The “Three Sisters” Planting Method: Fact or Fiction? Let’s Give It A Whirl!
In other words: The Tale of a Historical Garden Experiment!
While researching my novella “Harvest Grove” I needed to learn more about the Native American cultures that existed in New England during the 1600s. What better place to see and learn about them, but at historical Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, (Yes, they spell it Plimouth and not Plymouth, and its original name was Patuxet). There they have built and staffed a re-creation of a Wampanoag village. After seeing a great deal and speaking with some wonderful people, I took notice of the cornfields they had planted. First I noticed the skill of the fence, then the tall stalks. Out came my camera to record the images.
When I got home I looked at those images. Here we go…time for that big left turn caused by my kooky brain and its odd curious thoughts.
Those beautiful cornfields made me think of all the history books I read as a kid that said the Native Americans of early New England planted corn on small mounds that they had fertilized with fish. Those books told us at the base of the corn they planted beans that grew twisting up the stalks, and they added melons or squash to the mound under the corn. Those three vegetables together were called the “Three Sisters.” Though, I don’t remember seeing those two other plants among the cornfield at Plimouth Plantation.
The original stories of the “Three Sisters” farming technique has been connected to the Wampanoag Native Americans that lived near, and helped the Colonists of the Plimouth settlement survive after they failed to have a good crop from the seeds and plants they brought with them. The Wampanoag were well attuned to the resources of the area, knowing how to collect fish and shellfish, and how to hunt and farm, keeping in mind preserving and storing food and supplies for upcoming seasons for the survival of their families. They also knew about the climate and how that would effect their land, so when autumn came they moved away from the coast to more inland to avoid the storms and cold winds. It was during those cold months that the English colonists arrived, ill-equipped, unhealthy, and unfamiliar with the landscape.
Speaking of the corn: I went and collected a few more modern publications to see if they still talked about the “Three Sisters” planting method. The educational booklet from Plimoth Plantation: “Wampanoag: People of the East, 17th Century Wampanoag Life”, details out that method. It was written just as my old textbooks: corn planted in mounds that have been fertilized by Herring fish (though not every year), and then the bean plants and the squash.
Modern comments on that method say, yes, the corn stalks supported the beans, and the beans put nitrogen into the ground, and the melon or squash leaves because they are broad, kept the soil moist and blocked weeds. Did they know that, or was it over time they perfected their gardening skills? Well, I can’t do anything about the evolution of farming, but I can wonder if it is even possible to grow those three types together. I can’t help but think it may be just a nice story we keep telling the kiddies. I had to find out.
Introducing the Hair Brain Idea: or the Not so Scientific , Fly by the Seat of my Pants Experiment.
One of the variables these early coastal settlers and Native American gardeners had to deal with, was just that, living near the ocean.
The winds can be fierce, and they carry in salted air. Then there are storms that flood the land and leave behind shellfish, seaweed and sand. Lots of sand. Could those English colonists and the Native Americans grow a garden close to the coast? That I could find out. I just happen to live very close to the coast and my yard has been flooded many times.
Phase One: 2009
So let us start out with the corn: the weachamin. Can it grow on the coast? And is it strong enough to support a vine with mature beans on it? So I dug up my yard and planted a cornfield all in the name of science! Yes, my neighbors think I am strange.
To my surprise, and with no real corn growing experience or knowledge, my corn which was kinda, sort of, the same corn as they might have planted, grew. And something really cool happened. At the base of the stalks, they send out shoots that look like fingers digging into the ground.
Each thick round stalk developed this sturdy root system to keep them straight up and strong. I was quite amazed! And yes, I learned that these stalks are pretty strong. I bet they could support a small vine plant.
Also, they survived many a strong seabreeze without breaking or burning, and they didn’t need much care because I fractured my foot and couldn’t tend the garden. Nature took its course. Best of all, they produced an ear of corn each. I admired my beautiful corn.
For me it was an accomplishment. For those early Native Americans it would have been the difference between life and starvation. Not only was it a major part of their diet, they used the husks for everything from clothing and shoes, to rugs to fire starters. I also read they used the corn stalks for fencing, and the proof is in the pudding, or I should say my garden, those stalks are strong!
Phase Two: 2010. Canceled. I got nothing. Guess I needed a gardening break.
Phase Three: 2011. I rallied.
