Once Upon A Time There Were Four Sisters
Tomatoes and squash. Onions and lettuce. Peas and spinach. Carrot and peppers. Such beneficial garden partnerships are as often the result of many gardeners’ experiences as of formal research. Perhaps the oldest plant partners are the Three Sisters, traditional varieties of beans, squash, and corn grown for millennia by Native American Tribes from South And Central American clear up to the Great Lakes area. All are nutritionally dense food crops with compatible cultural requirements; full sun, decent soil, adequate water, and good drainage. In many traditional farms and gardens, seeds of all three are planted in mounds or hills of soil, especially where summer rains are heavy. Where rains are scanty, the plants are nestled into shallow troughs in the soil, so all precious water will be conserved. As corn grows tall, beans stabilize the sturdy stalks, keeping them upright in heavy wind and rain, while squash foliage forms a living mulch, suppressing weeds and keeping soil moist.
Since corn is wind pollinated, it’s not an easy crop for small gardens, as it grows better in generous blocks than skimpy rows. Corn can also cross pollinate easily, making seed saving chancy where gardens are small and close together, and neighbors may be growing different kinds of corn. Gardeners who lack room for corn can add a different sister to the mix; sunflowers. Another traditional American crop, sunflowers were long grown for their oil-rich, nutritious seeds. Tall, sturdy-stemmed sunflowers make excellent ladders for clingy sisters to climb. This classic partnership works best with dry beans, as the plants can grow old together and dry up without disturbance. Grow shell beans and green beans and flageolet on a trellis, chain link fence, or tack chicken wire on a wooden fence and let peas and beans roam freely.
I love growing beans from seed, watching them burst through the soil, popping out their leaves like wide wings and leaning ardently towards the sun. If you want to try this, it’s definitely not too late; in warm gardens, they’ll be up and climbing by Memorial Day. Because nights are still cool around here, I start mine indoors between layers of damp flannel, slid into old zip bags to keep them evenly moist. Most will sprout within a week or so, when they can be gently tucked into 4-inch pots (held by the leaves, not their tender necks). Within another week or so, they’ll have several sets of true leaves and can be hardened off over a few days before we plant them out. My beany babies have been spending the days on my sunny porch steps and the nights back inside, but now they’re ready for planting.
WI’m especially excited about growing Good Mother Stallard beans, a heritage variety I was gifted. I cooked up a cupful, adding just a little onion, carrot and celery and was immediately hooked by the smooth, creamy beans and the flavorful broth. I sprouted a handful of the dry beans and they’re already rarin’ to grow. I’m also growing heritage Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake pole beans, as well as a newer hybrid of the two called Kentucky Blue Pole, which ought to be excellent, given the parentage. Cherokee Golden Wax beans are my favorites for eating fresh, slivered into salads, quickly steamed or stir fried. My sunny space is so limited that I can’t indulge in more beans than this or my garden would be overrun, but sharing extra starts with neighbors is part of the pleasure of gardening.
I know my grandkids will enjoy making a tipi of tall sticks and planting beans to grow up the sticks, creating a snug, shady play space. When my kids made these, I initially worried that someone would get stung, but the flowers stay on the outside of the structure and bees are too busy harvesting pollen and nectar to bother people who don’t bother them. As lower-growing blossoms set pods, they’re quickly claimed for the kitchen and later blossoms are soon out of reach. The kids love spending time in their tipi and always have stories and observations to share. Clearly, the best way to interest children in the natural world and the foodweb is to let them play and explore outdoors, in gardens as well as natural settings.
I’ve heard so many stories from ardent gardeners who learned to love gardening from a grandparent. Where young parents have very full plates, we oldies are often less busy (or can be less busy if we choose, as we are learning right now). In normal times, I’m apt to over-fill my own calendar, but it’s always felt important to keep time available for my grandkids. Since their infancy, they’ve been with me several times a week until just a few weeks ago. In mid March, I started sending them cards and seed packets, encouraging them to plant sunflowers and sweet alyssum, rainbow carrots and Easter Egg radishes. When I discovered that neither parent had time to help them, I took over flats of little pots full of good soil. So often getting help with a first step or two can nudge us into actions that don’t seem so daunting if all the materials are close at hand.
Seeds Of Future Gardeners
Now the kiddos are watering their plant babies faithfully and showing me their progress on our FaceTime calls. Will they become lifelong gardeners? There’s no telling; neither of my own kids are especially interested as adults, but I’ve been mentoring a growing number of young people who want to grow organic food. Passing along good soil and healthy starts is like offering benign, beneficial “gateway drugs” that make it easy to become enchanted with the whole green world. That’s why the starts we give away may turn out to be the most important seeds we ever plant. Onward, right?