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A "Three Sisters" garden is a garden grown consisting of three different crops which help each other grow in some fashion. Such as Corn, Squash and Beans. I read about it in Roots Shoots Buckets and Boots, an awesome book for making gardens with kids.

What is the criteria for picking out the three sisters and how does one help the other?

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    I have always heard the three sisters to mean exactly what you describe - corn, squash, beans - and never refer to anything else. But I may be ignorant. – Tim Jun 8 '11 at 19:42
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    @tim The book had another 3-sisters variety with sunflowers, peas and another variety of squash, but didn't give any general guidelines other than, one is tall, one is ground cover and one climbs and adds nitrogen to the soil. – Peter Turner Jun 8 '11 at 19:53
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Referring to the criteria for why Corn, Squash, Beans particularly work as a "Three Sisters" combination, the natural explanation is as follows:

In other words, symbiotically you have one contributing to the structure of the growing environment above the soil, one affecting the richness and suitability for growth within the soil, and one protecting the surface of the soil.

Here is a link to a Companion Planting Primur from the National Center for Appropriate Technology

Per the chart, in short you can pair:

  • Corn with - Irish Potato, Beans, English Pea, Pumpkin, Cucumber, Squash
  • Squash with - Nasturtium, Corn, Marigold
  • Beans with - Irish Potato, Cucumber, Corn, Strawberry, Celery, Summer Savory
  • That page does discuss Three Sisters, but the chart at the top has nothing to do with Three Sisters. (The basis for the chart at the top is dubious at best.) Squash, Marigold, and Corn would not be a Three Sisters planting. – bstpierre Jun 9 '11 at 18:01
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    @BST You are correct. Due to the ambiguity in the question, I answered this with information about "companion planting" (of which "Three Sisters" is a species), and cited the three components (CSB) and possible companions (i.e. other plants beyond CSB that C or S or B would have a symbiotic relationship with). Also, while I agree that their "Pfeiffer crystallization testing" sounds hocus-pocus-ey, the table itself was based on relationships listed below the cut – mfg Jun 9 '11 at 20:14
  • The table specifically says that it is based on traditional companion planting literature, which has no scientific basis, and indeed, some associations fail to hold up to scientific scrutiny. – bstpierre Sep 20 '11 at 17:52
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An additional aspect of the Three Sisters combination not mentioned in the other answer is that eating the combination of beans, corn, and squash provides a complete protein and a good balance of nutrients. I'm not certain, but I think your combination of sunflowers, peas, and squash might also provide this balance.

You could combine something tall like okra with a "bushy" cover like cabbage and a vining climber like peas. This would give you the cultural requirements: peas provide nitrogen to the okra, okra provides a support for the peas, and cabbage helps to choke out weeds. But while you'd get a decent shot of vitamins from eating the combination, you may not end up with a complete protein.

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