About Ecuador / Ecuador gardening / Ecuadorian food / Self-Sustainability in Ecuador

Plant, Pray, Eat: The Three Sisters

The three sisters had been waiting patiently for the weather to warm up.  In Iroquois tradition, they are known as De-o-ha-ko, Our Sustainers.  Now that it’s May in California it’s time for these three green ladies–corn, beans and squash— to leave their little plastic pots and be rooted in our garden.  

Naturally I can’t help but think of the three sisters plantings  in Ecuador, where they are planted in September and October.  In Ecuador, as throughout South, Central and North America, the three sisters continue to be a vital part of a sustainable diet. 

The sisters are sown together in mounds to exponentially expand the productivity and health of all three.  Each contributes needed nutrients and benefits to the other plants.  This results in a sensible, symbiotic system that has existed for thousands of years.

Planting conditions in California are different than those in Ecuador, where the weather is more uniform and where two crops a year can be harvested.  Northern California experiences freezing temperatures during the winter with occasional snow.  It can freeze as late as May.

Deer are not a problem in Cotacachi but here in California they are, thus the tall deer fence that surrounds our principle vegetable garden.  Deer wander through our wooded neighborhood all the time.  Last week on our way back from town, a yearling stared at me with big soulful eyes from a clump of bushes not more than 15 feet from our car.

We also have moles, voles, gophers, mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels and birds, all busily competing for a taste of our food supply.  Mice have twice eaten the squash and watermelon seeds I’ve tried to start in the greenhouse.

Cotacachi has far fewer animals, birds and insects to worry about.  There are armadillos, birds, spiders, ants and grub worms, but nothing like the teeming hordes of hungry species that are lurking behind every bush, tree and crevice. 

Indigenous Iroquois planting wisdom decrees that corn not be planted until the leaves of the dogwood tree are as big as a squirrel’s ear or the Canadian geese return.  Other sources say don’t plant until the end of May. 

 In California the geese have been back for weeks.  Dogwood flowers now litter the lawn like spring snow.   The weather has been consistently warm, so we planted the three sisters the first week in May.


As we set the three sisters into the ground, I couldn’t help but feel part of that ancient tradition that began in the Americas and spread all over the world.   We were participating in a ritual that honors the importance of these three sisters and their place in history. 

Using big plant containers we found in the garden, we tenderly transferred the corn starts.  Usually the beans aren’t planted until the corn stalks are five inches high.  Our corn is already tall enough to justify planting the Kentucky Wonder pole beans with them now. 

The beans will grow up the corn stalks and strengthen them.  They will also provide nitrogen for the corn.


Next we planted the squash and pumpkin starts.  There’s plenty of room for them to spread out.  Their large leaves will supply great mulch for the corn and beans and conserve water. 

In some countries  their fourth sister, the bee plant, is also planted to attract bees and other insects for pollination. We were thrilled to find a potted Rocky Mountain bee plant at a plant sale this weekend.  On Mothers’ Day she joined her three sisters in our garden.

We may not have quite enough full sun for the corn, but we can’t plant elsewhere without adding a new deer fence.  That’s not going to happen so we will plant and pray. 

That is another part of the three sisters system that the natives carried out.  Indians annually celebrated the bounty that the Great Spirit provided.  Through ceremony, dance and song they thanked De-o-ha-ko, the sustaining spirits of the three sisters.

 Most likely the first North American Thanksgiving’s corn and pumpkin meal was the result of carefully nurtured Indian gardens featuring the three sisters. Without the benefit of scientific studies or chemical analyses, native people were able to determine optimum planting times through observation of the weather, stars, soil, and vegetation.

I may not be so obvious about it, no feathered headdresses, gourds or drums, but you can bet I’ll be celebrating the three sisters in my own way as we reap their bounty.  I’m dreaming of pumpkin pie, corn on the cob and green beans with toasted almonds. . . sounds like Thanksgiving, doesn’t it?

BYW, the three sisters are depicted on one side of the 2009 U. S. one dollar Sacagawea Native American coin. The coins are used in Ecuador but not in the U.S. where sales people sometimes look at them suspiciously until I explain that they are legit.  


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