With renewed interest to complete my Myth or Fact Experiment, I tried again. This time I was not going to go nuts with a big garden. Too much work! I’m not THAT dedicated! This time I picked a small corner of the yard. I would grow one or two stalks of corn, try the beans, a nearby pumpkin plant, and added some herbs. Yes, this will work. Small and controlled.
Oh, about the herbs. Another hair brained idea.
I also decided to plant a Colonial Herb Garden. Well, in boxes, which was a common way to plant gardens in olden times. The Colonists brought over seeds of plants and herbs that they used in Europe. Most did not grow or thrive in this new climate and soil type, so over time they adapted what the Native population used, such as green onions and wild garlic. I checked out a couple sources and ended up buying organic starter plants. Some are similar to what they had in the 17th century. Some I wanted to use in my modern times marinara sauce like basil.
Speaking of the 1966 Simon and Garfunkel song: Scarborough Fair.
Part of the lyrics:
“Tell her to find me an acre of land:
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme;
Between the salt water and the sea strand, (sea shore)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.”
Yes, I grew my herbs and corn within an acre of the seashore. And here is my Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
The herbs were growing great. I was picking them and freezing them. The one corn stalk was reaching for the sky, and the beans which I planted, (I read later that one should wait till the corn had a head start before planting the beans. By sheer lazy luck I did that. Per the Plimouth Plantation resource, you wait till the corn is a hand high. ), were beginning to reach up the cornstalk. Finally, I would have that answer if corn stalks and climbing beans could live together in perfect harmony.
All was going well until August. Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene came visiting the east coast and washed over my garden.
The yard was immersed all day. Wave after wave uprooted plants. The saltwater burned everything. And when the storm passed and the water receded, layers of sand covered the lawn. My garden was gone. Every plant killed. If I had been a Native American or an early Colonist depending on that crop to feed my family through the winter, we would have starved. The plants were not mature enough prior to the storm hitting, to be harvested.
Phase Four: 2012
In true New England spirit, we pull up our boot straps and go on. I am bound and determined to see this experiment through to the end!… What was it again?….. Oh, yes, can corn, beans, and melons cohabitate and thrive like the old school books say?
What have we learned so far? Corn stalks are strong. That’s about it.
Wait, we forgot the fish factor:
According to the legend, the Native Americans taught the English colonists to put a fish, usually called a herring fish, in the mound before planting the corn seeds.
What is a herring fish? They contain Omega-3 fatty acids and are a source of Vitamin D. They were plentiful near the Atlantic ocean in the 17th century. They were also common near European shores, so we can unscientifically assume the English Colonists recognized them and were probably happy to see something familiar.
Super Left Turn Warning, or what I call, a Dipsy Doodle!
Remember that children’s poem, “Wynken Blynken and Nod” by Eugene Field? It was written in 1889 (and one of my favorite poems). It may be the first time children learn about those plentiful fish.
“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe —
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
Said Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.”
Back on topic….
In the illustrated book: “The New England Indians” the author C. Keith Wilbur comments, that if the fishing catch was plentiful, the left over from drying and preserving would be used for fertilizer. Cape Cod still has springtime herring runs, where the herring return to brooks and ponds to spawn. That would be a perfect time to plant. Other sources say they used the left over Herring, or just the heads to fertilize worn out planting lands. That makes more sense to waste just left over fish rather than putting perfectly good fish into the ground. My guess they used fish guts or more spoiled fish, or fish they didn’t like to eat for the fertilizer. Not liking fish, that should be easy for me to waste them.
I didn’t have a net of silver or gold to catch my herring fish. Nor could I get anyone to volunteer to fish for me so I cheated. I added some commercial brand fertilizer to the soil that Hurricane Irene blessed. I thought it would be very realistic not to trade out all the sandy soil. I felt that it would be more realistic to leave it. They wouldn’t have back in the day. How could they? So, can my corn grow in salted soil?
I created the mound they talk about in all the books. I put in my corn seeds, and near it I planted heirloom melon seeds and vine bean seeds. I should have researched what type of beans they used (kidney beans), and just assumed it was general green beans. Oops.
Fast forward into the summer. Sure enough, the corn was growing and beans started to send out vine shoots. (I made up my mind not to water my plants that often. To let them for the most part survive on rainwater. That seemed more realistic. They didn’t have easy access to fresh water back then.)
