Growing a vegetable garden in the Southwest is easy if you do as the Natives once did and plant a Three Sisters garden.
The Native peoples across the New World have long had the tradition of planting the Three Sisters.* The Three Sisters live together and help each other not just survive, but thrive. Corn, beans, and squash are the Sisters, and each gives and receives from the others.
Corn is Elder Sister and should be planted first. She will grow tall and provide something Middle Sister to climb.
Corn needs ample nitrogen in the soil. Sister Bean helps Sister Corn by taking nitrogen out of the air and turning it into soil fertilizer. All members of the bean family do this via special bacteria-filled nodules in their roots. The bacteria get a place to live and sap to eat while they “fix” nitrogen to help the beans thrive. Don’t plant bactericidal plants, such as marigolds, onions, or garlic near your beans.
You can grow virtually any climbing bean with your corn. Scarlet runner, lima, fava, lentils, black-eyed peas, garbanzos, all dry beans, do well in the heat. Try the Southwest native, the tepary bean. Cultivated since the time of the Hohokam Indians, tepary beans mature quickly and are tolerant of heat, drought, and alkaline soils. They are also a relatively small bean and cook quickly. (Image above courtesy of Native Seeds/SEARCH.)
If you grow beans, be sure to grow the herb epazote. A few leaves of this herb added to beans as they cook helps break down some of the enzymes our digestive tracts can not. Think of epazote as a natural “Bean-O” plant. More about growing epazote – here.
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Like all little sisters, this plant runs all over the place. Sister Squash shades the soil, keeping it cooler, moister, and weed free. Squash, and most other members of the cucumber family love warm soils. Cantaloupe, honeydew, musk melon, crenshaw melon, casaba melon, some varieties of cucumber, luffa, summer squash, zucchini, and dry gourds all thrive in the summer garden. Sister Squash also benefits from the extra nitrogen fixed by Sister Bean’s bacteria. Thus the Three Sisters, live together and help each other.
Note that the squash family has separate female and male plants. This means you will need to plant several plants so there are plenty of both male and female flowers available at the same time. Bees are the natural pollinators, including solitary, bumble and honey bees. If you do not find bees in your garden, you may need to do the pollination yourself, using a paintbrush to collect and distribute pollen. Flowers only last a single morning, so early is best. Pollen will die at 93 degrees.
The Southwest is fantastic for many reasons, but perhaps one of the best reasons to live here is the ability to grow fresh, home-grown fruits, vegetables and herbs all year long. Besides the Three Sisters, there are many other summer vegetables you can plant. More to come as I rebuild this site – Gardening With Soule – in the Land of El Sol!
* Science Nerd ends with a bit of Ethnobotany – The local Natives taught this Three Sisters technique successfully to the Pilgrims, who were an accepting people (IMHO). The Puritans that landed later were appalled at this practice of mixing crops and worked to eradicate such heathen folkways.
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More about vegetable gardening in this book: Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
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