrition. Squash plantings should be just a few inches outside the circle of corn, and there should be one squash plant per corn stalk.
Harvesting the Bounty
In general, corn takes about three months to reach maturity and provide some food. The ears will develop a little wispy, often colorful, tuft of “silk” at the outer ends. After about twenty days, the silk will turn brown, but the husk around the corn will still be green. It should be ready. The final test would be to prick a kernel of corn with a pin: milky liquid means its ready, clear liquid means it’s too soon, and no liquid means it’s a bit later than optimal.
As for the other crops, when growing dried beans for storage, the process is different than green beans. The entire bean should be allowed to remain on the plant until the beans rattle audibly inside of the pod. The plants should be pulled up, held upside down, and rattled inside a large container so that the hulls open up. Then, the debris should be blown away from the beans with a hairdryer, fan or air compressor. Then they should be stored in an airtight container out of the sunlight.
Lastly, autumn or winter squash should be allowed to fully mature and be picked right around the first frost. The fruits should feel solid, but when tapped, they should sound hollow. To store them for winter, the squashes should be cured and stored at roughly 50 degrees Fahrenheit if possible, with butternut and Hubbard lasting around six months this way.
A Perfect Fit
Growing a double-reach row of the three sisters is a fantastic use of garden space, and it fits right into a small suburban vegetable patch, providing an abundance of food for the square footage and lots of organic matter for composting.
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