Some Resources for Three Sisters Gardening

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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Here are a few resources for those starting or teaching Three Sisters gardening this year. Warning: some of these books, articles, and web links are so engaging, they could be addictive! This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are substantial gaps; please add resources you find particularly useful.

And please remember that the written word, excellent as it is, is meant as a blueprint only, a starting place. It can never replace oral tradition for your locale. Search out indigenous and other heritage Three Sisters gardeners and farmers where you live or as close as you can get, to learn from those people and seeds who have “the long memory.”

Oral Resources

How to Grow a Three-Sisters’ Garden

A good place to start finding local heritage gardeners and farmers to ask is local seed saving groups, seed exchanges, and seed libraries, often located at or affiliated with local book libraries. If nothing pops out right away, visit RMSA Seed Libraries to find the closest group.


Beautiful Corn by Anthony Boutard

Farmers Boutard and his wife, Carol, own Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, OR. If you read nothing else on corn, read this. A slim book, it is nevertheless an essential foundation text on heritage and adapted corn and corn-growing. Boutard covers topics including the origins of corn, what the difference is between popcorn, flint, dent, flour, (and broom, which is not a corn), which type grow best where and which makes the most flavorful, best-textured cornbread, hominy, etc., the geography of corn, different stages of corn growth, heritage varieties of each type, eating the quelites (the wild greens in the cornfield), corn cooking and recipes, choosing seed, harvest and storage.

The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell

The jacket cover says this book “changes completely one’s sense of the shape and nature of the American experience. You will never again munch on a hush puppy…or simply pass a cornfield in the same way.” That was true for me. Fussell includes both South and North American history in her wry, panoramic survey of the reaches of corn into every facet of our lives. I came away awestruck at the entwined, complex, riveting history of humans and corn.

Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden “by” Gilbert L. Wilson

Buffalo Bird Woman of the Hidatsa people was born in 1839 in what is now North Dakota. Anthropologist Gilbert L. Wilson meticulously transcribed her detailed gardening advice and first published it in 1917. It’s still in print. She covers all aspects of traditional Hidatsa growing, harvesting, and storing of the Three Sisters, with accompanying traditional cultural practices. This book is priceless both for its gardening knowledge and its glimpse into a way of life in which the Three Sisters were fully integrated.

Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta

Cherokee/Appalachian writer Marilou Awiakta writes that the word for corn as grain and the word for corn as spirit, “Mother of us all,” are both pronounced Selu. Corn thus nourishes in two ways that must not be separated. Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, writes in the Foreword: “In the old days the Cherokee people believed that the world existed in a precarious balance and that only right or correct actions kept it from tumbling. Wrong actions were believed to disturb the balance.” The Corn Mother taught and teaches these right actions. Awiakta writes: “Through corn’s natural ways of growing and being, the spirit sings of strength, respect, balance, harmony. Of adaptability, cooperation, unity in diversity. Songs of survival.” Awiakta urges hope in the application of this traditional wisdom to our relationship with both the human community and the natural world.

Oaxaca al Gusto by Diana Kennedy

British-born Diana Kennedy has lived in Mexico since 1957 and celebrated in her cookbooks Mexican culinary cultures which still prepare corn the traditional way, with mano and metate. Most recipes in this book, which won the James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year award, feature corn, beans, and sometimes squash—daily food, festival food. Reading these recipes, I feel like I’m back at the source where the community of corn, beans and squash began, where a big part of life revolves around growing, preparing, and eating them in infinitely varied and mouth-watering ways.


This article from Native Seeds/SEARCH mentions why corn is mounded in wet areas of our country, which does not apply to those living in semi-arid and arid areas (unless in a flood situation).

Downloadable pdf based on the article

How to Plant the Three Sisters from Cornell University Cooperative Extension

and its related articles, such as The Need for Diversityand Classroom Activities

Note: Diversity of Advice

I’ve read so many “How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden” articles from all over the country and the only thing they have in common is the important basics about how one plant helps another. That’s where the similarities mostly end.

They differ on garden plans, advice on how many kernels to put in each hole, where to put the holes, what kernels go in each hole, how far apart everything should be. They differ about other plants in the system. One source tells us that Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata) was and is a fourth sister in the Tewa culture. It’s a food, medicine, and dye and grows over a wide range of our country. Other sources say other plants are the definitive “fourth sister.” Some authors thankfully call them all “cousins.” Some sources say “plant sunflowers [sometimes called a fourth sister], right next to the corn.” Others say “sunflowers are allelopathic [slowing or inhibiting growth of nearby plants]; don’t let them near your Three Sisters!” Some articles say, “plant sweet corn!” Other say, “never plant sweet corn! Won’t work!” Some say, “never plant popcorn!” Others say, “plant popcorn!”

The reader comments following each article are equally wide and seemingly contradictory.

Who’s right? Whom to follow–who’s the authority?

There is no one-size-fits-all authoritative how-to guide for our gigantic country. What works one place may fail in another and vice versa.  On a micro scale, what works in one soil could do poorly even five feet away in a different soil or under different conditions. A variety adapted to my place may behave very differently from one adapted to yours. Thank heaven for the diversity. Ask indigenous and other heritage gardeners local to your area (see third paragraph of this article), know your land, trust yourself, talk it over, and experiment. Just try. Honor your adventure. And after a year or few of saving seeds from each experiment, your garden will be a wise teacher of local adaptation, local terroir, local savoir.

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