Native Americans grew squash, along with corn and beans, to provide a reliable source of dried food to last through the winter. As a bonus, squash helped keep the ground moist and prevent weeds from growing. This effect of providing a “living mulch” is one of the reasons why squash is perfect as one of the Sisters.
But when gardening with the Three Sisters, some types work better than others.
In general, winter squash work best. This is because they’re a vine, and not a bush variety like summer squash. These sprawling vines are what helps cover the ground to keep it moist and weed-free.
Winter varieties like butternut, acorn, and spaghetti are common choices, along with delicata, Seminole, and Hubbard.
And even though we commonly eat these squash in the fall, they can last through the winter because of their tougher rind.
So, if you’re itching to learn more about growing squash in your Three Sisters garden, we can dive a bit deeper.
The basics of growing squash in a Three Sisters garden
Which varieties to plant
We already covered these briefly, but let’s expand on the varieties of winter squash that work well in a Three Sisters garden:
Butternut, acorn, and spaghetti squash can commonly be found in grocery stores, while delicata and Seminole are a bit rarer and are said to be closer to the varieties the Native Americans used for their Three Sisters.
If you’re a pumpkin fan, like me, even though they’re a squash, most pumpkin varieties are too large and heavy for a Three Sisters garden. So, it’s probably smart to opt for smaller winter squash.
As far as where to find seeds, you can find winter squash online or by seeding a squash that you buy from the grocery store (I did this with our acorn squash).
When to plant
Squash should be planted after the corn and beans. If planted too soon, it will shade them out.
Generally, the corn should be planted first and allowed to grow up to 4 to 6 inches. Then the beans should be planted next to the corn.
Finally, wait one week to plant squash seeds to allow the beans a head start with germination.
Where to plant
Where to plant your squash largely depends on if you have a single, flat Three Sisters plot, or if you have separate mounds for the corn and beans.
- For flat plots: plant outside the perimeter of the corns and beans
- For mounds: plant at the base of the corn and bean mounds
Either way, plant 2 seeds together for better chances of germination. Space each set of seeds at least 18 inches apart.
Remember, plant squash sparingly as they can take up to 10 feet in ground space.
When to harvest
If all goes well, all three of the Sisters can be harvested at the same time in fall. This is usually right before the first frost.
Together, corn, beans, and squash can provide a good supply of storable food to last through the winter. Or, if you don’t need food to last through the winter, you could always choose to eat the squash when it ripens in the fall.
2 Quick tips before you go
Before you go, I wanted to share these couple of tips that I found helpful for my Three Sisters garden.
- Don’t have a lot of space? You don’t need to go with winter squash. Summer varieties like zucchini or yellow crookneck will do the job in smaller spaces.
- Consider using the fourth Sister, amaranth. Not only are its leaves and grains edible, but it attracts pollinators which can help pollinate the squash’s flowers.
Squash are one of the pillars of the Three Sisters for a reason. Their ground cover keeps water in and weeds away, while their sweetness compliment corn and beans well.
Before you buy your squash, make sure you know if it’s a summer or winter variety and which one would be best for your homestead (I made this mistake early on).
Native Americans would store squash through the winter, but as this isn’t necessary anymore, feel free to enjoy them when they’re first ripe in the fall!