Garden Profiles

The beauty of the three sisters garden is in the way the corn, squash, and bean plants work to benefit each other — the corn provides a trellis for the beans and shade for the squash, the beans provide nitrogen for the corn, and the squash act as a living mulch and pest deterrent for the whole garden patch.

The danger of the three sisters garden is that if one element of the garden fails (especially the corn), the entire venture is at risk.

As noted in my last entry, I have already learned some hard lessons. Though the Bingo beans are producing a moderate number of pods, the favas have yet to produce one bean while continuing to refuse the corn as a trellis.

Bloody Butcher is a magnificent corn. However, it is also one of the taller varieties available, reaching a height of 12 feet. The problem I’ve run into is having corn that is perhaps too tall and thus susceptible to wind damage. I’ve already lost 5-10 plant to strong wind blowing the stalks over. As corn requires a good stand to produce quality ears, what I end up with might be far less than desirable. I began the season thinking I might have enough corn to save some seed and grind some for meal. But corn needs a minimum of 100 plants to provide the variety of genes needed to produce viable seed. Once again, I did not give myself any room for failure and began the season with the bare minimum of plants. With fewer that 100 plants pollinating each other, saving seed would be a futile pursuit this year .

Finally, the squash that I had such great hopes for this spring has been, almost to a plant, invaded by the squash vine borer. Although I spent some time at the peak of their emergence slicing open the vines and pulling the worms from inside, I was dismayed this weekend to discover that they had decimated the remaining plants, the worst of them containing 7-8 grubs. The exception, apparently, is the butternut. For whatever reason, the SVB does not bother with this squash. We will be lucky to have 5-6 butternut squash by the season’s end. At least I hope we do — in the middle of pulling the infested vines, I was surprised to find that one SVB grub had burrowed into a volunteer tomato plant. I can only suppose that he burrowed right back out.

But trial and error, isn’t that the name of the game? Next year I am planning to increase the size of the bed and sow legumes and other green manures to improve the organic makeup of the soil. After a season of rest and rejuvination, perhaps the chances for a more succesful three sisters garden will be greatly improved.

Stay tuned for news of further calamities.


IMG_1517When the corn hit 4-6 inches in height this May, I planted my squash and my beans. I sowed my beans in the same hill as the corn, one seed per stalk of corn. For the squash, I planted 2-3 seeds in every other hill. I chose two differnt varieties of beans, a fava (Broad Windsor) and a pole bean that I can dry and store (Bingo). Most of the drying beans sold in the seed catalogs I like are bush beans and don’t necessarily climb.

After the beans started to sprout, I realized my first mistake of the season — only planting one bean seed per stalk. I should have planted 2-3 per stalk, but I didn’t order enough seed. Between the crows and the cut worms, my efforts to stretch the beans is going to short me a few plants.

As the beans progress, I have come to the realization that favas are a poor choice for a three sisters garden. They just don’t want to trellis up the corn stalks. The Bingo beans are hanging on, but between the ants and the many bean beetles, I feel certain my harvest will be exceptionally light.

IMG_1519The squash vines stretch and intermingle in the corn. Some are beginning to trellis up the corn as they clamor for sunlight. This summer I am growing three different varieties — Waltham Butternut, Galeux D’ Eysines, and Marina Di Chioggia. So far, only the butternut are producing any fruit.

adult moths (image courtesy U.Minn Extension website)

adult moths (image courtesy U.Minn Extension website)

Two Sundays ago I spent the afternoon cutting squash vine borer grubs out of the vines. Last year, I felt squeamish even thinking about picking the pasty white killers from the plants. This year, armed with the spite born from last year’s squash failure, I went at it with furious abandon.

in grub form (image courtesy UConn extension agency)

in grub form (image courtesy UConn extension agency)

Unlike many insect predators, the SVB moth is active during the day, from late May through mid July. So far this year, I’ve only seen one moth. However, you can tell you have this pest if the vine, especially where it enters the soil, bears a mushy brown hole or shows other evidence of frass (what looks to be wet sawdust). Unfortunately, once the worms are inside, little can be done except to slice the vines open, pick out the grubs, tape the vines shut, then cover them  with dirt. Although the Kentucky heat opens the door to growing a wide range of vegetables in the garden, it also creates conditions ripe for most of the pests that plague them.

All in all, I am hopeful that we may get a fair-to-decent harvest from our three sisters garden this year. As I write this, much of my corn is 8 feet tall (or taller) and just beginning to tassle. The squash, though stunted by the SVB and my efforts to cut them out, are still alive. The beans are hanging in there. But the pessimist in me knows that the season is only half over. Much can still go wrong.

van longviewFor those of you who think having limited space limits your ability to garden, consider Vanessa. While true that she cannot grow large crops such as corn and winter squash, each year she maximizes her available space and enjoys a steady abundance of tomatoes, peppers, greens, and other seasonal staples. These annuals thrive next to perennials such as thyme, sage, and greens that reseed themselves year after year.

Vanessa’s garden is located in back of her apartment, along a fence separating her parking lot from her neighbors. To get the most from her garden, she succession plants, or plugs new, seasonally appropriate varieties into her bed once the previous plant has run its course (i.e., once it is too hot for her lettuce, she plugs in a pepper or basil plant).

van's potsVanessa also takes advantage of containers in order to increase her harvest. Using medium pots and lots of compost, she is able to grow a variety of tomatoes, eggplants,  and peppers, vegetables that normally take up a lot of space in the garden. But V’s resourcefulness doesn’t stop there.

