Native Americans, and other early agrarian and semi agrarian societies developed farming techniques based on companion planting which still make sense today. Whether these developments occurred as a result of religious beliefs, or whether the religious beliefs used to explain the method were developed as a result of the technique and a need to develop ideas to perpetuate this knowledge is a source of debate among modern thinkers, but either way, the fact that the methods exist, and work, is not in question.
Similar practices have existed in other cultures, along with the pairing of foods that compliment each other in ways that science now understands as being necessary for the utilization of plant nutrients for the human body. Whether these combination came about for religious reasons, nutritional reasons, or agricultural reasons, or a combination of all may be a matter for cultural anthropology, but whatever the reason, the modern gardener can benefit from the practice in the same manner as his agrarian predecessors.
A Native American practice for home gardens
A common companion planting example is the method known as the “3 Sisters” technique. We are not able to assign a precise age to this practice, or an exact time period when the terminology, and religious significance came into being, but it seems to have been widespread in a variety of native American cultures since very early times.
Complimentary planting with the 3 Sisters method
The 3 Sister concept is very simple. Corn or maize is planted in a block for the purpose of self pollination. Vine, or pole beans are planted between the stalks, using the stalks for support, and squash are mixed into the garden providing a living mulch.
- All the normal methods for soil preparation, like adding and incorporating organic matter should be done in advance.
- Planting should begin after the danger of frost is past, and when night time low temperatures exceed 50 degrees.
The practice consists of:
- Planting the corn in mounds, or “hills” about 5 feet apart. 4 seed per hill is the standard.
- When the corn reaches a height of about 4 inches, the entire plot should be weeded carefully, and the beans should be planted, 4 per hill around the corn stalks.
- The squash should be planted at the same time as the beans, but centered between the hills of corn and beans, with 4 seeds per hill. The squash will need to be thinned to 2 per hill after they developed leaves.
Note that this 4 seed planting process is similar to the old folk saying; (my father still used it as a rule of thumb when I was young) “one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to wilt, and one to grow” or some of the hundreds of variations of the saying.
Ideally, the Corn will develop ahead of the beans, providing a natural trellis for the beans to grow onto. The beans, being legumes, will “fix” nitrogen into the soil for use by the other crops, and the squash, after they reach maturity, will provide ground cover, or shading to help prevent the growth of unwanted grass and weeds.
Nutritionally, the food from this garden is complementary as well, most notably, providing protein from the beans, complex carbohydrates from the grain, and mineral nutrients and oils from the squash for a balanced meal. Companion planting, and companion nutrition work well together.
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