Three Sisters Planting and La Milpa

Vicky Lowe, artist and educator, explaining Three Sisters planting and La Milpa. PBS Utah, All rights reserved.

Vicky Lowe, artist and educator with Artes de Mexico en Utah, holds squash flowers as she explains the cultural significance of the Three Sisters and La Milpa planting techniques.

By Lizzi Brosseau

We are thrilled to be partnering this year with Wasatch Community Gardens on a virtual version of their Urban Garden and Farm Tour. In this special series of videos, we’ll be showcasing some creative, experimental and downright beautiful urban gardens and farms in the Salt Lake City community. Come with us, as we take a virtual peek over the fence into our neighbors’ backyards!
 

Ancient Agricultural Methods Finding New Popularity

The Three Sisters planting method comes from ancient Indigenous American cultures, and has recently become a technique of interest to modern gardeners because of its utility in preserving soil health while growing three popular and delicious veggies; corn, bean and squash. But what many modern gardeners miss when they undertake the Three Sisters planting method is what the method means to the people who developed it and still use the technique today as an important part of their cultural heritage. 

In the fourth installment of our Urban Garden and Farm Tour (UGFT) with Wasatch Community Gardens (WCG), we’re going to learn a bit more about the cultural significance of Three Sisters, and La Milpa, a Central American planting technique that is often referred to alongside the Three Sisters. Check out our video below for more!


VIDEO: The Three Sisters Planting and La Milpa with Wasatch Community Gardens


Wasatch Community Gardens in Collaboration with Artes de Mexico

First let’s dive into explaining the organizations involved with this video and educational program. Our hosts for this portion of the UGFT tour are Ana Martinez and Vicky Lowe. 

Ana Martinez is the School Garden Program Manager for Wasatch Community Gardens’ (WCG). The mission of WCG is to empower people to grow and eat healthy, local, organic food, and Ana has been integral in that mission through her work connecting parents, students and local schools with opportunities to garden.

Vicky Lowe, a local artist and educator, develops curriculum for Artes de Mexico en Utah (AMU), and also serves as the community liaison for Maya cultural perspective and connection. The mission of AMU is to promote appreciation of Mexican art in Utah, with a vision of a community united by cultural connections. Through artists and educators like Vicky Lowe, AMU provides high quality art and education.

Ana Martinez and Vicky Lowe, our hosts for learning about the Three Sisters planting and La Milpa techniques.

Sabores de Mi Patria, “Flavors of my Homeland”

Started in 2019, Sabores de Mi Patria (which means “Flavors of My Homeland” in Spanish) is an educational project between WCG and AMU to teach not only the practice, but also the cultural significance of Three Sisters and La Milpa through workshops and learning in the garden. This is nearly a year long program, where participants bless and plant seeds in the late spring, maintain Three Sisters plantings throughout the summer, and participate in a harvest ceremony in early fall. The Indigenous perspective of land and identity is an integral part of the workshops and hands-on learning experiences.

Very importantly, the workshops are presented in Spanish first, with English translation second, to encourage Spanish-speaking community members to participate. By offering the program in Spanish, WCG and AMU hope to provide a welcome space for community members in Utah who may not often feel welcome in English-first spaces.

A beautifully hand painted sign marks the Three Sisters and La Milpa plot at the Grateful Tomato Garden.

3 Steps for Three Sisters Planting and La Milpa 

La Milpa and the Three Sisters are not only a traditional system of growing corn, beans, and squash together, but they are also a symbol of Indigenous identity. We’ll walk through the basics of these planting techniques as we also learn about the heritage and significance of planting the Three Sisters.

Seeds and flowers arranged on a Petate for the blessing of the seeds.

Step 1: Preparing the seeds

Traditionally, the first step in planting the Three Sisters is to bless the corn, bean and squash seeds. This practice expresses gratitude to Mother Earth for her blessings of these plants, and to ancestors who passed on their knowledge for the benefit of their children and future generations. The main seed is the corn. Corn for the Maya represents humans according to the Popol Vuh, the Quiché Mayan book of creation.

This blessing was done for last year’s Sabores de Mi Patria garden with the seeds laid on a petate, decorated with natural elements that represent important indigenous symbolism, such as the 4 directions and the 13 Baktun cycle of the Mayan calendar. 

The Sabores program planted seed species like green oaxaca dent corn, red flower corn, cherokee trail of tears black beans, and lena sisko bird egg red bean.  

