Three Sisters (reposts)

Reading a blog post from a friend of a friend’s farm this morning I was inspired to repost these two entries from 2009. The weather hasn’t been as conducive for these crops since that year (read, the weather has been downright terrible for those crops since 2009), but I have still had some success. I don’t really have enough space to play with this technique the way I’d like to, but I really think it has a lot of potential. Unlike the Kerr Center example linked to in the blog referred to above, I have been able to use the standard seeders and cultivating equipment and so there really isn’t much in the way of drawbacks, mostly just benefits.


The Three Sisters July 16, 2009

Pretty much every american grower it seems has heard of the three sisters: corn, beans and squash.  Andy Griffin mentions this planting scheme in his recent excellent post “Corn,” in the ladybug letter.  Earl, the chef at Meriwether’s, convinced me that we should try growing a block this way and we had some space so we are.  We’re doing it a little different that the “milpa” system that Andy talks about, everything for us is in rows.  We seeded the corn first, a type of popcorn actually.  A few weeks later we came back and seeded the beans, five types of pole beans.  Then a week or so later the winter squash was seeded, lots of trial varieties.

We’re also trying to grow these crops with no supplemental irrigation.  The property has limited water but abundant land and soil that holds water well and is deep.  So far everything has germinated beautifully, despite the lack of any rain and a stretch of hot sunny weather for several weeks before the winter squash was even seeded.  We’re raking the soil to keep weeds down and to create a dust mulch to prevent surface evaporation.  I’m hopeful that the crops will do well – meaning they’ll produce a modest harvest with minimal work.  I’m fairly confident but it’s still a long way to harvest in late summer.  I’ll let you know what happens.

Dry Farming August 11, 2009

Two months ago I wrote a post on the “Three Sisters.” Take a look back at those photos and then look at the one above.  Same field, and this field has seen no irrigation this season, we’ve had no significant rain since early May, and the above photo was taken a week after the week long 100+ degree heat wave.  All of the crops were direct seeded in this field but we also have melons in another dry section that were transplanted in June, and are ripening fruit now (pictured below).

The vine growth is not quite as vigorous as I would expect with irrigated vines, but there is good fruit set and so we’ll see how the yield and flavor turns out.  Part of the reason for experimenting with dry farming, meaning growing crops in a rain free summer without supplemental irrigation, was because we didn’t have much irrigation water so we wanted to save that for the crops that really need it, like greens.  I’m certain that we won’t get top yields per space, but I hope that we’ll still get top quality and we have definitely had to do very little cultivation and weeding, and no irrigation work.


   Besides the three sisters section and the melons, we’re also dry farming tomatoes, potatoes, dry peas and beans, spelt, flax, several corns and quinoa.  We’ve harvested half the potatoes with very good results, not a record yield, but respectable and good quality spuds.  The tomatoes are just starting and everything else is looking good with no real signs of water stress and very little weed pressure.  The corn pictured above is popcorn and the beans were a late seeding of flagolets, seeded in mid June to available moisture after a month of no rain.

One of the things that I think is allowing us to do this is the impressive water holding capacity and depth of the soil we have.  Even though the site is on a ridge top, 1000’ above Portland, Oregon, there also seems to be a few natural seeps so I suspect there are areas of the field where water naturally flows subsurface late into the spring.  On top of those things we have given the crops slightly more space than we would have if they were irrigated and early on we concentrated on cultivating out even very small weeds and leaving the surface soil loose to reduce weed seed germination and surface evaporation.

2012 Notes

A few follow up notes are appropriate here. My feeling on the three sisters planting is that it works best when it’s a corn that is for drying (popcorn, dent corn, flint, etc, not sweet corn), pole beans for dry beans, and hard squash. None of these crops require entry into the field while the other is fully filled out for harvest. Letting the squash fully cover the ground is one of the benefits, and that makes harvesting the corn and beans impractical before the vines start to die back.

Also, the terrible weather we’ve had the last two years has been cold, wet springs and early summers (and cold through the summer). In 2009 I did notice that the corn and squash we grew together did very slightly better than those that grew separately, the beans seemed to not do quite as well, but the there was absolutely no work done to trellis them so that was a huge labor and materials savings, and there is far more row feet of corn than we’d usually plant in beans so there’s no problem in seeding extra beans to make up for the difference. in 2010 and 2011 none of those crops did well anywhere for us. Also, the beans are essentially in the same space as the corn, so they are bonus income from the same space, not requiring any additional costs over seeding and harvesting – no extra field prep, no extra cultivation, no extra fertilization. They also didn’t interfere with hand harvesting the corn, and the squash was harvested before either of those two crops.

I also experimented a little in my garden and actually seeded the corn and beans at the same time. it seemed like the beans would outstrip the corn, but actually the corn was always just a hair ahead of the beans. I wonder if the beans were forcing it to grow higher by continually shading the lower parts. I’ve also been surprised that I’ve had no trouble with lodging.