Sunday, May 28, 2017

No-Till, No-Spray 3 Sisters Garden: Corn, Beans, Squash

Here's our small field of freshly-planted corn, beans, squash, and a variety of other edible perennial vegetables, many of which are North American native plants. Most of us are used to seeing the bare soil of plowed fields, completely denuded of plants. Have you ever seen a planted grain field that looks like this?

The "holy grail" of modern sustainable agriculture is honestly no-till, no spray grain production. Better yet, what if our production methods could actually increase biodiversity and fertility, while leaving the biotic community in tact, instead of destroying it to create a "clean slate" by tilling.

Producing calorie crops without destroying a healthy ecosystem is also one of our major goals here at Lillie House, both because it preserves valuable ecosystem functions that keep plants healthy, and because it avoiding tilling or digging the soil would save time and hard work.

Since modern agricultural techniques either require tilling or heavy spraying of petrochemicals, this is generally reckoned to be IMPOSSIBLE by modern experts. However, it's also widely believed (though not without some controversy) that Native Americans had done it for centuries or millennia, producing 3-4 times the yield/acre as European "scientific" agriculture prior to industrialization.

Here's a fantastic little treatment on the topic of the Native American horticultural techniques I often talk about in my classes and talks:
Unfortuantely, as explained in this great little article from 2012, much of that advanced technology and knowledge was suppressed by colonial governments. But what we do know, is:
- a wide variety of techniques were likely used
- there was no tilling and minimal digging
- fire was probably used at some points, but
- other researchers believe that methods were theoretically used which "kept fields alive" and allowed natives to sow 3 sisters directly into diverse perennial grasslands and savannah ecosystems which may have also been filled with other useful forbs.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to find in-depth details as to how that was likely accomplished. For example, we can read that Squanto planted 3 sisters into mounds of "dirt" and wood ash, with a fish at the bottom. We can infer that he would have made these mounds into some kind of untilled field ecosystem (possibly maintained by periodic burning.) We can guess that these "mounds" were essentially like the no-till deep mulch documented in indigenous horticulture around the world and popularized in Permaculture circles by Bill Mollison. But where did this "dirt" come from? Was anything else done to prep the land for planting? Were fields necessarily dug with bone tools as practiced by Buffalo Bird Woman? Were her gardens and those planted by Squanto perhaps influenced by the tilling practices of Europeans?

Having experimented deeply with no-till production into perennial crop systems, and having experimented with 3-sisters plantings for around a decade, I've come to believe that these native horticulturists would have likely done what any good gardener today would do: use whatever was at hand to accomplish the task with the minimum work necessary.

We've planted 3 sisters gardens for the last few years into our perennially-covered beds without digging or tilling, but this year, we're looking into techniques to plant into untilled field ecosystems. In our 3 sisters planting this year, we're experimenting with using a few different techniques and materials to create little mini "sheet mulch mounds" directly into our edible/ornamental meadow, or "eaddow" project, which has a large emphasis on native edible forbes. We followed the Wampanoag system of planting (on the 5 foot centers, recommended for our latitude) and selected varieties of corn, beans and squash that are thought to be traditional and appropriate to 3-sisters plantings in the Eastern Woodland region, based on suggestions from our friend John Edgerton and our friend Julian's success with Oaxacan Green corn in S.W. Michigan.

(Image from CMU)
I'm anticipating troubles with slugs, pill bugs and other primary decomposers during germination, and trouble with management of the grasses and other plants in the "eaddow." But we're hoping we can make something like this a permanent part of the management cycle for our "eaddow," and can have a system for harvesting a variety of roots, nursery plants and vegetables in addition to our corn, beans and squash.

And if it works, it should save us a lot of time and work. In this case, we prepared and planted around a 30' * 30' section of meadow, using materials almost entirely from on site, in about 4-5 hours total work. It would have taken considerably longer to dig or till this area. Wish us luck, we'll continue to share updates on this project.


  1. Another resource with a few sparse notes on the history of no-till cropping systems. Unfortunately, information on this topic is particularly poor and very often influenced by biases.

  2. Nice bibliography on "slash mulch" no-till techniques, adopted by Bill Mollison as "chop and drop." This is essentially the technique we're using for our 3-sisters planting.


  3. From my research, it appears many traditional slash-mulch systems utilize a perennial cover, such as central American farmers who slash mulch perennial sunflower at time of planting, or Nepalese farmers who use malabar nut shrubs in nearby hedgerows to smother the field prior to planting.

    Considering the timing of crops in Michigan, here is a list of potential herbaceous perennials for experimenting with slash-mulch systems, that I believe should reach size and ground dominance prior to corn-planting season, that may make them ideal for imitating these indigenous slashmulch systems: Comfrey, chickory, sorrel, valerian, marshmallow, sun chokes, motherwort, dock. We have found these to work well as mulch-maker plants in our garden for these reasons.