Pedestrians passing Newo Global Energy’s office in Camrose may notice an unusual collection of vegetation growing in the planters outside. Flowers do feature, but the summer blossoms will eventually give way to hearty vegetables: corn, beans, and squash.
Planted together within a square foot of soil, they are known as the “Three Sisters,” the “genius of Indigenous agriculture,” according to Robin Wall Kimmerer, a distinguished professor of environmental biology and author of the book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.”
Devoting an entire chapter of her book to the Three Sisters, Kimmerer writes that Indigenous women across North America have planted this combination of seeds for thousands of years. Newcomers to the continent were nonplussed by the sight of crops growing not in segregated rows, but in “a three-dimensional sprawl of abundance.”
Corn sprouts first, then beans, and, finally, pumpkins or squash, a staggered sequence key to their synergy. The tall corn acts as support for the climbing bean, while the wide leaves of the squash keep in moisture and suppress weeds. None shade the others, and united they yield more than each plant would alone, “co-operating, not competing.”
“Together, their stems describe what looks to me like a blueprint for the world, a map of balance and harmony,” Kimmerer writes. “Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others, and there will be enough for all.”
Beans, as well as other members of the legume family, have the ability to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere to nutrients. They house Rhizobium bacteria, “nitrogen fixers,” in little white balls among their roots, producing a nitrogen fertilizer that aids the growth of the corn and squash as well.
“There are layers upon layers of reciprocity in this garden: between the bean and the bacterium, the bean and the corn, the corn and the squash, and, ultimately, with the people,” writes Kimmerer. “The beauty of the partnership is that each plant does what it does in order to increase its own growth. But as it happens, when the individuals flourish, so does the whole.”
Continuing right through to harvest time, not only do the Three Sisters’ flavours complement each other in meals, they also form a “nutritional triad that can sustain a people:” corn is a carbohydrate, beans are protein, and squash is rich in vitamins.
Newo founder and CEO Rajan Rathnavalu connects the Three Sisters to the notion of Wahkohtowin, a Cree word for “kinship” encompassing an appreciation of the power that comes from complex ecosystems.
“That’s the essence of our company,” he says. “The Three Sisters are an example of the multilayered benefits of diverse and complex relationships. Often, in trying to solve problems, we may come in with solutions in mind, but discover that a series of solutions is better than the initial tool we walked in with.”
Please stop by the office anytime to take a closer look at this living example of friendship, balance, and kinship.
Editor’s note: A special thank you to Nansen (age 4) and Kaydence (age 12) for helping to plant the Three Sisters!