May in the Garden: The Three Sisters of Summer Adopt a Fourth

Gardener’s Notebook

By Joshua Burman Thayer

One of the great delights of walking the hills above the bohemian enclave of Berkeley is the chance to follow the system of footpaths that provide secret routes from one street to another. Oak tree branches frame enchanting views of the Golden Gate and the San Francisco Bay on nearly any such hillside walk, and evening fog flows up hillsides lined with custom craftsman bungalows, touching both garlands of morning glory vines twining through untended lots and front yard victory gardens surrounded by deer fencing. Tall cornstalks shoot up their tassels beside mini vineyards, while cucumbers and squash poke out through fence gaps below. It’s no surprise at all to encounter a “three sisters” planting of edible companions: corns, beans, and squash. But I’m here to spread and encourage the love of a fourth but less-famous sister, the sunflower (Helianthus giganteus). 

As May marches on toward June in the 2017 growing season, there’s still time to plant your summer garden. If you have never tried the three sisters planting scheme, why not right now? An ancient plant guild employed throughout many parts of the indigenous Americas, the three sisters have become quite popular in modern organic farming. Each plant assists the others in doing its job of growing and producing food.

Sunflowers serve as a fourth sister to enhance the traditional trio of corn, beans, and squash.

To plant your four sisters garden bed, follow these easy steps:

Step 1: Each of these plants are heavy feeders, so as you turn the top two feet of soil (especially important if it’s compacted) amend with a mixture of one teaspoon of fish emulsion and one cup of worm castings in a gallon of water.

Step 2: Lay out the main footprint of your fours sisters garden by planting corn seeds  one foot to 18 inches apart in a large circle. This arrangement assists with wind pollination of the corn. If using plant starts, place them deeper into the ground than you might imagine they need. 

Step 3: One week later plant a single bean seed centered in each gap between the corn. I like yard-long beans, scarlet runner beans, and Italian pole beans.

Step 4: One week later (and two weeks after planting the corn) plant sunflowers 6 to 12 inches apart along the northern edge of your corn. Along the southern edges, plant your curcurbit of choice. I prefer cucumbers, but squash and zucchini work just as well.

Step 5: Start weekly feeding in the early evening with a root drench using the same formula you mixed
for step 1.

May is a great time to plant your summer garden and enjoy the delicious bounty
in the months to come.

As they grow, these four sisters will support one another. The cornstalks provide poles for the beans to grow on, the beans nourish the soil, and the squash leaves provide a living ground cover to protect the soil from evaporation and weeds. The sunflowers act as a wind break and also bring pollinators to the four sisters bed.  

Once the young plants are thriving in early summer, you can begin to broadcast coffee grounds and spent tea leaves onto the soil. Then, as it all comes alive with late-summer growth, you can enjoy your harvest bounty well into fall.

Photos and illustration by Joshua Burman Thayer

Permaculture designer and educator Joshua Burman Thayer is a regular contributor to Edible East Bay. In his monthly Gardener’s Notebook feature in Edible East Bay’s free e-newsletter, he offers lots more advice on how to implement gardening ideas like this one. Sign up for the newsletter here. Josh has also written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. Find him and his work at, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.