The four sisters flourish together

Five Feline Farm expands its Native American gardens to include sunflowers and tobacco

Posted 10/31/16

Although summer is behind us, Donna Coonce at Five Feline Farm near Westfield is assessing the past growing season, including the expansion of the farm’s Native American gardens.The garden, …

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The four sisters flourish together

Five Feline Farm expands its Native American gardens to include sunflowers and tobacco

Posted

Although summer is behind us, Donna Coonce at Five Feline Farm near Westfield is assessing the past growing season, including the expansion of the farm’s Native American gardens.

The garden, named in memory of longtime Paris 95 elementary school teacher Mary Wright, is planted using a cornerstone of early agriculture — the Three Sisters.

According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. 

The tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations. 

Coonce said growing a Three Sisters garden is a wonderful way to feel more connected to the history of this land, regardless of our ancestry. She noted corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops domesticated by early American societies. According to Three Sisters legends, corn must grow in community with other crops rather than on its own — it needs the beneficial company and aide of its companions.

Coonce said the Three Sisters gardens at Five Feline Farm utilize heirloom native seeds. She said the Iroquois believe corn, beans and squash are precious gifts from the Great Spirit, each watched over by one of three sisters spirits, called the De-o-ha-ko, or “Our Sustainers.”

The planting season was marked by ceremonies to honor each of the three. By retelling the stories and performing annual rituals, Native Americans passed down the knowledge of growing, using and preserving the Three Sisters through generations.

Corn provides a natural pole for the beans to climb, she noted. Beans fix nitrogen to the following year’s corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans.

The large amount of crop residue from the Three Sisters combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve the soil for the next season’s planting, she said.

Corn, beans and squash also complement each other nutritionally, Coonce explained. Corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. Squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthful, delicious oil from the seeds.

By the time European settlers arrived in America in the early 1600s, the Iroquois had been growing the Three Sisters for more than three centuries. The vegetable trio sustained the Native Americans both physically and spiritually. In legend, the plants were a gift from the gods, always to be grown together, eaten together and celebrated together.

An important traditional form of agriculture is the use of inter-cropping strategies, sometimes called mixed cropping or milpa agriculture, where different crops are planted together, rather than in big monoculture fields as farmers do today.

Coonce said she expanded the garden this year to include what some consider the fourth sister — sunflower or bee balm.

The legend is the sunflower — the Fourth Sister — has the most important job of all. The sunflower is the guardian of the North, planted firmly, to protect others from the robbers who soon would come — birds.

The sunflowers keep the birds from devouring the corn.
True sunflowers exhibit the heliotropic habit of following the sun through the day but when they are full of sunflower seeds they stay facing the east. When sunflowers are planted to the north of the garden patch, the birds see the sunflowers first thing in the morning sun and dine on the sunflower seeds rather than the corn kernels, thus protecting the corn.

In addition to a traditional sunflower, Coonce said she planted the Autumn Beauty variety. Native Americans see the sunflower as forever looking to the light and celebrate its unique arithmetic. Supposedly each sunflower has 12 sets of leaves ( months in a year), 52 petals (52 weeks in a year) and 365 seeds (365 days in a year). 

Coonce also added Mountain Pima tobacco to the Native American garden. Tobacco was also used as a sacred and medicinal herb. It is an important part of Indian culture and folklore and can be used as an organic insecticide.

The farm continues to prosper, Coonce said, noting several tour groups have visited during the past growing season. “We are doing many free tours and building a great support base at the market and through social media,” she said.