Native American Garden Folklore And Tradition

The name, “Three Sisters”, comes from the Iroquois creation myth. It was said that the earth began when “Sky Woman”, who lived in the upper world, peered through a hole in the sky and fell through toward an endless sea.

The animals saw her coming, so they took the soil from the bottom of the sea, and spread it onto the back of a giant turtle to provide a safe place for her to land. This “Turtle Island” is now what we call North America.

Sky Woman had been pregnant before she fell. When she landed, she gave birth to a daughter. When the daughter grew into a young woman, she also became pregnant (by the West Wind). She died while giving birth to twin boys.

Sky Woman buried her daughter in the “new earth.” And from her grave grew three sacred plants—corn, beans, and squash. These plants provided food for her sons, and later, for all of humanity.

These 3 special gifts ensured the survival of the Iroquois people. These plants are called the Three Sisters.

Ancient folklore belief says that the Three Sisters represented three goddesses. Each sister protected the other two, and therefore, the Three Sisters were never be separated. They must be planted, cooked, and consumed together.For centuries these three crops have been the center of Native American agriculture and culinary tradition. Three Sisters were spirits called the De-o-ha-ko, meaning “our sustainers".

This ancient companion planting method seems to be unique to the Northeast. Southeastern tribes did not grow the Three Sisters Garden. They grew corn, squash and beans, but not planted together in that characteristic mound, as the tribes in the Northeast did. 

Four Sisters

Some of the southwest tribes also planted a fourth "sister" in addition to corn, beans and squash. They also planted the Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, which helped to attract the bees to pollinate their gardens.

The Three Sisters companion gardening concept is really very simple.

Sister 1 -Corn provides tall stalks for the beans to climb, so that the beans are not choked out by the sprawling squash vines.

Sister 2 - Beans provide nitrogen to fertilize the soil, and also protect and support the tall corn stalks during heavy winds.
Beans also have roots that take in nitrogen from the air and convert it into forms that can be easily absorbed.

Sister 3 -The large leaves of squash plants shade the ground, retain soil moisture, and prevent weeds.

The elevated mound assists with drainage and avoids water-logging of the plant roots.



The Iroquois lived in the Northeastern United States and parts of southeast Canada. They settled and built villages during growing seasons, living in longhouses, and farming the land.  Throughout the 1600s, the Wampanoag Nation, a neighboring tribe of the Iroquois, was comprised of over 40,000 individuals, residing in 67 villages, spanning the northeastern seaboard. Like the Iroquois, they adopted an agriculture-based society, residing in birchbark structures and cultivating the earth around the region.

We all learned in grade school that it was Squanto, a Wampanoag, who first taught the Jamestown settlers the art of companion planting and harvesting.

The Pilgrims would have starved to death during the first winter without that knowledge.

The Wampanoags were known for their incredible gardening practices and knowledge, and many neighboring tribes followed the “Three Sisters Garden” design, along with other methods.

The traditional garden and the Native diet included corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. The plants were fertilized by burying fish in the garden.

The corn and beans are planted in mounds, with squash planted between the mounds. The beans grow up the cornstalks.The sunflowers are planted along the northern edge of the garden, so they wouldn't shade the crops, but to attract the bees and other pollinators into the garden.

The Native concept of companion planting embraces the belief that certain plants can benefit others planted close by.
We now have solid evidence that these methods can ward off pests, offer better soil nutrition, shading, and protection from winds and other elements. Although the science is still debated, we know that the lessons in gardening given to the Pilgrims by the Native Americans meant survival for the settlers of the New World, who had no clue, and they did it through the teachings of the Three Sisters method of gardening.

Three Sisters method is an ancient practice, and something to consider when planning your gardens and preparing for the spring. The Native American belief in that method harnessed the power of communal relationships and was helped along by spiritual guidance. They discovered community gardens long before it became A Thing. There are several plants with the same attributes that can be grown with the Three Sisters method. 

Here's a chart of some plants and their favorite garden companions-->

It seems to me that Native Americans discovered a means for sustainable agriculture and permaculture, without the present-day frivolous and haphazard use of chemicals and unnecessary disruption of the earth, and they followed that practice way before we caught up with the knowledge and methods. 

