Three Sisters Planting
By LMG Calla Victoria
Dear fellow gardening enthusiast, I would like to take this time to pay homage to the ingenuity of our Native-American brothers and sisters for their contributions to the gardening industry. They invented an amazing and practical form of planting called “The Three Sisters” that has endured through the ages. This legendary method of planting is the most perfect example of companion planting ever. They would plant tall upright plants, climbing plants, and spreading plants all together; and the plants assist each other’s growth. The tall upright plant, like corn, would serve as a trellis for the climbing plants, like pole beans; and spreading plants, like squash, served as natural mulch to retain moisture and suppress weeds around all of the plants. What a simple yet sustainable system! The Three Sisters companion planting conserves space as all plants are placed close together. The process also eliminates the additional the expense of buying trellises and mulch, while the nitrogen from the beans feed the soil providing long-term fertility. When using this planting method, the tall plant is always planted first, then in a couple of weeks plant your climbing and spreading plants. Staggering the plantings gives the taller plant some time to grow and get strong before it is seized upon by the climbing plant. There are numerous resources online for the Three Sisters companion planting system.
Of course the Native-Americans were all about edible gardening and their “Three Sisters Plantings” consisted of vegetables, however this same method can be used with ornamentals. Lovely climbing plants like star jasmine or mandevillas can be planted along with stately tall sunflowers, and under-planted with petunias or other spreading flowering plants. We all know that sunflowers put on a fabulous display, but once that wonderful bloom is spent then comes the problem of yanking that big stalk out of the ground. However if you plant climbing plants along with the sunflower, by the time the sunflower has spent its bloom the climbing plants have grown up around the stalk and are ready to bloom. So that otherwise eyesore of a sunflower stalk is covered with lovely foliage and blooms.
With the Three Sisters planting system, you could think bigger, much bigger as I did with my canary palm tree (Phoenix canariensis), also called the pineapple palm because it looks like a giant pineapple. Palms, although majestic, have blooms that are hard to appreciate as they are so high up in the tall tree. Therefore I planted queen purple hearts (Setcreasea pallida)) as a spreading groundcover around the base of my palm trees. I also planted hyacinth bean vine (Lablab purpureus ) by the palm tree. The palm tree serves as a trellis for the hyacinth bean vines that intertwines their electric purple vines tightly through in the irregular patterns of the pineapple palm’s bark until they make to the top of the tree; and then the deep purple vines laden with tiny white flowers and psychedelic purple seed pods hang like ringlets off the palm fronds (branches of the palm trees).
When you are working with a well-established tall tree you can plant your climbing and spreading plants any time. I think the Three Sisters planting method is great for palm trees, especially the very tall ones that reach into the skies. The spreading plants add interest around the base of the tree, at the same time the climbing plant dresses up the otherwise lanky and bland column-like trunks of these stately giants.