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  • Rob Elgar

Three Sister Plants - The benefits of companion planting.

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

So you have decided to get your hands dirty and start your own food garden. Whether you are new to working the Earth or a seasoned gardener you will most likely have heard some questions such as 'what is permaculture?' and 'what are the benefits of companion planting?'.

One of the principles of permaculture is that every element in your garden should have more than one purpose.

This is where companion planting, otherwise known as intercropping or mixed cropping comes into effect.

However, it is little known that this method was observed by Native American societies years ago. These observations are now known as the Three Sisters planting strategy.

In order to fully understand how to get the most out of your space and plants a few main topics will be covered bellow:

  • Introduction to companion planting.

  • Native Americans and the use of the Three Sister system.

  • The disadvantage of traditional line planting.

  • The benefits of intercropping strategies.

  • Mixed cropping for beginners.

  • Companion planting charts and suggestions.

Firstly, if you don't already have at least a basic understanding of what permaculture is you could read the following article: A look at the concepts and ethics of permaculture.

Once that is complete, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the principles of permaculture as this will broaden your understanding of the importance of all the elements of your land working together.

What is companion planting?

In our daily lives, we tend to choose the people and things that work best for ourselves. Sometimes this is friends and sometimes material possessions such as a particular type of car or clothing. It is obvious to us that choosing the incorrect 'companion' can be a disadvantage to our lifestyle.

Wearing a jumpsuit when going tanning will not allow us to get enough sun, eating unhealthy food stunts our growth or makes us ill, and choosing the wrong people to surround us may not allow us to reach out highest potential.

As Napolean Hill said:

"It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed." 

This is also true for plants. Although they don't get to 'choose' their companions, sometimes they may find themselves in a dysfunctional relationship with their surroundings.

Some plants might be shaded by their neighbors and lose out on valuable light, some may find that their partners are using too much of the necessary minerals in the soil, and some may become strangled by the growth style of their companions.

However, the opposite can also be true.

Because we have control over the way we organize our gardens we can make sure not only to avoid these negative effects but to turn them into advantageous relationships.

For example:

  • Some plants may need less sun, and therefore a taller shrub could provide the needed shade.

  • A plant that benefits from moist soil could benefit from ground covers that reduce evaporation.

  • Creating plant couples where a particularly needed mineral by one is deposited by the other.

In short, it is the method of organizing crops in order to maximize growth due to their natural ways of benefiting the area around them.

The three sister plants

The indigenous tribes of North America have long been known for their spiritual beliefs and intense connection with the Earth. By paying close attention to the systems of the world some of these tribes were able to notice the symbiosis of certain elements.

Some things needed more sun or water, and different plants strived better when grown amongst others.

Source: agfoundation.org

One of the first steps towards modern permaculture can be seen in the planting patterns of three main crops: Maize, Beans, and Winter Squash.

This trio is a perfect example of intercropping strategies.

Acting like three inseparable sisters, who help each other to be the best they can, beans, corn, and squash can be seen in the same way.

Source: ITAT Food Magazine

There are different stories from different tribes, but a common belief is that the three sisters were sent by God in order to look over and protect the crops of the Earth.

There is a beautiful explanation of the relationship between the Three sister ancestors that brings to life their spirits and also gives meaning to how each plant works for the other.

How maize, beans, and squash work together

As explained in the infographic above by A Growing Garden each sister acts as a natural enhancer for the other.

Corn provides an upright space for the beans to climb on, thus avoiding going moldy on the ground and providing more space for a bigger yield.

Winter squash thrives when growing on the ground and acts as a perfect ground cover to help reduce water loss from the soil and provide shade for the roots of the corn and beans.

The leaves of the squash also act as a deterrent from pests such as insects and small rodents because of their small spines.

Beans are well known for their nitrogen-fixing properties.

The beans change valuable nitrogen from the atmosphere into a usable form such as ammonia, nitrites, and other nitrates that can be absorbed by both the squash and maize.

Through this simple intercropping strategy we can start to notice the importance of a mixed crop system and how different elements can complement one another.

Source: The Infinite Spider

Polyculture vs monoculture

To understand how multiple cropping advantages out weigh over monoculture, a basic understanding of each is needed.

Monoculture: With the prefix mono, the term is self-explanatory for the most part. Monoculture is a system that relies on only one crop or animal for production.