How To Design and Grow A Three Sisters Garden -In late May or early June, hoe the ground (do not machine-cultivate, plow or rototill) and heap the earth into piles about a foot high, and about 2 feet across. The centers of your mounds should be about four feet apart and should have flattened tops.

In the center of each mound, plant five or six corn kernels in a small circle.

After a week or two, when the corn has grown to be about five inches, plant seven or eight pole bean seeds in a circle, about six inches away from the corn kernels.

A week later, at the edge of the mound about a foot away from the beans, plant seven or eight squash or pumpkin seeds.

When the plants begin to grow, you will need to weed out all but a few of the strongest of the plants from each mound.

As the corn and beans grow, make sure that the beans are supported by the cornstalks wrapping around the corn. Use ties if they need help. The squash will crawl out between the mounds, and vine around the corn and beans.

Native American Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Gardening Practices


Many ancient farming practices are viewed  as “new” to the modern gardening world, but they’ve actually been in use for centuries.

These practices have been traditionally used by Native Americans to grow large harvests of food needed for their winter survival, while limiting the destruction to the earth. The Native American garden is planted without tilling or plowing.

Native cultures believed that the earth is sacred, and they resisted cutting too deeply into the earth, or cultivating it unless it was essential for the success of the crop.

When clearing land, the hoe and planting stick were used to loosen roots. These were shaken to loosen soil, then left in piles to dry for later burning.

Brush and small trees were cut and roots dug out with planting sticks. Ashes were hoed in, along with lime and minerals, which made the soil soft and easier to work. Gardens were allowed to lie fallow for two years between corn crops.

Healing Plants

Many indigenous cultures traditionally use native plants for fuel, construction, tools, fiber, dye, and medicine.

The serviceberry provided edible berries, and also raw materials for arrows.
The western red cedar tree provided materials for bows, canoes, lodges, baskets, and containers.
The leaves of mint can be crushed and placed on the temples to relieve headaches. 
The head can be cleared by inhaling the vapor from crushed eucalyptus leaves. 
The majority of herbal medicines are boiled and consumed as a tea.


Terracing creates flat planting beds in hilly terrain. Control of the steep slopes slows runoff, allowing water to seep into the beds, and it curbs erosion.

Creating terraces in the garden is beneficial where rain is seasonal, sporadic, and often comes in heavy downpours. In the southwestern U.S., terracing was key to the agricultural success of the Anasazi and their descendents, the Hopi, who still use terraced gardens today. 

Irrigation - Water Wisdom

Thousands of years ago, the Anasazi people inhabited what is now the Four Corners region of the U.S., an area known for its low annual rainfall. They traditionally built catchments, which are dams made of rock that held onto soil but allowed water to pass through, and reservoirs to collect the infrequent storm water. The Hopi people of northern Arizona also use these age-old techniques to irrigate their gardens in this arid landscape.

No-Till, No-Dig

No-till farming or gardening, layer gardening, and lasagna gardening are techniques that require no turning over of the soil. You simply spread a new layer of compost on top.

Although tilling chops up weeds and soil clods, and leaves flat, bare soil that is easily planted, the practice involves very significant damages to the environment. Mother Nature does not use a tiller or spade, and she does pretty well without them.

Tilling damages the healthy soil structure by breaking up soil aggregates, resulting in powder-like soil particles that are vulnerable to compacting. That means no water absorption.

It can create a hardpan layer beneath the tilled area that is impervious to water. That creates flooding.

It devastates soil life. No-till methods allows the beneficial organisms, e.g. fungi, bacteria, and other tiny things - in your soil to thrive undisturbed, making it a better home for your plants to grow.


Phenology is the art of observing nature for signs in spring that it is safe to plant. 
Before planting certain crops, native peoples watched for migrating birds and animals to return, and for plants and trees to leaf out or flower. This told them that spring weather was here.

Observing nature is not a collection of old wives' tales. It is very important during these days of unpredictable weather and climate change. Average frost dates are simply averages. Avoid a late spring frost or early fall frost by paying attention to Mother Nature’s signs.

Depending upon your region, here are a few examples of phenology:

Plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. 

