Wednesday 19 September 2012

The Three Sisters - part 4

Well, the Sweet Corn element of my Three Sisters experiment may not have been a success, but I think the "Cherokee Trail of Tears" beans are. When I went away on holiday the bean plants had several yellow leaves, but 10 days later they were almost completely yellow, and in fact many of the leaves had fallen off.

Although not all the pods looked ripe I decided that it was time to harvest them, especially as the weather forecast for the next week or so looked pretty grim. This is definitely a job much more easily done in dry weather than in wet.

I cut the bean pods off one-by-one, being really thorough and trying hard not to miss any. Actually this is not easy, as the pods come in many colours, and are very well camouflaged. When they are tiny, the pods are usually either plain green or plain purple. As they get older they develop streaks and freckles and change colour and you hardly seem to get two the same. This is unusual. In my experience, beans usually produce relatively uniformly-coloured pods.

Irrespective of their earlier colour, the pods all eventually go brown, in various shades. The really ripe ones are dry and brittle and you can hear the beans rattle inside them.

I ended up with a huge basket of pods.

This lot weighed-in at 1.5kgs. Of course when they are shelled, the weight of usable beans will be much less. They are not ready for shelling yet (well, most of them aren't), so I shall leave them to dry for a week or ten days before I do this. (I wonder whether Jane would notice if I squeezed them into the dehydrator airing cupboard somewhere?)

The third element of the Three Sisters - the Squashes - has been a total washout. As I cleared away the bean foliage and poles I found this tiny "Butterbush" squash, the only fruit produced by four plants:

If this fruit makes it to maturity before the advent of frost, it will be nothing short of miraculous.

So will I grow the Three Sisters again? I think the answer has to be a resounding "No". The idea that the beans would derive enough support from the corn stalks was at best over-optimistic. Without the wooden poles I provided, the beans would have flopped all over the place. I also think that having beans climbing all over them was one of the factors effecting the poor pollination of the corn. In a year with better weather, the squashes might have produced a better result, but I think if (and that's a big IF) I grow them again, I will grow them seperately where they will not be overshadowed by other plants. In fact, all three types would probably have performed better in isolation. The Three Sisters concept may be appropriate for the prairies of the USA, but it didn't work for me!

P.S. Anyone fancy a chocolate-and-strawberry chilli?


  1. The beans look very pretty Mark. I planted three butternut squash plants in my dads garden. Alas only male flowers were produced. Never mind there is always next year.

  2. I think the corn they use for the original three sisters would have been a less hybridised bigger plant - think of the corns grown in field in France - they are taller and stronger looking than the plants we grow in our gardens. As for pollination possibly the beans stopped the corn from being blown by the wind and being wind pollinated the pollen just didn't find its way down to the female flowers.

    The bean colours are fascinating.

  3. I planted the three sisters this past spring and got a bumper crop of corn, very few beans, and plenty of squash. I've decided to try it again next year, but will wait until the corn plants are 2 feet tall before planting the beans. My beans grew faster than the corn and ended up running all over the place instead of UP the stalk!

  4. I've grown the three sisters with the same result. I think the pole beans just don't work with the other two. They grow too fast and steal all the light. I have found however that corn and squash grow well together. My beds are 16' long and 4' wide. I give the squash three feet at each end and grow a 4x10 grid of corn in the middle. I train the squash to grow in between the corn. Timing is crucial however. I had germination problems with the corn and the squash mowed down the later sown end corn plants. They just smothered them.

  5. Hi Mark,

    I grew the "Cherokee Trail of Tears" for the first time this year and have been pretty impressed with the result. The only disappointments were the early beans I germinated which rotted off. The later sowings did really well and I have a bumper crop which I will probably harvest this weekend. My pods are almost all a very dark purple brown in colour. Just have to decide on a recipe now...

  6. I have wondered about this idea. Thanks for posting your results. I don't think I'll try it.

  7. Beautiful rainbow of bean pods, quite quite beautiful. And a fine harvest too.
    We do a half-hearted variation on the three sisters - it's useful spacewise letting the pumpkins wander around the feet of our block of sweetcorn, though if we add beans we usually grow them on the edge as we have this year, so as not to get in the way of wind pollination of the sweetcorn. Not much of a consideration this year of course!

  8. I grew my beans, sweetcorn and squash separately and none did well this year.

  9. hmm... Well, the fun part is the experimenting, and though the outcome may not be ideal, at least now you know!

  10. I had a lot of problems this year too, although I only did 2 sisters. My sweetcorn was all eaten by something but my squash has done very well. There are lots of fruits which still need to ripen off and I have now pinched out all the new flowers so that the plant will not produce more and hopefully fatten up those that are. I grew my runner beans up poles in a separate bed and they have done really well. The French beans didn't.

  11. Well at least you gave it a try - I love those beans - could they be eaten like runner beans - or do you just grow them for the dried beans

    1. Elaine; I'm sure you could eat them just like Runner (more like French) beans, but I think that would be a wasted opportunity. The attractive black beans are very suitable for drying.

  12. So many different colored beans from a single plant? You would think it cake from several different varieties.

  13. Chocolate and Strawberry, that's an interesting chilli. Is it spicy? Sorry your Three Sisters garden didn't work out well, from what I've read it takes the right timing, spacing, and varieties to work properly - in other words - easy to make a mess of it all! The beans are very interesting with all those different colors, unusual for a single variety.

  14. that's a nice amount of beans from such a small planting space.


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