3 Sisters Guild: a Review in a Northern Climate.


3.jpgI’ve grown the 3 sisters guild twice now, both times with different results. It can be challenging in a Northern climate to grow some of the heat loving plants as it’s common to get frosts in May and September. Corn and winter squash not only require long hot summers but they’re also heavy feeders which makes them demanding plants here, and if you get a summer full of rain well then you might be hooped. Both also take up a lot of growing space. Over my 5 years of gardening I’ve had lots of success with growing squash in our climate, but not so much with corn. Corn is the sort of heavy feeder that benefits from a boost once a week or so to get excellent results (and I couldn’t be that bothered).

What is the 3 sisters guild?

The 3 sister guild is a growing method adapted from the Native Americans that is seen frequently within the permaculture realm.  It contains corn, winter (non-bush type) squash and pole beans. The pole beans climb up the corn stalks, anchoring the corn into the ground and aid in restoring nitrogen. Allowing the beans to climb the corn reduces the need to build a trellis. The trailing squash grows around the corn stalks, covering the soil which can help smother some of the weeds and making a good use of space. The spiny squash vines have the added benefit of keeping the corn safer from racoons.

Guilds are popular with permaculture gardening as you’re creating a little ecosystem and attempting to get plants to work together, reduce pests and disease and to restore some soil nutrition.

I will give you a run down on the two different methods I’ve used to grow the 3 sisters guild, and whether or not it worked for us, and what we would do differently.
The first year we grew the corn in 2 rows, with a few squash plants grown in front of the corn. Corn is better grown in blocks, so this method did not allow for proper pollination as corn is wind pollinated. We had very little corn from growing it this way, rows of 4 is more adequate for pollination (trial and error right?!). We also made the big mistake of accidentally growing bush beans rather than pole, I am not exactly sure how that even happened as the seed packet said pole?! Don’t let your 2 year old play with bean seeds perhaps is the lesson here!
Year 1: Grown in a 15′ x 7′ rectangular bed
________________bush beans_______________________bush beans___________________
squash                   squash                   squash               squash
the guild in July
Review of Year 1:

First off because the bush beans were an accidental mix up, they still produced beans, but not with the effect of climbing up the corn like they’re suppose to and were thus hard to harvest (no one wants to climb IN squash vines and get their arms more scratched up than they need to). On one hand, for whatever reason, we ended up with only a few corn but 18 spaghetti squash just from ONE squash plant. 18. Record breaker there for us. So the squash turned out great, the corn and beans not so much. We also had an exceptionally wet June, 5 weeks straight of torrential rain which was a factor.


The 2nd time we grew the 3 sisters guild we adapted the below diagram from: Renee’s Garden (check out the site link for lots more 3 sisters guild info, with more diagrams on exact planting spacing & setting up the mounds).

picture from Renee’s Garden

We had to make some adjustments as we didn’t have a bed large enough, so we used one of our keyhole shaped permaculture beds. Below is how we ended up growing the guild.

Year 2: Grown in 10 foot keyhole permaculture bed
Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn
    Beans         Squash        Beans          Squash         Beans
Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn
Corn    Corn
Corn    Corn
Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn
    Beans         Squash        Beans          Squash         Beans
Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn                  Corn    Corn
the corn in the blocks of 4

Year 2 Review:

The second time we tried growing the 3 sisters guild, something funny happened. Half of the bed produced amazing corn but stunted almost all of the squash, and the other half grew amazing and early squash but stunted the corn. The beans honestly didn’t turn out, you have to wait to plant them until the corn is a large enough for them to climb it, and because of this the beans didn’t start producing until the end of summer. They also grew much taller than the corn stalks so we ended up with beans that had no where to go. The yield, based from the size of the bed, was dissapointing. I do believe that the corn and squash would of greatly benefited from a weekly or bi weekly fertilizer but that is not how I usually garden. I think the soil needed to be richer, and based off the above diagram I think the squash and corn are way too close together which created so much competition. We also had 3 weeks of rain in June, which seems to be becoming the norm the past couple of years here. I did plan for it and planted everything during the May heat wave with better results than the previous year.

Below are some pictures of the process.

Getting the bed ready in the spring
Creating mounds
June: we put some straw down to reduce weeding
…except THIS straw started sprouting like CRAZY. It actually worked against us, not cool at all.
beans climbing up the corn end of summer
Summary of the 3 Sisters Guild Pros and Cons:


– It’s neat to have 3 plants all working together.
– Corn acts as a trellis for the beans.
– Beans help anchor the corn down and put back Nitrogen.
– Squash vines help prevent racoons from getting at the corn.
– Squash vines make a good use of space by growing around the base of the corn.
– Increases the diversity within one growing space.
– It looks really cool!


– This guild might not work well with short growing seasons.
– Corn and squash may compete too much as they are both heavy feeders
– This guild really benefits added fertilizers..or you can plant fish heads & bones under the plants like the Native American’s did 😉
– You have to wait for the corn to be the right size for the beans to be planted.
– If the corn grows slowly your pole beans are delayed.
– Not beneficial for rainy summers.
– You need a very large growing space.
– The beans can grow taller than the corn depending on which corn variety is used. We used Golden Bantam both years and it’s a shorter variety.

Will we grow the 3 sisters again?

To be honest, no, at least not for a few years. In fact I made the decision this year not grow corn at all unless we have a larger land area to do so. Even though corn tastes great, I personally can’t be bothered to spend so much time and space on such a heavy needy feeder. Especially when the corn often ends up in your poop (hey it happens to all of us, it’s like slap in the face to a gardeners hard work!).

That summarizes my experience growing the 3 sisters guild. Have you grown this guild before? Did the method work for you? How did you space your plants?

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  1. says

    Aha! That is exactly why I have never tried this guild. In our climate you have to start corn and beans more or less at the same time, and the beans get way too big. It might work with a variety that is officially bush, but wants to climb a bit, like Royal Burgundy. Thanks for experimenting so I won’t have to.

  2. terrirochenski says

    I, too, do not have enough space for the three sisters. That being said, I would love to do a patch just because it includes three of my favorite fresh veggies!

    Glad to have found you through the Green Thumb link up party. :)

  3. says

    I have read that the beans don’t really release their nitrogen to the soil until the next year, so perhaps it would be beneficial to grow a bed of bean one year and then follow with the three sisters there after.

  4. Karla B. says

    I live a little bit south of you across the border in NE Washington (along the Columbia River) but I’d bet our weather is very similar. Even so, I’m giving this a try this year. I’m using the square foot method for growing corn (an update of Mel Bartholomew’s that I saw in a magazine which spaced them closer together than in his first book.) I have to grow everything in raised beds with hardware cloth underneath or else give up my hard work to the extended families of gophers. So in the bed I’ve designated for this, I marked off 12″x12″ squares. I planted 3 corn (which I started earlier in soil blocks) and 1 scarlet runner bean seed in each square. On the outer rows I did the same thing except in each center outer square, I planted 2 sweet meat winter squash. I figured they would drape over the side of the box where I had plenty of space for them to continue to grow. We have sort of a windbreak that we made with corrugated plastic sheets ziptied to T-posts (the wind here is CrAzY!!!) Everything is on the south side and a foot or 2 from the house. I’m hoping reflected light and heat will help them grow. After all of that, I guess I’ll have to wait and see if this was a great idea or one big flop as the summer progresses. So far…knock on wood…everything seems to be growing well.

I always appreciate your comments!