Plant peas when the forsythia blooms.

Plant cucumbers and squash when lilac flowers fade.


Seed-saving over the centuries helped gardeners to select and breed the best plants to constantly improve the crops they were growing. A prime example is maize, which started out as a wild grain called teosinte, native to Mexico and Central America. I developed into the corn we grow today.

Long before seed companies existed, Native peoples have been carefully selecting seeds for desirable traits, maintaining species purity by planting different seeds sufficiently far apart from each other to prevent cross-pollination. Without this effort, corn would be nothing but a weedy grass.

Crop Rotaton

Crop rotation is another idea that has been used by indigenous people for thousands of years. It keeps soil nutrients from being depleted and pests and diseases from building up, which often happens when one crop is grown in the same spot year after year.If you grow your tomatoes in the same garden bed year after year, you will notice an increase in pests and diseases. Rotate your crops to different beds.


Farming peoples learned early on that if you take from nature, you need to give back, so they routinely returned crop residues to the earth. Where fish were plentiful, they were buried to rot in the soil. P.S. Today's woman uses fish emulsion, rather than fish entrails and heads.

Bones and other scraps thrown into the fire yielded ashes that were scattered in the gardens, and fields were burned to remove weeds and brush, adding phosphorus and potash to the soil.

Soil fertility could also be maintained without adding fertilizer, but by planting beans in the same hills as other crops, as explained in the Three Sisters garden. Beans add nitrogen back into the soil, which crops like corn and squash enjoy immensely.


Ancient Native Americans didn't have the word "Micro-climate" in their vocabulary. But they did know that certain conditions made it possible to start some plants earlier, and grow them later, during the growing season. 

In areas that received a lot of sunlight, rocks were traditionally placed around a struggling plant to absorb daytime heat and radiate it back at night, evening out temperature swings. Hot stones from a fire pit could be placed in fields or orchards to protect crops from frost. Most of the gardening customs of Native American peoples can be considered a study in Permaculture.

Most microclimates occur naturally in protected places. Development, chemicals, invasive plants and tilling, and destroying natural habitats creates the need for man to re-create a microclimate.

Companion Plantings That Love Each Other - Three Sisters And A Pot

Orchard and Three Sisters Potted Rooftop Plantings: Numbers correspond to those in the above graphic.
There are several combinations of harmonious food plants you can grow with this method in small spaces

1. Apple tree: shades the spinach and becomes a trellis for runner beans
2. Runner beans shade the spinach
3. Strawberries: act as ground cover
4. Spinach: retains moisture in the soil

Three Sisters
Traditional Native American trio of corn, beans and squash, and added sunflowers.
1.Sunflowers become a trellis for bush beans
2. Blue corn: provides trellis for bush beans
3. Bush beans
4. Squash: leaves act as ground cover and suppress weeds

Here is a wonderful resource for Legends About Native American Nature Spirits--->


Listing of vegetable plants and their favorite 
...and least favorite companions--->


Recommended Reading


Article ©2020 Mary Hyland

Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA)
Arizona State University
Native American Gardening - Dover Publications
The Old Farmer's Almanac
American Indian Health and Diet Project
San Francisco Chronicle Rooftop Garden


Detailed Site Directory-->

Here is a wonderful resource for Legends About Native American Nature Spirits--->

Quick Links

The Dutch Bulb Garden

Wildflower Gardens

Backyard Fruit Orchards

The Kitchen Garden

Mediterranean Garden

Pollinator Gardens

Design A Bird Habitat

Medieval and Castle Gardens

Monet's Garden Design

The Shady Gardener The Meanings of Flowers

Original Victory Garden

Cottage Gardens

Free Garden Design Plans

Save The Monarch Butterfly

Round Centerpiece Gardens Botanical Mythology and Folklore

The Stumpery Garden

Ornamental Vines

Sacred Garden Design
 - The Mary Garden
Feng Shui Gardens
Horticultural Therapy Windowbox Gardens Ornamental Grasses
Shakespearean Garden
(Elizabethan Design)
Companion Planting Ferns and Ferneries



Content, graphics, photos and design ©2020
All rights reserved