The story of the 3 Sisters

Native American tribes in pre-Columbian times grew 3 staple crops which complemented each other (companion plants). They grew bean and pumpkin/squash with corn which became famous as the Three Sisters. The idea was to identify the group of plants that grow and work in harmony- like 3 loving sisters.

Historically, beans came much later into the picture. Ethnobiologists believe that beans weren’t adopted by Native American tribes until after 1000 AD. Visualize the ancient farmer, familiar with planting corn and squash together, who accidentally or not- adds the peculiar vegetable, bean. And eureka, they thought, ‘these crops work together just like three loving sisters’. The practice of this method varied across different tribes and regions as the planting design changed according to the local ecological conditions. Carl Sauer labelled the 3 Sisters as “a symbiotic plant complex without an equal elsewhere”. 

Painting: Tiwari, Chandranshu. Harvest Moon, 2019

The problem with our food

There have been numerous social and environmental movements pushing public on going local with their consumption and production choices, especially urban dwellers. Mostly for eating and growing food locally on a personal level and encouraging changes in diets and preferences to reduce ecological and carbon footprints on the planet.

Researchers claim that urban dwellers have become spatially distant from the source of their food. So much so, majority of them cannot identify food plants anymore. It also led to temporal distancing which increases time between harvest and consumption with the help of transportation and increased shelf life of packaged food. This growing culture of frozen food has increased food wastage and decreased nutritional value, leading to unhealthy eating habits. Consumers have forgotten the value of fresh food that is grown with hard work by farmers somewhere far from the cities. Cultural rituals as well as skills related to food production and distribution are lost.

The Three Sisters – “a symbiotic plant complex without an equal elsewhere.”

Carl Sauer

Current urban food system has become a system that is largely unresponsive to individual and community needs. There is this issue of food loss and food waste leading to urban food insecurity. Urban network of food production, processing and distribution is majorly energy intensive, environmentally harmful and does not meet the needs of everyone. Nutritional value and community health is compromised. Food security is defined as access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food (World Food Program, WFP) and food that meets the dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (Food and Agricultural Organisation, FAO).

The basic solution comprises of people having access to fresh, nutritious, affordable, sustainable food that they can easily grow themselves. Permaculture urban agriculture is one such approach that may help in achieving urban food security. Certain permaculture methods like ‘the 3 sisters’ can be applied on a small piece of land or in backyard or in containers to achieve these goals of nutrition and fresh food, with minimum effort and money. Permaculture designs also offer mindful and sustainable meat production methods for a wholesome diet.

Solution from the 3 Sisters

AFFORDABLE:

The 3 sisters is one of the foundations of permaculture farming. Growing crops in such a way that they benefit each other naturally without expensive inputs or much effort is one of permaculture’s fundamental principles.

Corn grows tall and acts as a trellis for the beans to climb on. Beans return the favour by fixing the nitrogen with their roots and improving the soil fertility naturally. Bean vines also stabilize the corns, making them less vulnerable to strong wind. Squash spreads over the ground creating a thick layer of live mulch which prevents soil moisture from evaporating and acts as a natural weed barrier. The thorny squash plants further repels predators/pests from attacking the corn and beans reducing the need for pesticides. The 3 sisters save money on many kinds of farming inputs while providing healthy organic veggies.

COMPLETE DIET PACKAGE:

In 3 sisters, the corn, beans, and squash complement each other nutritionally and come as a complete diet. Beans have amino acids, and are abundant in proteins, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and manganese. Corn provides carbohydrates, and squash provides vitamin E and potassium. Together they make the three sisters stew which offers all the nutrition for our body to flourish.

  • Corn produces enormous energy and modest amounts of protein. Bean yields a lot less than corn, but holds more than twice the protein. As per FAO, a proportion of 70% corn to 30% bean offers the perfect balance of amino acids for a complete protein.  Pumpkin fibre contains little protein, has little calories and loads of Vitamin A, but the seeds are rich in both energy and protein. Pumpkin protein is incomplete in itself, but its amino acids balance those in corn and bean to form high-quality proteins.
  • Corn and beans are popularly consumed as sweet corn and green beans. But, harvesting them immaturely sacrifices their food value. Green beans hold little energy and protein, but when left to mature into dry beans, they turn into protein and energy powerhouses (>100 x energy and 8 x protein). Corns and whole squash can also be stored for long periods in cold weather while pumpkin when sliced and dried lasts even longer. 
HIGHER YIELD:

The yields of permaculture system are hypothetically unlimited. The nature of nature is that it becomes progressively fruitful and productive over time. The yields of a well-designed permaculture system will generate a surplus. The 3 Sisters produce 2 to 4 times more energy and protein than monocultures of bean and pumpkin and marginally more energy than corn monoculture. The 3 Sisters produces more energy (12.25 x 106 kcal/ha) and more protein (349 kg/ha) than any of the crop monocultures grown to the same area. The method supports 13.42 people/ha/yr with energy and 15.86 people/ha/yr with protein.

  • Corn yields are marginally higher when cultivated in monocultures compared to the 3 Sisters, but energy from bean and pumpkin compensate for the lower energy produced by corn. Moreover, the corn protein is enhanced by proteins from bean and pumpkin. In conclusion, farmers yield about the same amount of energy from corn monoculture, but they yield significantly higher protein from the companions- bean and pumpkin. This fact highlights the significance of the 3 Sisters over monocultures as the method yields large amounts of energy and at the same time increases protein yields.
ZERO WASTE, ZERO EFFORT:

The 3 sisters are planted on mounds in fields that are not ploughed. Absence of tillage increases the soil fertility and sustainability of the cropping system as it decreases oxidation of soil organic matter and soil erosion. It also requires less time and labour than planting the crops individually. Crop residue of the 3 sisters can also be mixed into the soil at the end of the planting season, to maintain the organic matter and soil structure. All the organic material generated on site can be easily absorbed back into the system to feed the soil and ultimately the plants, animals and ourselves.

Challenges and implications

There are small barriers to overcome with this method to be compatible with the urban food security goals. From a consumer’s perspective, major barriers are linked to the lack of choice and variety that are provided by urban farming systems and ecosystems, especially for people who eat meat and fish. However, consumers’ desire to choose their food and diet is not completely overridden, as the 3 sisters method can be practically applied in many other permaculture variations of crop combinations.

Consumers can grow other varieties of crops following the companion planting guides, as most of the combinations follow the principles of permaculture and fulfil the goals of urban food security. Permaculture designs also include chicken keeping and fish ponds for sustainable meat diets. Another barrier is the availability of space to grow food which must be compatible with required growing conditions. For this- some additional inputs and technology may be required in certain regions like aquaponics and  polypipe greenhouses.

But on a broader spectrum, by adopting the ethics of 3 sisters and permaculture in urban agriculture, we transform from dependent consumers to responsible producers. This path delivers resilience in communities that prepare us for an uncertain future with less available energy and resources.