Vanessa's CompostBy repurposing old windows and bricks, she has created a compost pile that will reduce the need for outside inputs and will boost the health of her soil. In fact, V doesn’t use any fertilizer. Rather, she relies on steady applications of compost to naturally boost her plants.

van's arugulaThe star of Vanessa’s garden is her arugula. When her grandfather immigrated from Italy, he brought this wild seed with him. Today, Vanessa grows that same arugula. And this is what I love about gardening — perserving familial and cultural traditions, ones that cannot be easily reproduced or purchased from a catalog. In fact, the arugula you see here is unique to Vanessa’s garden (and a few hillsides in Italy). This mighty little green packs a powerful punch, a peppery bite that enlivens drab salads and makes commerically available arugula taste like cardboard. It’s also a rather stunning plant, its thin leaves somewhat reminescent of the tomato.

So take heart, those of you who want to garden but don’t feel you have the space. With a little bit of ingenuity and creativity, you can transform even the smallest patch into a productive and beautiful garden.


the big picture
the big picture

So we’re going a little beyond our bluegrass focus for the first garden profile, but not too far. Seems like every Kentuckian gets the itch to ramble about for a while, feeling that the culture, music, people, hell, all of life, must be better once you cross the state line. I have done it many times, as has my good friend Schuyler.

Schuyler is one of those people I envy, but in a loving way. He throws some seed in the ground, it sprouts beautiful plants. He ignores it throughout the summer, it does back flips putting out tasty veggies in order to draw his attention. The man was born with verdant green thumbs.

As I have hinted in other spots on this blog, Eugene, Oregon, can be a wonderful place to garden.  You can’t grow tomatoes (at least not like they grow in the south), but you can pretty much garden year round. Plants that won’t make a winter without intervention in Kentucky thrive in the Willamette Valley’s particular micro-climate (think: rosemary, in the ground, growing 3-4 feet tall and just as big around) . It’s a special place, and the climate allows you to do some pretty special things.

With limited space in the backyard of a rented house, Schuyler chose  a raised bed, which he has divided using the square foot method. With Eugene’s cool, moist weather, most of what he can grow right now are greens, peas, and fava beans.

 chardHere’s a nice picture of the chard, what Schuyler says are holdovers from last summer. If you keep your chard from going to seed in Eugene, it thrives as a perennial. I would say that Schuyler has enough chard here to feed his army of 4 (3 of whom are eating solid foods) for the entire spring and into the summer…


shelling peasWhat a great picture — here we have a small patch of Alderman peas, a shelling pea that thrives in the Pacific Northwest. Schuyler reports that his peas are going absolutely batty, and from my own fond memories of growing peas in the PNW, I would have to say I believe him 100%.

What I also love about this picture are the two — count ’em — composters in the background. I haven’t written much about composting here, but when I first began to take advantage of the process, I had an earth machine, much like the one you see in the background. They’re a little slow, but with two, you can get one ready while the other is making the next batch.

chixFinally, an image that sets my heart to flutter — three young Buff Orpington pullets doing what chickens do best — eating the pests of the backyard and creating next year’s fertilizer.

The Buff Orpington is a great bird for the backyard poultry enthusiast. This breed is good for meat and egg production, so after 2-3 years of eating their delicious brown eggs, they can be slaughtered and enjoyed on the kitchen table. A large breed, the Buff Orpington is also rather docile and a great variety to introduce to young children. I’m not sure what the laws are in Eugene, but in Lexington you’re allowed to have as many pullets as you want (or as your neighbors will tolerate), just no roosters.

Many thanks to Schuyler for sending us the great photos of his garden and poultry operation.

first step -- build mounds

first step -- build mounds

This summer I decided to try something new in the garden. Well, new for me. Various Native American tribes have companion planted corn, beans, and squash — the three sisters — for thousands of years.

In modern America, industrial corn farming has created a vicious cycle. A heavy feeder, corn quickly wears down the soil, which, in turn, requires the farmer to use chemical fertilizers to induce growth. Weak plants and sterile soil allow the bad bugs a bigger toe hold in the field, and so the farmer resorts to heavy doses of insecticide. The insecticide further degrades the soil, requiring more fertilizer. And so on.

The three sisters represents a different mindset. The corn, beans, and squash are companion planted so that each plant works to benefit the others. The corn grows tall and provides a trellis for the beans. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, thus feeding the corn. The squash spreads out between the mounds of corn and beans, its vines serving as a living mulch that reduces weeds and helps the soil retain moisture. The squash vines also discourage critters like raccoons that have a fondness for corn but are afraid to walk in over grown areas where they can’t see the ground.

Sunday, I completed the first step in creating a three sisters garden. I mounded the soil and planted 8 kernels of Bloody Butcher corn in every other hill. If all goes well this summer, and each plant puts out at least one ear of corn, we will have 100–150 ears from which we’ll make our own meal. Bloody Butcher is a beautiful dark crimson corn, and we hope to be eating red cornbread by late October!

Check back for more updates on the progress of this summer’s experiment.