 

Wasatch Community Gardens Executive Director Ashley Patterson (red jacket) and Maria Schwarz, Youth and School Garden Program Director (squatting down, blue jacket) participate in the soil prep for the 2019 Sabores de Mi Patria Three Sisters garden guided by the Maya community member Maria Elena Ku’lubat the Rose Park Community Garden.

Step 2: Planting the seeds

To plant the Three Sisters, first prepare the soil by removing weeds and adding nutrients like blood meal. Work the soil gently to break up compaction and allow water and air to reach the roots. (But not so vigorously that you’ll disturb the helpful microbiology of the soil.) Don’t forget about how you’ll water your Three Sisters garden. Drip lines are a great irrigation option. 

The traditional Milpa method uses planting sticks to create holes for the seeds. 3-4 corn seeds and 3-4 bean seeds can be planted at the same time. Take one large step along the line of your irrigation for the next planting spot. This will give the plants enough room to grow with plenty of sunlight. Corn and beans are planted in a line on either side of the garden bed, and squash seeds are planted down the middle of the bed. After putting seeds in the soil, give them a good drink of water.

The corn will grow tall to provide support for the beans as they grow, and the large leaves of the squash provide shade for the soil to preserve moisture. The beans will collect and deposit nitrogen into the soil, which benefits the corn and squash plants. Three Sisters and La Milpa are considered by modern gardeners to be an ancient form of companion planting, where one plant benefits another or create a beneficial system. 

If you’d like to learn more about companion planting, check out our video and blog post: https://www.pbsutah.org/modern-gardener/stories/companion-planting-with-usu-extension

 

Step 3: Harvest

When you think of some of your favorite memories with your family, is food often a part of those memories? The cultural practice of harvesting the Three Sisters is a moment for Indigenous communities to offer their gratitude to the land and to the plants they have grown for the sustenance they will provide.

At the conclusion of the 2019 Sabores de Mi Patria program, participants gathered together to celebrate their heritage, the land, the crops of the Three Sisters, and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. 

The 2019 Sabores de Mi Patria workshop participants at the Three Sisters and La Milpa harvest workshop.

Recent Efforts to Indigenize Agriculture 

When we asked AMU Director, Guadalupe Blauer, about modern efforts to revive indigenous knowledge in agriculture, she said “For us, through this [Sabores] project, we recognize the need to acknowledge these ancient practices and knowledge that have been part of our culture, but underrepresented.” 

She continued by saying that, “[its] very important … to recognize the connection between Nature-Culture under the concept of Cosmovision, which is interpreted as the main focus for sustainable agriculture. Recovering these practices is also recovering a social and cultural identity and our much needed connection with nature.”

If you’d like to learn more about sustainable agriculture through Three Sisters and La Milpa, as well as the culture and meaning of these practices to the people and the land where they were developed, AMU has helpful educational resources to get you started: https://www.artesmexut.org/for-educators

Squash blossoms are edible but be sure to harvest male blossoms (left), which do not grow into a squash fruit, and not female blossoms (right), which do!

Cooking with the Three Sisters 

While shooting this video, we talked about some of the delicious ways the harvest of the Three Sisters can be used. Fried Squash Blossoms sounded particularly intriguing, so we wanted to share a recipe from the Sabores program!

Liz’s Fried Squash Blossoms 

(from “Flavors of the School Gardens, 2019” recipe book)

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 oz ricotta cheese
  • 15 mint leaves
  • 15 squash blossoms
  • Egg whites
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • Basil
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp all-purpose flour

DIRECTIONS

  1. Whisk together ricotta, egg whites, parmesan, mint, oregano and basil to create the filling.
  2. Gently spoon the filling into the flowers.
  3. Add flour and salt together for the batter.
  4. Heat the oil in a deep and heavy saucepan over medium heat or 375 degrees F. You can check the oil for readiness by dropping a bit of the batter into it. If it sizzles and floats to the top, its ready.
  5. Dip one flower in the batter and place in oil. Cook 4-5 minutes or until batter is crisp and golden.
  6. Once they are done, place them on a paper towel to drain.
  7. Enjoy!

Supporting Indigenous Cultural Legacy and Knowledge

We hope that you’ve learned and been inspired by what we’ve shared in our learning about the Three Sisters and La Milpa, and that this information will encourage you to learn more about and support the Indigenous cultures that have shared this knowledge with us. If you’d like more information about Artes de Mexico, please visit their website here.

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Lizzi Brosseau

Lizzi Brosseau, Digital Producer at KUED Channel 7.
Modern Gardener Host and Author

Lizzi works for PBS Utah as a digital producer and host of Modern Gardener. Read more