corn as civil disobedience
A troubling percentage of all corn grown in the United States is genetically modified. Owning seeds from such corn is considered IP infringement, and is therefore illegal. As non-GMO, IP-free corn seed stores dramatically dwindle, planting your own corn is an act of resistance—corn as civil disobedience, who would have thought!
Called “Three Sisters” (by the Iroquois and other native North Americans) and milpa (by the Mayans, Aztecs and other native Mesoamericans), this method operationalizes the combined strengths of corn, beans and squash to engender a co-beneficial agricultural system. The maize provides structure for the beans to climb. The beans fix the nitrogen (capture it from the air and place it into the ground) that the corn and squash use. And the squash—which spreads along the ground—suppresses weed growth and helps retain moisture in the soil. Nutritionally, corn provides carbohydrates and beans are rich in protein and amino acids absent from corn. Squash provides complementary vitamins and minerals.
Start by conducting a soil test and preparing the garden site. Adding compost or manure will add vital ground nutrients and furnish a better harvest. At the very least, aim for well-aerated, non-compacted soils rich in some nitrogen (Yes, while the beans do fix nitrogen, a base amount is needed).
In the Northeast, plant corn in late May or at least two weeks after the last Spring frost and when the soil is warm and no longer cold or wet. Soak corn seeds for 6 hours before planting. Soaked seeds may dry out quickly, so keep the seeds well-watered for the first week or two if the soil is not kept moist by rain showers.
Prepare a grid with mounds spaced 4ft apart. Within the center of each mound, place 4 corn seeds 1”-1.5” deep and 6” apart in all directions to form a square. Cover with soil.
This method of planting, in contrast to the modern fetish for regularized efficiency in agriculture, is unusual. Your plantings might grow more crowded than you are used to, so feel free to adapt spacing if necessary.
After the young corn plants come up, begin removing weeds. Gently mount, or hill, the top soil around the young plants to increase vertical buttressing.
When the corn plants are about 6” high (which should take between 2-3 weeks), plant 4 bean seeds (pole variety, rather than bush) 6” from the base of each corn plant and 1” deep. Finally, plant 4 squash seeds in a circle around the perimeter of the mound every 7th mound (Planting squash seeds in every hill would quickly overwhelm your entire site).
Your plants will need water each week. If it does not rain at least an inch per week, the planting will need to be irrigated. If you are using presoaked seed, remember to water more frequently at first.
Remember that most of the nitrogen converted by the beans will not be available to the corn and squash the first year (the bean roots have to break down to release nitrogen). Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, so side-dressing with fertilizer (as manure, compost or commercial product) will be helpful to achieve satisfactory yields.
Once the bean stalks are underway, thin the plantings to no more than 2 bean plants winding around a single corn plant (You’ll need to help the beans get started growing up the stalks). The Squash is going to vine along the ground, so the number of plants you need depends on how far apart your mounds of corn and beans are, how long the vines get, and how much walking space you need in the garden.
You will want to give individual plants enough space to thrive and have enough of each type of crop to facilitate pollination. Beans are self-pollinating so even only 1 plant will produce beans. Squash require insects to pollinate the flowers so having several plants growing at the same time helps attract sufficient pollinators. Corn is wind-pollinated and while capable of self-pollinating you will have more success with more plants. It is best to have at least 10-20 corn plants to provide sufficient pollen availability but plant more if you have the space to increase your success.
Harvest and store your corn, beans and squash with care (Corn is ready to be picked as soon as the ears have completely filled out). When the cornhusks are dry, pick the ears and spread them out in a dry place. To prevent mold, do not store the ears when they are first harvested. If you plan to grind the corn, let it dry for several weeks. If you plan to save seed, choose seed from your most vigorous, uniform plants from the center of the ear. After you have shelled the kernels, keep them in a cool, dry place in covered containers or plastic bag.
Try cooking a new food from the corn, such as hominy or succotash—if you're feeling particular adventures, make tortillas! Save the husks to make baskets or dolls. Weave a welcome mat; create a corn mosaic. Use the plants to decorate your mailbox, a flagpole, or a tree trunk. Compost the remaining plant material.
The instructions above were adapted from Cornell University College of Agriculture & Life Sciences’ “How to Plant the Three Sisters”—a Learn, Garden and Reflect with Cornell Garden-Based Learning project, DIY Network’s “How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden,” and Native Seeds’ “How to Grow a Three Sisters Garden.”