For thousands of years Native Americans practiced Three Sisters companion planting to enhance their yields and ensure their survival. Indigenous people then taught the Pilgrims this system of planting corn, beans, and squash (or pumpkins) together.
To enjoy their successful efforts Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe and Pilgrims sat down in peace with a bountiful harvest of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash for the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621.
Christy Cook, Oak Grove Elementary School STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) teacher, is fascinated with the Three Sisters method of planting and shares that knowledge with her students.
“We were learning about Native Americans and reading stories of how some of their customs carry over into today,” Christy begins. “One of those stories was of the Three Sisters, a tale of companion planting that Iroquois and Cherokee [tribes] used since before the 1300s.” Planted together, the “sisters” use their strengths to benefit each other.
The corn sister is planted first. As it grows strong and tall, the bean sister is planted between the corn stalks. Her tender vines wrap around and lean on her corn sister to grow upward, thereby keeping her precious bean pods off the ground while absorbing nitrogen from the air and converting it to nitrates that fertilize the soil for the corn and squash. The low-growing squash sister is then planted around her corn and bean sisters to hold in moisture and provide ground cover that prevents weeds from taking over. Her rough leaves also discourage pests for all the sisters.
Christy’s fifth-grade pupils found the Three Sisters story intriguing and wanted to know which plants can and can’t work with each other. To demonstrate the companionship method, Christy instructed her students first to plant corn in the school garden. Later they planted beans between the corn stalks and then squash around the corn and beans. Her students took pictures weekly to measure the plants’ growth. She states, “By the end of the school year they were excited about the progress of their efforts.”
When the squash didn’t produce fruit because of a bug infestation, however, the kids became puzzled.
Christy states, “Now that they had a vested interest in the success of their garden, they wanted to know what they could do about the problem and what else they could plant to support the corn and beans and keep the pests away to prevent further damage.”
Christy’s hands-on instruction left her students wanting to plant vegetables, tend to them, and watch them grow, so she also wanted to teach variety. “Most of my students think all corn is yellow, so I had them plant Violet Hybrid sweet corn with its purple and white kernels as well as Scarlet Runner beans with their beautiful red flowers.”
To illustrate the fruits of their labor, Christy made Three Sisters salsa using some of the students’ produce. “Whenever the kids get to try out food, they get excited,” she adds with a laugh, “I try to pair the produce from the garden with something I think they would like.”
The previous year, Christy and her students planted spinach in the school garden and made quesadillas with sauteed spinach.
Christy says gardening naturally leads into other lessons. “We talked about how many stalks we had and how many corn cobs would be on each stalk. As corn is wind pollinated, it can’t be planted too far apart, yet the stalks will steal soil nutrients if planted too close.” This lesson tied into math.
During the planting process the students discovered decomposing corn stalks from the summer crop, which led to a discussion on composting, a new concept to most of the students. “We let it naturally decompose and then had the kids observe and answer questions about the changes, which the kids thought was pretty cool.” This lesson tied into biology.
Christy also uses gardening to teach her students life skills, including trial and error, as in the failure of their squash crop; patience, as corn takes a long time to grow; and trusting proven methods for success, such as the Three Sisters method. “I wanted the kids to understand where the Three Sisters companion planting method came from [and that it] is a trusted planting system still used today.” She also wanted to give credit to the Indigenous people who created the method.
Christy’s STEAM projects teach students the value of learning from other people, how to handle success as well as failure, and the importance of working together.
Did You Know…?
Christy Cook was named 2021 Oak Grove Elementary School STEAM Academy Teacher of the Year.
Three Sisters Salsa
- 1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained
- 1 can of corn
- 4 tomatoes, small diced
- 1 zucchini, small diced
- 1 small red onion, finely chopped
- ½ large bunch of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- Juice of 2 limes
- 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp. chili powder
- salt and pepper
1. Combine all ingredients together in a large bowl and adjust seasonings to taste.
2. Serve salsa with tortilla chips.
Tips for Kids
- Encourage your child to use a butter knife to cut the tomato into smaller pieces.
- Have your child help place all the ingredients into the bowl and mix everything together.
You May Also Like…
Cindy Pope is an award-winning author, lifestyle writer, novelist, and speaker. She earned a Master of Arts in Professional Writing Program at Kennesaw State University focusing on Creative Writing and Creative Non-Fiction. Her work is published in the literary journal American Writers Review 2022.