Garden Secrets episode 3 – Victory Veggies: See how gardening tips used in the WWII effort and practiced by Native American Indians can make your garden grow!
Join the horticulturists and landscape architects caring for the Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, D.C., and see how the time-tested tips they use can help you create a bountiful vegetable garden in your own backyard. First, they recreate a World War II victory garden, then employ ancient Native American Indian techniques to create “The Three Sisters.”
If you think managing your garden is hard, try handling three thousand floral species in one tiny area. Join the horticulture experts of the Smithsonian Gardens as they design everything from tight, formal displays to English cottage gardens, and learn how their design secrets can make your own garden come to life.
Meet the experts who make the Smithsonian Gardens a stunning living museum year-round. See how our horticulturists work tirelessly to overcome urban conditions and freezing temperatures. Learn how all gardeners, from amateur to seasoned, can use their secrets to make their own gardens grow.
Garden Secrets episode 3 – Victory Veggies
The Three Sisters
The Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various indigenous groups in North America: winter squash, maize (corn), and climbing beans (typically tepary beans or common beans). Originating in Mesoamerica, these three crops were carried northward, up the river valleys over generations, far afield to the Mandan and Iroquois who, among others, used these “Three Sisters” for food and trade.
In a technique known as companion planting the three crops are planted close together. Flat-topped mounds of soil are built for each cluster of crops. Each mound is about 30 cm (12 in) high and 50 cm (20 in) wide, and several maize seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound. In parts of the Atlantic Northeast, rotten fish or eels are buried in the mound with the maize seeds, to act as additional fertilizer where the soil is poor. When the maize is 15 cm (6 inches) tall, beans and squash are planted around the maize, alternating between the two kinds of seeds. The process to develop this agricultural knowledge took place over 5,000–6,500 years. Squash was domesticated first, with maize second and then beans being domesticated. Squash was first domesticated 8,000–10,000 years ago.
The three crops benefit from each other. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles. The squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent the establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch”, creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests. Corn, beans, and squash contain complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and all nine essential amino acids.
Native Americans throughout North America are known for growing variations of Three Sisters gardens. The milpas of Mesoamerica are farms or gardens that employ companion planting on a larger scale. The Ancestral Puebloans are known for adopting this garden design in a drier environment. The Tewa and other peoples of the North American Southwest often included a “fourth Sister”, Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata), which attracts bees to help pollinate the beans and squash.