This system, although 'simpler' to operate due to no variation, and therefore allowing the farmer to specialize in one thing and thus reduce the amount of machinery or tools needed has many downsides that get overlooked.

Here is a comparison between the advantages and disadvantages of monoculture:

As you can see in the above infographic about the advantages and disadvantages of monoculture there are some benefits to the method.

However, the few advantages of monoculture are not sustainable because they destroy the very land that is required for growing.

This, over time, will start to reduce yield and require an increase in chemical fertilizers.

Conserve-Energy-Future explains how each of the pros and cons affects the land and how they are intertwined with single crop growing.

Polyculture: Once again being self-explanatory, polyculture or permaculture is a system where more than one crop is grown.

This may be due to many reasons but the most common is for the benefits that the elements of the land create for each other due to positive companionship.

Multiple cropping advantages come in the dozens.

It should, however be noted that there is at least some down sides to everything. These are the advantages and disadvantages of companion planting:

As you can see the advantages strongly out weigh the disadvantages of companion planting.

The pure diversity that is possible with nurse planting, which is the act of placing beneficial plants in the same area, is one of the greatest benefits that can be found on a permaculture farm.

The benefits of diversity in a garden:

  • Increase in pollinators, thus a wider number of flowering plants and an increased production of seeds.

  • The preservation of soil due to not overusing specific nutrients and minerals.

  • Reduction of erosion from water runoff and wind due to ground covers and increased root systems.

  • The possibility of yielding crops year-round due to different flowering times and different climate requirements.

  • A reduction of water use due to different elements having different requirements and an increase in shaded areas where needed.

  • There is a reduction and natural protection from pests and weeds from some elements, thus reducing the need for chemical pesticides.

Companion planting for beginners

After comparing the ups and downs of companion planting it becomes obvious that it is advantageous to implement a multi-crop strategy into your land layout.

This is particularly true when you plan to grow your own food in a small space at home.

Where to start when creating companion groups can be tricky if you are new to the topic.

The companion planting chart bellow will be a good place to start.

Chart provided by windowbox.com

These are just a few of the most common and easy to grow plants and their symbiotic relations to others.

The best way to move forward from here as a beginner to nurse planting is to start with just one companion group.

As you already know about the Three Sister plants I will explain another favorite using Tomatoes.

Positive companion planting with tomatoes:

For pest control:

  • Amaranth - repels insects, fruit flys, and mosquitos.

  • Amaranth - repels insects

  • Borage - repels tomato worms.

  • Garlic - repels red spider mites.

For growth and flavor:

  • Basil

  • Borage

  • Chives

  • Dill - if using dill plant it early as in later stages it may stunt tomato growth.

  • Mint

  • Stinging nettle - improves growth when planted nearby.

  • Sow thistle - aids tomato growth.

Negative companions for tomatoes:

The threat of pests and disease:

  • Corn - The corn earthworm is the same as the tomato fruit worm. Planting these together may increase the probability of multiple crop destruction.

  • Eggplant - Increases blight in the soil. Tomatoes are particularly susceptible to blight and should not be planted in the same area.

  • Peppers - Increases blight in the soil.

  • Potatoes - Increases blight in the soil.

  • Walnuts - Tomatoes are susceptible to walnut wilt.

Inhibits tomato growth:

  • Fennel - fennel secretes a substance from its roots that stunts tomato growth. This is also true for many other garden plants and should be used cautiously.

  • Walnuts - Tomatoes should not be planted beneath walnut trees. Walnut trees produce juglone, which is an allelopathic chemical that stunts tomato growth.

  • Butternut - produces juglone.

Try starting with just three components in your first section. Observe how these work together and if there is a positive outcome then start a new section with an extra companion.

Final remarks

If we can learn anything from Native American communities with regards to gardening it is as follows:

There is no better way to understanding the benefits of our land than observing the natural flows.

Taking the above information into account and the knowledge that we gain from watching the way different parts of our garden work together, it highlights the advantages of biodiversity. Using the benefits of companion planting and various other permaculture strategies we act as part of the eco-system and not against it.

In order to preserve the land for future generations, it is important that we take steps in line with sustainable gardening principles and ethics. If you have a lack of space or are just wanting to experiment for your self, a three sisters permaculture set up could be a solution or just an amazing learning opportunity.

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