Ancient-Style Farming With The Three Sisters, by Murf

Can Ancient Farming Techniques Help Prepare Us For The Future?
Native North Americans traditionally grew three crops for most of their food needs. Affectionately these amazing three plants are referred to as the Three Sisters.
In light of our current pandemic situation, ongoing social unrest, and whatever the planet next decides to throw at us, I personally believe that ancient native farming techniques can help us prepare for the future.
It might be time for you and I to consider growing these food sources on any available land we have. Even if it might be late in the season.
Some quick history, from my perspective:
Long ago in a land far far away… today a region known as Mexico, (or maybe out your back door, as I don’t know where in the world you are reading this), the stewards of the land grew three crops together in mounds. They were Corn, Beans, and Squash.  The knowledge to effectively raise these crops was passed down generation after generation, along with the ever-improving seed stock from their selected plants.
These farming practices eventually made their way through Northern Mexico, into North America, and spread East and West, and further North to multiple different native tribes of varying climates.  The success of these three sisters and their yields encouraged many to abandon other “farmed” plants for this specific trio.
Some research indicates this farming technique was practiced going back 5000 to 6000 years or more.
Could it benefit us today with potential food shortages tomorrow?  I say yes.
Should it become part of your preps? I say yes.
Would you plant some now in any space that you have, just in case?  I believe you should right now.
The Three Sisters Theory
Natives would dig a hole in the earth and place a freshly caught fish in the bottom to provide later plant sustenance.
Soil was mounded over the hole.  Corn was planted on the top flat of the mound.
Once it sprouted, pole beans were planted around the corn, using the strong stalks as a trellis for future vertical growth.
Squash was planted lower on the mound, to spread out and cover the ground as well as provide shade while attracting pollinators.
The nitrogen fixing aspect of the beans was also a benefit.
The combination of Corn and Beans is said to provide your complete protein needs as a human, while squash provides many essential vitamins as well as oil from the seeds.
Historical Lore suggest some Northern Tribes planted the Three Sisters in spring prior to moving on from overwintering and heading to summer hunting and fishing grounds.
Upon return in the fall, various critters such as Deer and Raccoons had snacked on the prolific growth for months while leaving some or most to grow.
That left the enterprising hunters and farmers with the choice of eating MRE’s or the Three Sisters.
(MREs, in this case, being, for example, a Meal Ready to Eat packaged in a fat corn fed deer!)
Obviously, I’ve simplified the research that I have done, but the history and the theory is sound in my humble opinion.
The Modern Three Sisters
To grow the Three Sisters today you need the following items:
1. Space to grow
2. Seeds that work for your zone and climate.  (Preferably non-hybrid.)
3. Fish*
4. Additional Soil/compost
5. Hard work
(* You can pluck your favored fish out of your favorite river, lake, pond, etc and adhere to local rules, laws, and regulations, and licensing while doing so.)
You can “build” a fish like me. I will provide fish building instructions below.)
Corn grows high and squash spreads wide. The space you choose is up to you, but know that some people grow the Three Sisters in hoop houses, in planter boxes, and right in the old-fashioned flat ground.
I suggest using the seeds from corn, squash and beans that you are familiar with and know that work well in your area. Note that by using non-hybrid seeds, you can save seed for subsequent plantings.
Using whatever seeds you have on hand may work well. Then again they may not.
For example, some pole beans are strong enough to pull weaker corn down to the ground in their never ending drive to scale it.
So, my advice when new to planting the Three Sisters is to talk to your local garden/farm center, other farmers, and/or your nearest university-farm extension to see what will work best for you when choosing seeds.
My personal land is bordering zone 5 and 6.
I have been using heirloom Flint Corn seeds and just recently planted saved seed from years past.
For the beans, I planted Heirloom Black Cherokee Bean seeds.
For the squash, I have experimented with both yellow squash as well as baking pumpkins having had more success with the yellow squash.
Your experience will certainly vary with your location and climate.
It’s Time to Plant Your Three  Sisters Plot
1. Prepare your plot by tilling or removing grass or trucking in dirt as required.
