Milpa Three Sisters Gardening is related to the technique of Mixed Cultivation. Even the ancient Mayas understood the value of this mixed farming. The so-called milpa agriculture system, which grows corn, beans, and pumpkin all in the same bed, has stood the test of time.
It’s not uncommon to see the classic mixed-cultivation involving corn, beans, and pumpkin (Cucurbita speciosa) grown together. We may, however, learn from the indigenous people of South America about how effectively the three types of crops complement one another.
There are three of them, as evidenced by their English moniker, “The Three Sisters”. The purpose of this post is to teach you about milpa and how to grow one in your garden.
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What is Milpa Three Sisters Companion Gardening
Milpa is a term that means “the nearby area.” It can be traced all the way back to the Mayan’s milpa crops which were grown near to their homes. Milpa refers to the fact that corn, beans, and squash are planted in the same field and they complement each other.
This is done to ensure a plentiful harvest as well as healthy plants. Corn is an energy-giving grain that can be preserved for a long time and was used to produce tortillas and other foods. While beans, on the other hand, are high in protein, and pumpkins (squash) are high in vitamins and minerals.
Advantages of Milpa Gardens Bed
Corn, beans, and squash are the three mixed cropping partners who help each other. The major crop, maize, also serves as climbing support for the beans. Beans, like legumes, have a symbiotic connection with nodule bacteria.
These subsequently fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, which helps the beans grow and, in the long run, fertilizes the soil through the breakdown of plant wastes. As a third partner, the squash covers the soil with its enormous leaves, suppressing the growth of undesired weeds and keeping the soil moist by shading it.
Another benefit of a milpa bed is its effective use of space, which allows for large yields in a very small area, as well as its little upkeep. Once the squash has covered the earth, the bed is left to its own devices. Weeding, for example, is only required at the start of cultivation.
How to Make a Milpa Garden – Three Sisters Planting Technique
There are numerous ways to plant a milpa bed, and you may feel daunted by the sheer number of options available after doing some preliminary study. Nothing, however, will stand in the way of your successful cultivation if you follow our step-by-step instructions.
#1. Selecting the Garden Area
Choose a spot in your garden that is at least 1.20 m × 2 m and gets enough of sun light. Also, bear in mind that the mixed crop might grow to be rather tall. As a result, it quickly shades out other plants in the garden.
#2. Improve Soil Conditions
All three crops require humus-rich, water-retentive soil. You can use nutrient-rich soil, or some of your own compost manure to help prepare your garden soil for the crop.
#3. Select the Growing System
Milpa is often designed in clusters in South America. This entails, for example, planting three corn plants and two bean plants near together, with the squash planted further apart. Alternatively, a milpa bed can be made in rows.
In this situation, the corn is cultivated with a row spacing of 60 to 80 centimeters and a plant spacing of roughly 40 centimeters within the row. Sow up to three beans around each corn plant. Finally, between the rows of corn, plant the pumpkin, keeping a gap of about 2 meters between each plant.
#4. Select the Plant Varieties
A successful milpa harvest requires careful initial plant variety selection. Above all, the corn-to-bean ratio must be correct. When a robust bean is mixed with slow-growing corn, for example, the bean can swiftly outgrow the corn and actually wrestle it to the ground. It is also beneficial to choose a varied variety of beans. Green beans are simpler to find later in the milpa thicket than these. In the table below, we’ve prepared some good combos for you.
|Corn Variety||Bean Variety|
|Black Aztec||Goldfield, Green Beans|
|Golden Bantam||Scarlet Emperor, Sunset Runner Bean|
|Rainbow Sweet Inca||Neckargold, Pole Bean|
|Supersweet SF 201||Markant, Flavourstar, Musica Bean|
#5. Setting Plant Preferences
Corn grows slowly at the beginning when it is young and can be sown in the bed as early as mid-April in our latitudes. As a result, it is best to start growing it indoors in March.
Give each corn plant its own pot from the start, as young corn plants have strong deep roots that make pricking them out difficult. Squash can be planted in two ways: pre-planted starting in April or straight seeded in May together with beans.
#6. Planting and Sowing in May
The home-grown or purchased seedlings can then be transplanted onto the bed in mid-May. The planting distances mentioned in point #3 must be followed. Beans can be planted at the same time as the corn and pumpkin, around 5 cm deep in a circular manner around the corn plants.
How to Maintain a Milpa Garden
Keeping the soil weed-free may still be necessary for the beginning. However, once the plants grow large enough, even light weeding will not harm them, and you may leave the bed to its own course. If everything goes as planned, a wild, lush, and fertile forest will emerge around July.
Of course, all three types of vegetables require adequate water, so frequent watering is critical, especially during more dry months. From flowering on, pumpkin and maize have a high water requirement, and if the supply is insufficient, the cobs, as well as fruit, will remain small.
Fertilizer is usually not needed if the three sisters are planted in a fertile, well-prepared field. Milpa is typically grown extensively for three years in South America, followed by a ten-year fallow period. This is due to the fact that corn and pumpkin, in particular, are among the most nutrient-dense crops.
Slash-and-burn agriculture is another popular technique in South America. This replenishes the soil with nutrients and organic matter. Because that isn’t an option here, you can compost the plant that remains directly on the land as mulch and subsoil it in the spring before the next planting.
#Tip: A simple milpa culture can be started in a large container on your balcony garden or terrace. Pick a small-growing corn variety, such as ‘Supai Red Corn’, and plant four to five plants in the center of the tub. At the tub’s outer edge, four bush beans are planted in a circle. Plant a small-growing pumpkin between the maize and beans.
A nutrient-rich soil or compost manure should be used as the substrate. It is peat-free and thus more sustainable than many conventional potting soils.
If you want to learn more about growing diverse plants in one bed, check out our mixed culture article. There, you’ll discover why tomato and basil work so well together not only on the plate but also in the garden bed.