Skip to Content

Three Sisters gardening: the best kinds of beans to use

Beans are one of the most useful crops to grow in a garden not only because of their effect on nitrogen in the soil, but because they’re a near-complete protein. These two traits make them perfect for sustainable farming as well as survival gardens.

I’ve recently been looking for ways to maximize my garden space. And not only did I find a solution, but one that also builds up healthy soil and yields a LOT of food. So, planting the Three Sisters became kind of a no-brainer.

I wanted to know more about which plant varieties to use, but I found the information was scattered. After some searching, I was able to sift through and find some good (and historic) data. But before we get to which beans to use, it’s best to know the role they have as one of the Three Sisters.

What is Three Sisters gardening?

Three Sisters farming is a technique that was widely used by Native Americans, primarily for food security during the winter. Not only do these three plants (corn, beans, and squash/pumpkin) store well, but they perfectly balance each other in the garden.

The corn stalks provide a trellis for the beans to grow. The beans take nitrogen (a primary nutrient for plants) out of the air and store it into the soil. And the squash provides ground cover which helps keep the soil moist and limits weeds from growing.

Keep in mind, there’s not one variety of these plants that work best. It depends on your climate, as well as what you want out of them.

What beans to use

When it comes to beans in Three Sisters gardening, the biggest question to answer is:

Do you want dried beans or fresh?

If you want fresh, go for green beans.

Why might you want dried beans? Well, the Native Americans preferred dried because the beans could be harvested in the fall and stored to be used in winter.

So, if you want more of a Native American Three Sisters experience, or could benefit from drying beans, go for:

  • Hopi Purple
  • True Red Cranberry
  • Scarlett Runner

These beans are all climbing beans, and for good reason. If you instead decided to use a bush variety, it can sprawl out and compete with the squash. In that case, neither plant will grow well.

7 tips for starting a three sisters garden

To get you started on your Three Sisters plot, here’s a quick list of useful tips.

  1. Consider planting in a raised, circular bed
  2. Start planting after frost
  3. Space well (squash can grow to 10-feet in diameter)
  4. Start the corn first (until it reaches 6-inches)
  5. Limit beans and squash (a ratio of 3:2:1 corn, beans, and squash works well)
  6. Guide the beans to grow up the corn
  7. Harvest by letting the corn and beans dry first, and harvest the squash just before frost

Beans are my favorite sister of the Three Sisters farming. They’re masters at building soil nitrogen, providing complete protein, and storing well into winter. If you’re going to start your Three Sisters garden and prefer fresh green beans, then go for it. But if you’re wanting the authentic take on drying beans, then opt for Hopi purple, true red cranberry, or scarlet runner. Keep in mind the spacing needed for the Three Sisters, and you’ll have great harvests from this historic, ingenious method of farming.