Historic Gardening: “The Three Sisters”

May 2017’s Historical Theme of the Month on Gazette665 is Growing History: Gardening Through The Centuries, and we’ll be talking about some wonderful gardens and gardening trends in different eras of U.S. History. (Maybe we’ll do some World History gardening in another month!)

Today’s blog post focuses on the main purpose of crop growth and  shares some gardening techniques from northeastern Native American tribes.

The Original, Primary Purpose of Gardening

Grow food.

Historians often trace civilizations through different stages of development, usually beginning with “hunter and gather” cultures. Eventually, a civilization may need more food for their communities than is reasonable to hunt and gather. At that point, cultivation of plants for food and keeping animals may be added.

Gardening’s original purpose was to increase food supplies for a family or community.

Tribes With Agriculture Pursuits

Many Native American tribes developed unique civilizations and cultural practices while keeping the “hunter & gatherer” lifestyle. Others started exploring crops and gardening for additional food supplies. A lot depended on location, available resources, and nation or tribe size.

Eastern tribes and native nations in the southwest explored and developed agricultural techniques. The Iroquois (northeastern/Great Lakes regions) seem to be the first to plant corn, beans, and squash together and call it “the three sisters.” (See below) In the southwest, Hopi and Navajo grew corn, beans, squash, and other produce, but planted in separate sections of the fields.

A sketch of a northwestern tribe’s fort. Notice the agricultural fields to the right.

“The Three Sisters”

The northeastern tribes planted their crops in large soil mounds to assist with drainage and growth. Their crops – beans, corn, and squash – were planted together in the mounds at different intervals.

First, the corn was planted so it would grow tall. Then the beans which would climb up the cornstalks. Finally, the squash whose large leaves would provide a little extra shad and protection. The plantings had to be timed so neither plant would take too much soil nutrients or block/choke out the the others.

Called “the three sisters” because of their intertwined support and care for each other, these corps flourish, kept the fields replenished with soil nutrients, and grew a healthy, save-able diet. Corn, bean, and squash were preserved to last through the winter months, ensure a fairly reliable food source for the tribe.


Gardening and crop fields became part of a civilization and culture through a need for innovation and a large food supply. “The Three Sisters” is a classic example of growing food to meet a need, and it’s also a great illustration of the creativity and fun of gardening. Corn, beans, and squash grew well together (observably and scientifically), but someone many centuries ago had to figure it out. Gardening can be creative, but – usually – the creativity can be traced to a practical reason.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

One thought on “Historic Gardening: “The Three Sisters”

  1. Pingback: Historic Gardening: Practical & Pretty, Kitchen or Formal? | Gazette665

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