Long before I knew anything about square foot gardening or permaculture, I heard about the Native American gardeners and their historic companion planting – corn, beans, and squash. They called it the three sisters. Planted in the same mound, each one compliments the others and provides a better growing environment than they would have on their own. Beans are a nitrogen fixer, taking nitrogen from the air and making it available to other plants. Corn is really a glorified grass, so it needs lots of nitrogen! Corn also provides a trellis, supporting the beans. The squash is a natural ground cover, protecting all three plants from drought and competing weeds.
In McCall, we can’t grow corn, which would make this a two sisters planting. Without corn the pole beans would just fall to the ground, getting tangled in the squash. When it came time to pick your beans you would be hunting through prickly squash vines. The squash vines would probably tear up your hands because you forgot to wear your gloves that day. The scent would undoubtably attract hungry bears, foxes, and rabid squirrels. You’d be lucky to survive, and all because you ruined this historic plant arrangement!
…that’s how I imagined my August without corn. FORTUNATELY, although I grew up in the sweet corn belt of Idaho and I am WELL AWARE corn won’t grow up here, I still bought a half-priced packet of Hopi Blue Corn from the Snake River Seed Cooperative. It is a flour corn, and says 90 days on the package. It also says:
“Sacred plant of the Hopi–one of the oldest varieties in cultivation. These graceful, feminine plants are drought-tolerant and produce long cobs with starchy, deep blue kernels perfect for grinding into flour.”
This part of the description makes it clear I picked the packet because of the sexy picture of two corn cobs made of rows of iridescent blue pearls. I know that corn can’t be feminine, that the Hopi cultivated nowhere near Idaho, and that I don’t have a corn grinder. But how could I resist?
My only argument is that come August, it might save me from bears.
We did buy some more practical seeds for this trifecta, including a Blue Lake pole bean and several winter squash and pumpkins. We grew the white Lumina pumpkin in 2015 from a start my sister gave me. It did really well and gave us several large pumpkins. It would work nicely in my bizarro colors Native American planting, but it would be ideal if I could find one of those Hubbard squash for a nice monochrome palette.
In addition to needing high daytime temperatures and a longer growing season that I can provide this corn, it ALSO needs to be planted in a long row so it can be wind pollinated. A corn plant has both male and female flowers, and without enough wind-pollen distribution the kernels will not form. You see, each corn kernel is connected to a long, thin ovary that we know as the silk. The odds of the male pollen landing anywhere on that tube seems HIGHLY UNLIKELY. It becomes even less likely if I’m unwilling to give my experiment an entire row to mate in. The dilemma is real. It is looking more and more like my Blue Hopi Corn will just be an elaborate trellis that I have to water (less frequently though, if that squash does its job).
Stay tuned for updates once spring hits!