The environmental wisdom of the Native Americans is often quoted with the strap-line, that it should be emulated today. This wisdom of the ancients encompasses such ideals as ‘living in balance with nature’ and ‘farming as nature intended’. At first glance these phrases have a ring of good-old fashioned common sense, but after further thought one is left asking; what is the balance of nature or what sort of farming does nature intend?
In North America, backyard gardeners are encouraged to embrace the environmental knowledge of the Iroquois tribe by planting a “three sisters” plot of corn, beans and squash. The entire project is frequently surrounded in mythology, muck and magic. The Iroquois are said to have believed in the three spirits of corn, beans and squash, and that these three spirits love each other dearly and can only thrive together. Each of these sister spirits or De-o-ha-ko were considered precious gifts from the Great Spirit given to sustain both us and each other. Or in horticultural terms; maize provides the structure for the beans to climb up, removing the need for poles. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil to the benefit of the squash and the corn. While the squash spreads along the ground acting as a living mulch keeping the soil moist and free from competitive weeds.
It is rather fortuitous that these three American sisters get along so well because they are the product of a rather dysfunctional family. Squash is probably the oldest sibling and may be as much as 10,000 years old. There are many wild species of squash, pumpkins and gourds in Mexico and Guatemala. Although these are bitter tasting, they all contain edible seeds and were probably first cultivated for making bowls and spoons. The middle sister is probably maize, ‘born’ about 6000 years ago again at the hands of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Beans are the baby of the family and like squash are in fact many different species that have been cultivated for thousands of years in both Central and South America. The sisters’ life together as one happy family is much more recent than this. The Iroquois have been cultivating the three crops together for about 700 years and the term ‘three sisters’ only dates from the 19th century.
Similar multi-cropping systems or companion planting methods are widespread around the small garden agricultural systems of the world. They make good ecological sense as the different crops are complementary, exploiting both the soil and sunlight in different ways, utilizing their different root and stems architectures and growth periods. Mixed plantings also reduce the likelihood of a pest or disease sweeping through a monoculture field and provide an insurance against environmental extremes. The down side of companion planting is that it is labour intensive. In the case of the three sisters, there are very complex growing instructions about ground preparation, inter-planting distances and different planting times for the different crops. For example, the corn needs planting before the beans so they have something to grow up. Then of course they require manual harvesting at different times so as not to damage the later maturing crops. This is all very well in a back-yard plot, but not very practical on the industrial scale of modern agriculture.
So what do the Iroquois sister spirits of corn, beans and squash tell us about environmental harmony? The three sisters do indeed live in harmony in the confines of a backyard plot if we are prepared to tend to their individual needs. But one suspects that sibling rivalries will emerge if we force the sisters to grow together in the scales required to feed a global human population of seven billion. Restoring the balance of nature is no longer a matter of resolving a squabble between sisters, but realizing that there are more gardeners than garden.