“Three Sisters Garden”

“Three Sisters Garden”

Children will meet Sister Corn, Sister Squash, and Sister Bean — and be introduced to stories that explore ancient wisdoms of the land. Cultivation of these three companion plants will inspire studies of Native American customs, nutrition, and folklore. As students dig into their crops, investigations of plant growth and relationships will flourish. In addition to making delicious foods from our harvest, lessons in this garden will tie directly to the 1st grade Pebbles, Sand and Silt unit as children compare the ingredients in different soils, observe, describe, and sort earth materials based on properties, and separate earth materials by size using different techniques. They will draw and describe the sister plants and compare and contrast their attributes. They will learn about companion planting. At the heart of this set of lessons is a focus on gardening with sustainability in mind; the importance of saving seeds, putting food away for winter, methods of storing harvest, and how the ability of people to have “out of season/non-local produce” year round affects what we eat.

Spring Lessons

Introduction to Spring Planting:
Have you ever planted something in the gardens at Atkinson? What did you plant? We are going to plant a garden soon. We will plant seeds. We will also plant starts. What is a start? Why might we plant a start instead of a seed? What do you think will be the needs of these seeds/starts over the summer (sun, water, weeding)? What do you think will be the needs of these seeds over the summer (sun, water, weeding)? How will this happen (discuss irrigation system, volunteers)? What are some of the problems that our plants might encounter (pests, drought) over the summer?

Introduction to the Legacy Idea and the Theme:
The garden we are going to plant will have a theme. In the fall, you will have moved on to another class, so you won’t harvest these plants. This garden will provide a gift to your teacher’s incoming fall class. It will be a surprise for them. Likely, someone will plant a surprise garden for your class to harvest in the fall, too. The garden we plant will have the theme of … what will it be? Dramatically open the mystery envelope, pull out the slip of paper and read the theme out loud (or have a student or the teacher read it.) The theme of our garden is “The Three Sisters Garden.”

Discussion of The Three Sisters Theme:
Who were The Three Sisters? Bring out some fresh beans, an ear of corn, and a squash. Pass them around, talk about how they are different from each other. Are these vegetables sisters? Why or why not? What do sisters do for each other? In a three sisters planting, the three partners benefit one another. Corn provides support for beans. Beans, like other legumes, have bacteria living on their roots that help them absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that plants can use. (Corn, which requires a lot of nitrogen to grow, benefits most.) The large, prickly squash leaves shade the soil, preventing weed growth, and deter animal pests. The three sisters also complement each other nutritionally. What can we cook with these vegetables? You will find a recipe for succotash in the envelope. Discuss the recipe (lots of information on the recommended webpage below). Bring in the starts that have been waiting in the hall or back of the classroom. Examine the seeds and starts — discuss and compare. How are they alike? How are they different? One of the special ideas behind this garden is that all the vegetables grown in it store very well. What does this mean? Why do you think this might be important? How can beans, corn and squash be stored? Another important consideration is that once the seeds have been dried, some of them must be saved and not eaten. Why do you think this is necessary?

Before planting, be sure that your garden box has a grid in place. Half the class should go out to the garden and plant half the seeds and starts. They should record on a map of the garden where they have planted the various seeds and starts. Talk about the grid in your box how it is useful. Take some time to look at grids in other boxes. Are they all the same? Have each child make a map of your box to take home, while the parent volunteer or teacher makes a large map to include in the letter/packet to next year’s class. While half the class is in the garden, the other half of the class should listen to a story from “Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families” by Michael J Caduto” Discuss the story. Do you think it is true or not? Ask the children to draw a picture from the story. Give the children three dried seeds – one corn kernel, one bean, one squash seed. Discuss how the seeds differ. Glue down the seeds on a piece of paper and label the seeds. The two class halves should switch roles and repeat the activities.

Once all the students have been to the garden, they should write a letter about the garden/theme to the incoming class.

Here’s a sample letter:

Dear (next year’s class),

We have a surprise for you. We have planted a garden for you to harvest.
It is called The Three Sisters Garden. Do you recognize the vegetables?
Here’s a map of where we planted the vegetables.
Happy Harvesting!

(last year’s class)

Materials for spring lesson

  • A mystery envelope that contains a paper on which is written “Three Sister’s Garden”
  • Blank maps of garden marked with grid
  • Story to read from “Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families by Michael J Caduto”
  • materials for drawing pictures from the story
  • some additional corn, squash and bean seeds for gluing on paper and describing
  • glue
  • Sample letter and materials for letter writing (wax, envelopes, etc.)
  • Seeds and starts (starts stored separately) to plant:
    • Calico popcorn (starts are ideal)
    • Bingo pole bean (starts are ideal)
    • Small sugar pumpkin (seeds)
    • 2-3 onion starts
  • The planting method is very simple. All you do is make 1 or more mounds spaced about 1 foot apart. The mound should be from 16 to 24 inches in diameter. When you have your mounds built you will start by planting your corn first. You will plant 4 corn starts in each mound, about 12” apart from each other. The Many Native people honor the tradition of giving thanks to the “Four Directions” by orienting the corn seeds to the north, south, east, and west.
  • Then plant your beans, about three around each corn, spaced 3-5 inches away from the corn.
  • Then plant the pumpkin. Plant two seeds in the center of the mound.
  • If you have time, plant the corn, wait a week or so, then plant beans, wait a week or so, then plant the squash.