2. Designate your mound areas by giving at least 2′ x 2′ square per mound.
3. Dig a 4″ to 6″ deep hole at the middle of each square.
4. Insert a fish in each hole.
5. Cover hole with dirt and mound dirt into a hill with approximately 10″ round at the top and 20″ round at the bottom.
6. Insert 3-5 corn seeds in a circle near the middle of the top round.
7. Insert 3-5 bean seeds in a larger circle outside of the corn seeds.
8. Insert 5-7 squash seeds halfway down the mound in a circle around the mound.
9. Water profusely until seeds germinate.
10. Consider staking corn if the beans are pulling stalks down.
11. Watch for varmints, fence accordingly, or turn hungry critters into MREs later.
12. Grow your three sisters for 75 to 90+ days and harvest as necessary.
13. Enjoy.
14. Save some seeds for next year!
This was a quick, down and dirty plan for a three sisters plot and exactly what I did myself this year in a new 120″ x 180″ plot in my front yard in suburbia.  Y’all with land can take this to the next level.
What about the fish “build”?
So whether through sheer laziness for not wanting to gather a boatload of fish or divine insight I came up with a way to “build a fish” that for me meets the criteria of providing nourishment for the plant roots.
I have named this idea, succinctly, “Mama’s Famous Fish Emulsion and Bone Meal Balls Fish Alternative Builder”
1. Mix 2-3 ounces of liquid fish emulsion with 1-2 cups of bone meal.
2. Form a ball or patty with gloved hands
3. Add water or more bone meal as necessary to form ball
4. Place “fish ball” in the initial hole in the ground prior to mounding with soil.
Genius, right?
Or not… but it works well and the Three Sisters love it.
Plus Liquid Fish Emulsion and Dry Bone Meal can be ordered online or at your nearest garden or farm cente — unlike a fresh fish.
Feel free to play with the ratios as well as add any other nutrients to your next fish build.
Final Notes
Some people grow “Four Sisters”, adding Sunflowers to ring the Three Sisters.  I haven’t done this myself, but you can certainly research and try.
I chose to plant my Three Sisters in mounds in a grid. There are other methods that plant the corn in traditional rows, as well as other seed densities and mound sizes.
I just passed on what has worked for me.  As always, research what may be best for your area.
It pays to be prepared. Consider purchasing heirloom seeds for next year’s plot of Three Sisters… and maybe more.
A Short Rant
Imagine if we used all free space in our communities to grow the Three Sisters for the future.
Can you see the efficacy of this type of growing in a potential future with empty grocery stores?
I’m going to say it again.
It pays to be prepared.
I write this in a time where we have seen grocery store empty due to a virus.
We have seen dairy farmers dump their milk rather than give it away.
Chicken farmers have culled hens and meatstock.
There’s talk of culling commercial pig herds as slaughterhouses have closed.
Meat is getting more expensive by the day.
I hope these things turn around in short order… but, I know that HOPE IS NOT A METHOD!
Preparing for the unknown is a METHOD.
The Three Sisters is a METHOD.
With some quick growing corn seeds, I know this can probably be sown throughout July even in some Northern Zones.
The signs of a worsening crisis are all evident. It’s time to ramp up your preps while we have a lull. I salute you.
Keep Prepping!
– Murf
There seems to be a literal explosion in the population of chipmunks near me this year.  In years past I have grown the Three Sisters without much varmint trouble. No fencing, no problem.
Not this year.  I’ve had chipmunks yank out my first crop of corn.  They just pull out all of the new leaves and leave them to die.  I put up fencing.  The second crop of seeds were sown.  The chipmunks pulled out every seed overnight, slipping through my fencing like ninjas.
I’m in the process of sowing in a third crop with improvement in fencing and traps ready.
Never give up.
Three Sisters for the win!


  1. Interesting article Murf,
    I’ve always wanted to try this method, but never have. Perhaps next year I will give it a try. I may even try it with some native American squash such as Hopi Pale Grey or Navajo Hubbard.

  2. Thank you for the article! I have always loved the idea of companion planting and the Three Sisters is the ultimate in companion planting. In future I would like to try planting the Three Sisters in combination with Back to Eden gardening for a more low tech (no tilling required) gardening approach. Curious if anyone here has tried this combo and how successful they were. BTW, there’s a rather verbose video on Amazon prime that describes the Back to Eden gardening concept for anyone who is interested.

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