WE ARE NOT COMPANIONS
A Q&A with the Three Sisters
Beans, corn, and squash: Has there been a more transcendent trio in the history of the alimentary universe? This month I sit down with these seemingly immortal queens of the Mesoamerican farming scene to chat about the practicalities of growing, the problems of semantics, and what it means to be family in an ever-changing world.
Are y’all actually related like the Jonas Brothers, or is that more of a gimmick like Jack and Meg White?
Corn: That is a tricky question, and kind of depends on who you want to believe, or what your definition of “relative” is.
Beans: We’re definitely a chosen family. So, in that way, totally related. Biological imperatives are outmoded anyway and the Linnaean classification system is as problematic, racist, and conflicting as is the notion of blood relativity as an infallible bond. So, yeah. We’re related.
Squash: Also, by way of Iroquoian legend, we’re 100% sisters, granddaughters of Sky Woman, inseparable from creation itself, saviors of humanity. And just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
That legend… why y’all? And I know it sounds a little silly, asking you why you’re you. But, honestly, why you?
B: We’ve been staple crops across the Americas for a thousand years at least. Like the staple crops.
S: It’s hard to say where or when we started by scientific normie standards, but yeah, we are easy to grow, easy to store, and exceptionally easy to grow together.
I suppose that’s what you’re best known for—growing together, as companion plants.
C: I hate that term, “companion planting.” It’s just a ruse for plant writers and the corporate consumer gardening cottagecore industrial complex to sell more ideas and keep people from actually gardening.
As a plant writer, frankly, I couldn’t agree more. But for our readers’ sake, maybe we can just roll with the term?
B: Honestly, yeah. I mean it’s kind of like the problem of the Linnaean system, right? It’s full of issues on a lot of levels, but we don’t have a more sensible or comprehensive system to replace it, so we can’t just drop it all together.
C: Right. Same with libraries and their classification systems.
Right. Classification. It stays messy. So. Y’all. Let’s say, “as companions.”
C: I grow tall.
S: Which, frankly, doesn’t do shit for me.
B: Squash says that, but honestly, in a real way—not to undermine our significance or anything—corn has always been the star, and we’re just sorta riding her coattails. Y’all humans have always been stoked on corn. She’s a pain in the ass to grow, and her yields are kind of terrible, but y’all are just obsessed. And frankly, we wouldn’t be where we are without her, culturally anyway.
S: But there you are doing all the actual work for all of us.
B: Yeah but I was born this way; it’s not really work if it’s just something I do. Those nutrients might as well go somewhere, and that somewhere might as well be my friends, my sisters, right?
What nutrients are you talking about?
S: She’s a nitrogen fixer. Takes nitrogen from the air. Makes it viable for other plants to consume through the soil. Plants need nitrogen more than any other single element in order to grow.
B: It’s true.
C: Yeah. That’s the whole thing. I’m tall and beans over here needs something to climb up, so there I am, cultural relevance and all that aside. Meantime she feeds me what I need to grow tall, so everyone’s a winner.
S: Just hanging out on the ground, sticking close to my roots, kicking it in the dirt all by my lonesome.
B: That’s ridiculous. We’d be lost without her. Squash has these big ol’ leaves that effectively act as mulch, retaining moisture in the ground during the hot months of summer, cooling the dirt and suppressing weeds that otherwise could easily overtake the lot of us.
C: And you feed her. Us.
B: Right. So everyone is helping everyone else.
S: Except corn. Corn isn’t helping me.
I think it’s admirable the way y’all all help each other thrive. Do you all get started at the same time, or is it a staggered kind of thing?
C: First of all, I appreciate you using the word thrive, but honestly there are better ways to grow us. Per me railing on the whole companion thing, there are more rational ways to grow us than throwing us all in the ground together. The thing is that keeping us bonded, as sisters, is easy. It’s such an easy way to grow us, even if it’s not the most productive.
S: True. It’s why the Iroquois and other Indigenous planters in the Americas planted us together. Not because it was the most efficient way to grow us, but because it was quick and easy, and they had better things to do than farm and fight weeds all summer long.
C: That said, we work best when I’m planted first.
B: Then once corn is tall enough, like 6 inches or so, I go in (once it’s a certainty that I’ll have corn to climb up rather than smother out).
S: And then me a week or so later, so I don’t grow too wide, too fast before beans has started. Still though, this is “in a perfect world” stuff. If we’re being really real, planting us all at the same time is usually absolutely fine.
And, to awkwardly take the suspension of disbelief a step further in this conversation with y’all, does it make sense to just plant one of each of you in a space, or is there a better way?
C: Just having one three sisters grouping isn’t necessarily amazing, mostly because the more corn that’s around, the more likely I am to get pollinated. So container gardeners, maybe don’t play this game. Ideally you want to grow a bunch of us in a larger garden bed area, 10×10 or so.
B: But do you mean like is there just one bean for every corn?
S: Why’s it always got to be so corn-centric?
C: Look. You need to quit acting like I’m some kind of scene-stealing diva. The simple fact is I provide more calories per acre than either of y’all; and for better or worse, that matters to humans who plant us. For food. You understand?
B: Anyway. Usually four or five bean seeds around each corn stalk, and then four to six squash seeds around the perimeter of the beans is about right.
Well, thanks for sharing your inner workings with me. I really admire what y’all have created together. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we wrap up here?
S: Plant us in the summer. All of us. And winter squash? That gets planted in summer too, OK? Winter squash is only winter squash because it preserves well and can be eaten throughout the winter. Still grown in summer.
B: Yeah, that’s kind of the whole thing with all of us, why we are so adored. Never mind us growing together. We are all easy to store and save throughout the meager months. Beans, corn, squash. We live long after we’ve died. So that you too may live.
C: The Linnaean classification system is bullshit. Dismantle all systems. Rewild. Peak oil has come and gone. Stop turning me into ethanol. I am not your companion.
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illustrations by Rachel Speck