Fall Lessons

Begin the year’s garden lesson by asking the class if they planted a garden last spring. What did they plant? What have they eaten from the garden in the past? If the class is a kindergarten, begin the discussion by asking about gardening in a more general way, not specific to the Atkinson gardens. Ask the kindergartens if they have even planted anything in a garden. Have they ever harvested anything from a garden? This fall, we are going to harvest a garden that another class planted for us last spring. If there are letters available from the previous year’s class, now is the time to read them. What kind of garden has been planted for you? Visit the garden. Make your garden visits in small groups. Don’t pick anything yet, but do ask the students to point out and discuss what is growing. If you have a garden map left from the class who planted the garden, use it to identify the plants. Bring a clipboard and paper out to the garden and with the help of the students, list the plants that you see there. Walk around the gardens and look around at the other garden boxes. What other plants are growing in the garden? What plants do you recognize? What is new to you? Be sure not to harvest from any boxes (yet.)

Return to the Three Sisters’ Garden. Read or tell a version of the Three Sister’s story. Look carefully at the corn (shuck one), the beans (open one), and the pumpkin. These plants are very different from each other. How are they different? How are they the same? Do they all have seeds? Do they all have leaves? Beans, Corn and Squash are known as companions in the garden. They grow well together because they benefit each other. What is a companion? Do you have a companion? How do companions help each other? See more information about companion planting here.

Bring out paper and drawing implements of your choice (crayons, paint, markers or colored pencils.) Ask the students to sit quietly by their garden box and draw a picture that depicts the corn, pumpkin and beans growing together.

We are going to make some food from our garden. On this webpage, you’ll find recipes for succotash, roasted pumpkin seeds, and pumpkin bread. You probably won’t have enough harvest to make all these recipes directly from the garden, but you can reference the harvest as you make each dish. Succotash is the dish that uses all three vegetables. For a history and recipe for succotash look here.

As you harvest and use each vegetable, study it carefully. Beans, corn and pumpkin are all vegetables that store well over the winter. How would we store each of these vegetables if we didn’t have a refrigerator or a freezer? Discuss methods of storing food. What is pickling? What is a root cellar? What is hardtack? What is curing? Think about cases where food storage is an issue – on ships, perhaps, or on a camping trip. Why do people (and animals) put food away for winter? Why is this important? What animals store food?
Read the Ant and the Grasshopper and Fredrick (by Leo Lionni.) Discuss the problems that the various characters have as related to food storage. How are the stories the same? How are they different? Which story do you prefer? Why?

If you are planting and harvesting the Three Sisters’ Garden with a 1st grade, there are some natural links with the FOSS Pebbles, Sand, and Silt Module. Check out the “soiled again” unit at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/gpe/case2/c2facts2.html

  • Here are some suggestions of soil study from FOSS: What is in soil? Soils have properties of color and texture. Soils differ in their abilities to support plants. Soil is a mixture of earth materials, and varies from place to place. Observe the ingredients that combine to make soil. Separate and sort the ingredients in soil. Observe and record the results of shaking soil and water in a vial. Compare soil samples from different locations. Plant seeds in soils that vary in texture. Seed packets usually describe what kind of soil benefits the seeds within. Experiment to see if the type of soil makes a difference in the rate of growth. Set up a magnification station. Compare the rate at which water moves through different kinds of soils.

Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families by Michael J Caduto
Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn and Beans by Sylvia A. Johnson
“The Ant and the Grasshopper” Aesop’s Fable
Frederick by Leo Lionni
Putting Food By by Janet C. Greene
Jam it, Pickle it, Cure it: and Other Cooking Projects by Karen Solomon

These are a few excellent web sites that provide background information and resources for the Three Sisters Garden:
http://www.kidsgardening.com/growingideas/PROJECTS/MARCH02/mar02-pg1.htm a very complete set of lessons and information
http://birdclan.org/threesisters.htm a few versions of the Three Sisters Story
http://beckyandthebeanstock.com/?p=83 history of succotash and recipe


(From Chef Michel Nischan)

Important Note: If Bingo beans have dried on the vine before you harvest them, then they must be pre-cooked. Soak two cups beans overnight with water to cover. Cook in a crockpot for 1-2 hours with one onion. Then follow the recipe below.

1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups raw pumpkin, cubed (to be done by an adult)
2 cups Italian bingo beans
1 cup fresh Native American grinding corn (regular corn can be substituted)
2 cups vegetable stock
5 sage leaves, julienned
4 tablespoons sweet butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Sauté onion in olive oil until translucent. Add Italian bingo beans, native corn, and raw pumpkin.
Cover with vegetable stock and simmer until all ingredients are tender and the stock has reduced, about 35 to 40 minutes.
Gently stir in sage leaves, sweet butter, and sea salt and pepper to taste.

Roasted Pumpkin seeds:
(From Joy of Cooking)

Separate seeds from pulp, but do not wash. Mix seeds with vegetable oil at a ratio of 1 cup seed to 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Spread onto baking sheet, sprinkle with salt or tamari. Bake seeds at 250° until dry (about 1 1/2) hours. Then bake at 350° until toasted.

Pumpkin Spice Cake:
(from Simply Delicious)

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 Tbs. pumpkin pie spice
1 Tbs. baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup milk (or soymilk)
2 cups cooked mashed pumpkin
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375° F. Spray a 10 inch Bunt pan with nonstick spray, then dust with flour.

Combine flour, granulated sugar, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Combine the eggs, oil, milk, pumpkin puree, and vanilla in another bowl. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture; stir just until blended. Gently mix in chocolate chips.
Pour batter into the pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 55-60 minutes. Cool in the pan on a rack 15 minutes; remove from the pan and cool on the rack 30 minutes.