Three Sisters Experiment 2009


Around this time of year the exhaustion starts to set in. I’ve saved the majority of my seeds. I can’t bear to look at too many more tomatoes or eat any more kale, and the basil stares longingly, accusing me of neglect. In fact, the riot of vegetables ploughing into one another accuses me.

I’ve canned all I’m gonna can. The freezer is full. My trips to the garden are fewer and fewer.

After a week’s absence, I journeyed out to the garden only to discover that the raccoons had finally shown up. The squash that were supposed to keep them out of the corn had been pulled because they were infested with the vine borer. The raccoons had been pulling the corn stalks down, peeling back the silks and husks and completely eating the corn from the cob.

My beautiful corn. I thought that it needed another month, but as I began to pull the husks back from the ears, I discovered they were mostly ready. So I pulled them. I harvested maybe 15-20 lbs of corn that is now drying. Soon, I will remove the kernels, grind them up, and we will have corn flour.

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At this time, we’ve only harvested five small butternut squash. We’ve one more on the vine. The rest of the squash were a failure.

The beans were beyond failure. We might have harvested one cup of bingo beans and, no lie, a total of three fava beans. Three. Favas are obviously not meant to grow in the Kentucky summer. Lesson learned.

On the whole, I’d say the three sisters was a failure. When you don’t really get two of the three crops, can you call it anything else? What would I do next year? Grow greasy beans (or some other bean suited for Kentucky’s climate), grow only butternut squash, grow a corn that is shorter by a few feet.
I may also let this bed rest, dump my compost into it for a year, and try again in earnest the next.
Is there anything else a gardener can do?
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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.

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.