Friday, 21 June 2013

Three Sisters resurrected

Last year I attempted to cultivate The Three Sisters.

That's the system where you grow sweetcorn in small clumps, interspersed with squashes and pumpkins. Then you add the third "sister" - climbing beans, whose sole purpose is to feed the slugs and divert them away from the other crops... or so it seemed.

Well, that was last year.
As it was, the sweetcorn, squashes, courgettes and pumpkins did very well given copious amounts of rain.

This year is a very different year. So last week the three sisters were resurrected.

The sweetcorn is growing well now.
Time to sow the French beans.
I doubt the original growers of Three Sisters
surrounded their crops with electric fence
to protect it against rabbits.
Young sweetcorn plants, back on 27th May

The sweetcorn has been planted for well over a fortnight now. It always takes a knock back when it first goes into the ground outside and the weakest specimens don't make it.
After a tricky germination, where several complete trays just rotted away as they failed to spring into life in the cool conditions, I didn't really have any to spare. As it is a high proportion of plants have made it through and have begun to grow more strongly.

Various types of courgette, squash and pumpkin have now been transplanted out between them.

I decided to invest time erecting the electric rabbit fence around my lovingly nurtured plants. There is nothing as soul-destroying as the disappointment of finding your freshly planted crops nibbled or, worse still, uprooted and laying wilted on the surface of the soil.

And so to the third sister. While the cucurbits spread and shade the surface of the soil, the beans climb up the sweetcorn stalks, in the process capturing nitrogen and enriching the soil for next year.
I had some beans already sown, but they are about three times as tall as the corn and reaching rapidly for the skies. So I decided instead to sow fresh beans at the bases of the sweetcorn. I have plumped for French bean Blue Lake, a stringless variety which has performed well in our soil in the past.

And in honour of the Native American origins of the Three Sisters planting system, I have planted some wigwams of runner beans alongside!

But in all seriousness there are some very valid reasons for growing these crops in combination. Get the timing right and the plants aid each others' growth. They provide a good nutritional balance too.
There's some good information on this website:

One very useful hint I picked up from this site, so indirectly from the Native American Indians, is to use nature to time sowing and planting.
For early spring in the books is different across the whole country and from year to year. If you sowed seeds strictly by date this year, as I found out to my cost with the sweetcorn, they just sat in the cold conditions not realising it was time to sprout into life.
But if you sowed when, for instance, the cow parsley came into flower or the sowthistles started to grow, then nature would be your calendar...

Not that nature always gets it right.

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