This year at the Farm we will be using an old Native American tradition of inter-planting winter squash, beans, and corn (the Three Sister combo). I first learned about this practice on an episode of Victory Gardens a few years back. I thought it sounded so great to have all that food in one small spot working to amend the soil, reduce the weeds, and provide the beans with a natural climbing station. I hadn't planned to grow corn this year because there is always so much surplus in the area that I never have trouble getting as much as we can stand to eat and plenty to freeze as well. When I decided to start the market garden I consulted with another spin farmer and he suggested Indian Corn. I love to buy the colorful ears and stalks in October to decorate my house, and I figured it would be fun to try growing an heirloom variety I had seen. I adore snap beans and knew that I'd grow them, and wanted squash, but it takes so much room in the garden that I didn't think I'd put much in. Then I remembered the inter-planting story I'd seen and it all came together. The corn leaches nitrogen from the soil like no body's business, and there is a lot of wind at the Farm, so by planting beans with the corn stalks I add a nitrogen fixer and a stabilizer all at once. By alternating my hills with winter squash I take care of the weeds and I grow everything in one small block. You need at least a 10' by 10' (we're planting 10' x50')space to really have effective germination for corn, and it should be planted in a block vs. a row to help with the germination process. (click photo to enlarge) This variety of corn (Painted Mountain) can also be ground into flour and used for making tortillas and other corn products. The beans are planted around the corn stalks when the corn is about 4" tall, and the beans can be any variety. Dried beans like pinto, black beans, etc or snap beans are traditionally used. I'm hoping to try a few different kinds of beans this year. The bean vines should be tilled into the soil once you pull the stalks and the nitrogen they provide will be ready for next year. I'll be sure to update my experience including the plants I ultimately used and their production results. I'm especially hopeful to have some help keeping the weeds down this year!
More information on inter-planting:
The Modern Victory Garden (includes a lot of other inter-planting ideas)
Renee's Garden (includes a great diagram similar to mine above to get you started)