The Great Three Sisters Experiment


This is our "Three Sisters" plot, which demonstrates the traditional method of planting corn, squash and beans together. This year as an experiment, in the left half we turned the bed over as usual before planting, but on the right we only aerated the soil (stuck a garden fork in the ground to its full depth and just wiggled it a little, every six inches or so) and left most of the clover cover crop that wintered over. The seeds were all planted on the same days and as far as we know nothing else is different between the two sides. The right side is so far doing noticeably better for one reason or another, or maybe both, or maybe luck. To be continued...


We've got a few "tassel-ears" growing in our cornfield. A tassel-ear is a small, fully-formed ear of corn growing out of the top of the plant, without any husk to cover it. Looks a little wierd, but apparently isn't that unusual. You can find out more about tassel-ears here: I'm guessing some bird's going to be real happy to find it.

Top 5 Things to Know About Corn Pollination

Most of the corn plants in our Three Sisters bed have reached the tassel stage, and some of them have also reached the silk stage.  This is important, because corn has both male and female parts -- that is, the silk and the tassel. 

Alan was nice enough to snap this photo of the golden and red tassels formed on our popcorn plants:

Proper soil moisture, as well as air temperature, are both critical to having both the tassel and silk appear at the same time, and therefore create the proper circumstances for successful pollination.  Many of our crop plants are pollinated by insects, (e.g., bees, wasps, moths and ground beetles), but corn is different.  The corn plant depends on wind to carry the pollen from a tassel to the silk strands that form at the top of each potential ear of corn.

For more info, click here for the Top 5 Things to Know about Corn Pollination.

A Quinoa Recipe for Fresh Summer Corn: Definitely a "Keeper"!


When sweet corn is in season -- as it is right now -- we eat a lot of it.  Usually, we are corn purists: just boil it quickly, sprinkle it with salt or Campmix, and eat it right off the cob.  Yesterday, though, I wanted to try something different with our sweet corn, fresh from Busa's Farm.  (In the Robbins garden, the corn in our Three Sisters plot is a decorative popping corn so we can't use it for this recipe.).   With the corn, I bought a bunch of gigantic, freshly picked scallions, also grown at Busa's. 

The recipe, Quinoa and Fresh Corn with Scallions is from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone".  (Highly recommended book, by the way!)  A photo of Deborah's recipe is shown, but I varied it slightly.  I used more vegetables:  5 ears of corn and 3 of the huge scallions.  Instead of the Tbsp butter or canola oil, I used 3 Tbsp Extra Virgin olive oil and 1 tsp butter.  I also sauteed the corn and scallions longer than the recipe recommends, til the scallions were wilted.  I used an organic tricolor quinoa from Trader Joes. 

I thought this would be good, but didn't think it would be SO good.  John (who is really into corn in its "purist" preparation and also does not get very excited about some of the grains I like) loved it!  We didn't even add the cheese that the recipe suggests -- it was delicious all by itself, seasoned with salt and pepper.  We had it as a side dish with grilled fish.

By the way, the beautiful bowl in the photos was made by my friend Amy Goldstein, at Mudflat Studio.  

The Three Sisters

Three Sisters photos
Corn, beans and squash were the three main agricultural crops of many Native American groups in the continental United States. Known as The Three Sisters, growing these crops together -- as the Native Americans are believed to have inspired Colonial farmers to do -- demonstrates an agricultural strategy known as Companion Planting.
Here's how it works. The Corn stalks provide structure for the pole beans to climb. The Bean roots fix nitrogen in the soil for the Corn and Squash. And the Squash plants spread along the ground like a living mulch, blocking the sun, retaining moisture in the soil, discouraging weeds and deterring pests with prickly hairs of their vines. In this way, the three crops not only occupy the same plot, but also synergize, enhancing the growth of one another.
Robbins Farm Garden introduced a Three Sisters plot in 2011, and is featuring one again this year. This is in happy coincidence with the Arlington Historical Society's 3rd Grade Educational Program on Colonial Life, which includes The Three Sisters. Colonial farmers adopted The Three Sisters planting strategy from the Algonquin, the Native Americans who originally inhabited this land. In Colonial times, Arlington was known by the Algonquin name Menotomy.
In 2011, our Three Sisters plot contained Double Standard Heirloom Corn, Garden of Eden Italian Pole Beans and Chucky F1 Pumpkins. We were unaware that the Corn should be planted first, followed when it is six inches tall by the Beans and Squash. When planted all at once, as we did that first year, the Beans outgrew the Corn and required staking. This, as well as a desire to try different Corn and Squash varieties, led to a few changes in our 2012 Three Sisters plot.
This year, we planted only the corn, Miniature Colored Popcorn on May 12. We will follow when the corn has reached six inches in height, with Garden of Eden Italian Pole Beans again (they did exceptionally well in 2011 and were delicious) and JWS 6823 PMR F1 Butternut Squash. Butternut Squash were selected because they are less susceptible to Squash Vine Borers than most Squashes. The borers can be extracted from the vines, but the lack of access created by the Corn and Bean plants make this disagreeable procedure more difficult.
Nutritionally, The Three Sisters also work well together. In combination with Beans, Corn and Squash contain all the nutrients necessary to produce proteins and niacin. Combining the Three Sisters with other seasonal herbs and vegetables in a stew is a traditional treat. All three crops can also be stored without refrigeration. Corn and Beans can be dried, and undamaged winter Squash will keep for many months in cool, dry conditions.
Variations of Three Sisters abound. Pueblo tribes of the US Southwest adapted the companion planting to a drier environment, often including a Fourth Sister known as Rocky Mountain Beeweed to attract bees to pollinate the Beans and Squash.
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