Our row garden measures 20’ x 60’, which is about twice what I had in Salt Lake City. Bigger yet seems like a good idea now, indoors in the comfort of my writing chair, but establishing a first year garden of that size took all the energy I could throw at it last summer. We might expand it after we have the bindweed, irrigation and soil development management all under control. Eleven 30” beds, each 20’ long, produced over 100 lbs of tomatoes, more greens than we could eat, potatoes that we haven’t had time to dig, but likely 50 lbs, a couple dozen buttercup squashes, and our first crop of grain corn.
I have wanted to try a three sisters garden for years and years but never had the space for it. The three sisters refers to corn, squash and beans, said to be traditionally planted by native Americans together as a polyculture, where each plant gains something from the association. Beans grow up cornstalks while fixing nitrogen in the soil for the other crops; huge squash leaves shade the soil and the prickly vines protect the corn from raccoons. I have read that southwestern people added a fourth crop, rocky mountain bee plant or cleome, to attract pollinators. Traditional sisters polyculture in the form of milpas would have included even more useful plants here and there as opportunity arose. Corn is wind pollinated, which means it sets kernels better if you can plant in blocks rather than one long row. So a three sisters experiment needs a certain amount of contiguous space.
I ignored all the recommendations to build up mounds for the corn and squash. In our dry climate, it’s a constant battle to keep the soil moist enough to germinate seeds, so I borrowed another traditional technique from pueblo cultures, the waffle garden. In three adjacent beds, I dug shallow squares almost the width of the bed and a foot long, maybe an inch or two deep. I planted 4 corn seeds in each waffle depression, which I then filled with water. These low spots stayed damp much longer than the rest of the bed, ensuring better germination. I ended up making 24 planting zones that I later thinned to contain 2 or 3 corn plants.
Time got away from me and I didn’t get the squashes or beans in at the proper time, about 2 weeks after the corn goes in, and I wanted to grow R’s favorite dry bean, the yellow eye, which turns out to be a bush rather than a pole bean. This is a problem, because the bean plant has to grow above the rampant squash to get its share of sunlight. We didn’t get more than a cup of beans out of the entire plot.
Since this is a new growing climate for us, I wasn’t sure which varieties of squash would do well here. Our favorite is the butternut, but that requires a 105 day growing season, which is marginal here. I ended up trying three kinds: a bush butternut, Burpee’s buttercup, and a variety called Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert Winter Squash. The butternut could not compete with the buttercups, which sent vines 20’ or more. If any raccoons got over the fence, they never made it through the 2’ high tangle of scratchy squashes. Yes, we are overloaded on squashes, over 20 came out of those three beds, all buttercups, although the vines got so tangled I can’t tell which came from which test plant.
As for the corn, whoa! First of all, no one mentioned that this is one of the most beautifully colorful plants ever grown in a garden. The leaves had streaks of yellow, the silks were various shades from tan to carmine red. I would grow Painted Mountain Corn just for its ornamental value. We lost a few stalks to a typically out-of-control Torrey windy day, an odd one from the east, the kind of gale that blows the apple saplings sideways. Some I stood back up and they went on just fine. Otherwise, I waited until the corn stalks rustled in the wind, then harvested 60 ears back on September 22, or 127 days after the planting date (we could have got them in earlier, but with all the rain we had in the first part of the month it seemed better to let them dry on the stalk as long as we could). We dried them in the house until November 4. I grabbed one to see how hard shelling by hand might be. Some of the ears, the kernels practically fell off, others wouldn’t budge. We tried a kitchen knife, various wrenches, but what worked best was a pipe flaring tool R had from home repairs a kabillion years ago. It took both of us about 45 minutes to shell a gallon of seed from the lesser ears. I set aside the ears I wanted to save seed from, and we shelled those separately. The yield was about a 5 quarts of shelled corn.
How we are eating Painted Mountain corn
So far, we have ground about 2 cups in the blender for cornmeal. That’s what I’m making into cornbread for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dressing. We also nixtamalized some for posole or hominy, which was a lot simpler to do than to spell. A traditional food practice discovered by native corn-growing peoples in Mesoamerica, going back to at least 1500 BC. By soaking the corn in a very alkaline solution (originally lye derived from wood ashes), the niacin in the corn becomes nutritionally available, thus helping stave off a dietary deficiency called pellagra. We followed these directions from Mother Earth News, letting the grain sit out over night. R got out his pH test strips and we measured the liquid at over 10! Not too excited about dumping that in my septic tank, so we neutralized it with some vinegar before draining it. No wonder people used to use lye to disinfect things. I processed a quart of dry corn, which increased in size about 50%. We used some in a posole stew, and I saved some to grind for hominy grits later.
The cornbread has a distinct “corny,” vegetable flavor that is unlike any commercial cornmeal I have ever bought, even the fancy organic stuff. Fresh counts! The posole during the nixtamalization soak had an even more pronounced aroma, but that faded as it cooked. It still tasted better than other dried posole I’ve cooked, just not as memorably so as the cornbread. I need to ask around to see if someone has a real grain mill so we can try to make some polenta-the blender makes a pretty fine grind.
What worked, what I’ll do differently
I read a bunch of accounts of Three Sisters garden failures on the Internet before launching into this experiment, and my sense is that most of these people wanted to use the concept to do something it wouldn’t ever do, which is grow table corn, string beans and zucchini. This polyculture works because you wait until everything is ready to be harvested all at once. You aren’t trying to slash your way through those squash vines every day to pick fresh beans. There should be enough density to maximize photon capture so that no light hits the ground, meaning weeds can’t grow. I grew zukes and green beans in a different bed, and after a couple of weedings, pretty much left the Three Sisters alone except for irrigation. Since we like dried corn, beans and squash, I will keep the Three Sisters in the garden bed rotation.
I will try to find a pole bean for drying that we like as well as the bush bean, maybe a cranberry bean. And unless the goats relish squash, I will plant fewer squash plants so that we can corral the vines within reason. (If the goats like squash, I’ll be planting it with abandon in the permaculture plot for its secondary benefit of weed suppression from those huge leaves.) I’d like to get the cleome to grow for the bees, so I will try starting that in the hoophouse for transplanting. The winner by far was the waffle style planting. Next year I will use that discovery for all kinds direct seeded vegetables throughout the rest of the garden.
This farm is already giving us a lot to be thankful for; we will be celebrating the harvest with a lot of yard food: our beets and Kennebec potatoes, buttercup squash pie, arugula salad and Brussels sprouts. Even with that bounty, I’m unreasonably proud to be putting a grain on our table tomorrow, one that connects us back to the earliest Thanksgiving.