our Three Sisters garden

We have lost momentum in the communal potager at Sue’s.

The weather continues to be intermittently maussade with damp grey clouds blown in by the vent marin from the Med. Charles is too busy spraying the vines with copper sulfate against mildiou et oïdium, plus rigging up a 1950’s engine-and-pump contraption for irrigating his own grand potager, to plough our patch.

The big plan for Sue’s garden will have to be scrapped, and a smaller area worked instead. The plantlings are getting leggy. We have to do it by hand.

None of us fancy deep-digging a four-metre-square plot in temperatures of 26 C. Then it occurred to me that the Amerindian method called Three Sisters planting would suit exactly the plants I was raising – and that their  ‘hillock’ cultivation closely resembled the ‘ados’ method of this region.

There are many sources of info on 3 Sisters gardens on the web – but this came from an interesting discussion on the  women not dabbling in normal group-blog :

Corn benefits beans by providing a trellis.
Squash benefits both beans and corn by providing a way to cool the soil and reduce weeds.
The beans are the special key to this relationship … beans (a legume) draw nitrogen from the air and with the help of symbiotic bacteria (in the nodules) convert the nitrogen to a form that other plants (including the legume itself) can use.
Beans release sugars from their roots. The symbiotic bacteria like this sugar and by eating it become much more productive at nitrogen fixation. Eventually, the stored plant-friendy nitrogen is released in minute amounts to other plants and into the fuits of the plant as well as in the decaying material.
Another benefit of the 3 sisters is that it reduces the needed space. It essentially concentrates the growing area by combining complementary growing needs – thus we are able to produce more yield from a smaller space.

Whether planting a nitrogen-fixer with the non-nitro fixers has immediate benefit or not, is still debated in agronomy and plant physiological sciences. One researcher used a radioactive tracer to “follow” the nitrogen in a field of rye and clover (grass and legume, respectfully) and it found that 80% of the nitrogen being used by the rye came directly from the clover (this suggests there is immediate benefit and is why in many cultures the world over, legumes and other nitrogen-fixers have been planted with the non-nitro fixing plants (there are more examples beyond the 3 sisters and pasture).

Sweet corn developes an extraordinarily complex root-system, and needs 50 – 80 cms. depth. The soil was tilled only to 20 cm. – so I thought I’d dig the rest with just the one tool – a hoe (or azarda, or la trinque, or le cantonnier. Here’s how it went, yesterday and today :

The 3 Sisters are sweet corn, bean(or pea) and squash (or melon), and the plot was 4m. x 4m. So I thought – 3 rows of 3 ados. Corn needs wind to pollinate its neighbour, so I thought – stagger the rows. Squash needs space to ramble – so I should leave nearly a metre between each hillock and each row. It fitted perfectly.

step 1 of the three sisters garden

I try to measure these things – but my plans with posts and strings don’t work. What does work is the simple large step that a person can make, and then grind the foot in the soil. That’s a metre. These heaps have to be a metre apart. Getting them centred and staggered was a problem. Until I lined each dig-point up, and then made a cross with the hoe. I hoed out to the diameter that I wanted, and then hacked hard to bring up the compacted earth.

The big hoe is good at this – it’s long and sharp and heavy. Large compacted slabs of soil can be levered up, and dragged to the perimeter. Keeping a steady shuffling motion, all four points of the original compass can be worked up.

So far – so good : this is defining the perimeter. Then one attacks the middle – with renewed force, because this is nearing sub-soil, and it’s getting stoney. I left all this dull soil in a central heap, and then flung in a large amount of semi-composted muck.

Muck is a term that I gratefully import from John Seymour’s Self-Sufficiency – it means anything you can throw at the plants. Some people are extemely persnickety about what you put on, or under, your preciousnesses. Muck is his general word for everything he offers his. As a non-expert (indeed, an anti-expert) I like the idea of generalised ‘muck’. It has an Old English sound to it. He seems to say – it really doesn’t matter. What you throw on your plants, what you do with your compost. Very liberating. Give them what you can, what you’ve got.

The great thing about the long-handled hoe is that you don’t tread the soil. And in this circular bed system, you can stay outside the perimeter all the time. Earth and compost can be drawn in, and worked (because the hoe can hook-up, where a spade cannot) and you can keep up a satisfying circular shuffling motion around your ados or raised heap.

step 4 in the three sisters garen

I’m a light-weight, muscular man, of 59 years. And this is an emergency-digging situation. The big hoe was too much for Sue and for Mary – on their first try-out. But I feel that with a little training, they too could be hacking large chunks of sub-soil using the leveraging-power of the long heavy blade, and the long handle. I do think that technique and teaching can turn heavy-duty tilling into no-sweat gardening. Make that lo-sweat.

There’s no denying that swinging a big heavy hoe is tiring – but if the alternative is digging and wiggling with a spade and/or a fork English-style, with double-bent back . . . then sorry, I’m no fan. Make no mistake – this is peasant work. But in two short afternoons, Sue and I dug and planted all nine beds.

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This entry was posted in compost, garden, hand-tools, hoes, irrigation, raised bed, weeding and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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