With a little encouragement, the bean vines finally latched onto the cornstalks for support and started growing up them.
And below, the melon plant was sending out big healthy leaves, happy as a clam in the corn’s shade.
It was even a tad magical when the corn silk turned a bright pink like a troll doll’s hair!
Then chaos! The bean plants ran out of cornstalk and got greedy, reaching out to the next plant, pulling it in, making a mess of my garden. I suppose I could have redirected them down the same stalk. Do you think those early Native American’s did that? I decided to give it a go, but not soon enough to rescue the other corn stalk that was strangled and pulled over. Wow, those little grabber vines are strong!
Come fall and all is well! I had two ears of corn on each plant. Later I would learn the reason the first ears were the biggest had to do with high rainfall during that time.
What have we learned?
Corn can grow close to the coast. And it will grow when the land has been washed over by saltwater. We learned their stalks are strong enough to support another plant growing up it. We also learned it is not harmed by a broad leaf plant growing at its base. We learned beans are aggressive shoot plants, best to keep them corralled on the support you want them to be on. This would take time and energy. We learned with hardly any care corn and melons will grow fine.
I smile, for indeed, it is possible to grow these three plants together. Now I can read those books that say the early Native Americans did that type of farming and believe them!
If I had been a Wampanoag Native American, I would have been busy harvesting and preparing my crops for storage in sacks and baskets. Did they store their goods inland? In the book “The Pequots in Southern New England.” edited by Laurence M. Hauptman and James D Wherry, those tribal People did farm nearer the coast and when the crops were harvested, they moved inland where they were more protected. Which I learned in 2012 would have been a very good idea…..because come October, we got hit by Super Storm Hurricane Sandy.
Once again my garden was destroyed with the burning saltwater rushing over it. This time, it was worse. My garden was gone and so were my herb boxes.
I never did find the remains of the fence or the boxes. My other yard plants and trees that survived flooding in the past and with Tropical Storm Irene, did not this time. The storm surge was too strong. If a Native community had been hit that hard, they would have had to move elsewhere to farm.
Year Five and beyond: Yes, I am a very patient person..
“Life will find a way”: My favorite Jurassic Park movie quote. And like New Englanders, our native plants are tough! Come late spring 2013, peeking out of my sand covered lawn, grass shoots appeared. Flowers were planted and they grew. Soon there would be rain diluting the soil, restoring it back so it can support a garden again.
Recently I started reading the book “Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples” by Lucianne Lavin. She states the Connecticut Indians grew corn, then squash, and later came the beans. According to her, there is no archaeological evidence that they did plant those together. We got that information from European settler accounts from the 1600s. Interesting, so in a way, the “Three Sisters” story really is based on oral accounts or stories. She did say there is evidence they grew corn, beans and sunflowers. All sources I read mentioned the New England Native Americans also grew tobacco. That crop is still grown in the Connecticut River Valley. I worked in the fields as a kid, but that is another story for another time. For me, my experiment was done with the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Native families in mind. For me the experiment was a success, no matter how hard Mother Nature tried to mess with it. I learned the “Three Sisters” can live together.
May you always have a bountiful harvest!
May you always keep to a goal no matter how long it takes you to reach it!
Warm regards, Atwood
Corn as Money? According to the “Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook: Wampanoag Indian Recipes, Images & Lore”, by Earl Mills Sr and Betty Breen.: “On Octomber 8, 1631, maize was made legal tender in Massachusetts Bay Colony for all transactions unless pelts of fur were specified in the agreement.” Think about what a huge commodity corn is now in the world. It is food for people and livestock, converted into fuel and put into many products that are sold. It has come a long way in a really short time.
Corn Trivia: One ear of corn contains about 800 kernels in 16 rows. It only has 59 calories without butter: 155 with.
Books for the Family:
“Wampanoag: People of the East, 17th Century Wampanoag Life”: a great quick resource found in the teacher’s section of plimoth.com
From the National Geographic Society; “1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving” by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac with Plimoth Plantation. A very nice booklet with beautiful images that teaches us about the real story of Thanksgiving and what the real Pilgrims and Native Americans looked liked. No drab black clothes with big white bibs.
“The Algonquians” by Patricia Ryon Quiri
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