I don’t know if they still teach grade-school kids how the native American Indians showed early settlers how to plant corn, beans, and squash together for maximum harvests of all three, but it is a formula that has worked for thousands of years. Early Indian and Spanish farmers throughout southern and central America grew these staple crops, taking advantage of each species’ unique characteristics. They referred to them as the three sisters. Beans are twining vines that need a support, corn grows as a tall single stalk, and squash plants sprawl across the ground.
As an added benefit, blue-green bacteria in symbiosis with the roots of beans snatch nitrogen from the air and feed it to the plant. Some is also released into the soil to feed other roots, in this case corn and squash. All grow in the heat of the summer, so now is the perfect time to plant your own trio. Here’s the authentic way to plant them.
Prepare the soil by digging deeply, amend with compost, and mound into flat-topped hills three feet or more in diameter and six inches high. Space hills with about one foot between their edges. Plant corn seed on top of the mound and thin to three plants spaced about one foot apart. For each corn plant, plant two or three pole bean seeds. As the corn grows, the beans will twine up them. Plant one or two pumpkin or squash seeds on the mound. If you follow the legend, you will have buried a fish under the mound, but you can fertilize later with liquid fish emulsion if you don’t have access to the unprocessed material. Water deeply; corn roots are known to penetrate up to five feet into the soil.
The corn, bean, and squash varieties that the Indians and settlers grew were for winter storage. Native corn was ground into meal, beans were left to dry on the vine and then shelled, and hard squashes were also stored for cooking later. You may wish to grow fresh varieties that can go straight to the table. They will still respond to the congenial atmosphere of their sister crops.
• Thin fruit on fruit trees so that only one apple, peach, or pear remains for every six inches of branch.
• Look for any standing water around the garden that could be a possible breeding place for mosquitoes.
• Plant tropical and subtropical varieties such as avocado, bougainvillea, and palms now that the soil is warming up.
• Water carefully; check soil moisture before turning on the sprinklers and do so only if soil is dry.
Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.