Three sisters garden

emorems0(PA - 6a)February 17, 2014

I'm planning a three sisters garden for the first time this year in two of my garden plots (an established one, and a new one). The established plot is about 4'x4' and the new one will be somewhere around 6'x3' (haven't actually trudged through the snow to get back there and measure).

I've searched online but I haven't found any specific guidance on how closely to space the plants, when to start each one, etc. I plan to start my squash inside in mid-April and put it in the garden 2 weeks after the spring frost date (May 2). The corn and beans can be direct sown on the spring frost date, right? Would it be better to start the corn inside a few weeks earlier with the zucchini to give it a head start on the beans which will need to climb up it?

I've grown zucchini pretty well in the first plot for the past 2 years. They shared the spot with pumpkins the first year, but it didn't work, the pumpkins didn't have anywhere to go and ended up dying from powdery leaf mildew. Last year, the back of that bed was empty. THIS year, I'd like to plant some corn and pole beans behind the zucchini, but I'm not sure how a typical 3 sisters garden is laid out/how many plants to grow in the space/etc. As far as layout goes, the bed is up against the east side of the house and will have tomato trellis in much of the southern 4'x4' half of the bed. I was thinking of putting the corn closest to the house for wind protection, then the beans in front of the corn and the zucchini in their normal place in the front of the bed.

The second bed is totally new and needs to be amended with compost and vermiculite (that's what I used for the established beds and it is SUCH an improvement over my existing soil). There is a little more space there since I'm not constrained to an existing bed, but sunlight is a little iffy because of a lilac bush to the south of it. I was planning on planting another type of corn, more pole beans and two types of squash (Amish pie pumpkin and spaghetti squash). I'm not right up against the side of the house here and could do a more circular layout if that made more sense... I'm just having a hard time picturing how it will work and haven't found many helpful pictures or diagrams to show plant spacing and layout. Also, it's hard to tell how much of an issue the lilac bush is going to be come Spring. I've been trying to watch the sun and it seems to come around the bush pretty well, but there will definitely be some shade throughout the day. I could move the bed around the corner to the east of the lilac bush (full sun) instead of the north of it, but that will mean less space to work with (and that's also where I was hoping to put my watermelon vine).

Sorry this is so jumbled. First experience with a 3 sisters garden and I'm feeling a little lost.

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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Not what you want to hear I know so I'll apologize up front but there have been many previous discussions here about 3 sisters attempts. Every year someone wants to give it a try. Unfortunately they consistently prove to be filled with problems - pests, a poorly supported jungle appearance with little access, diseases, low production, and basically failures.

The main difference with attempts today vs. the original gardens is the modern varieties used that just don't work as the old varieties did and the severe over-crowding that results leading too the other issues.

I strongly encourage you to use the search to read those previous discussions and then pass on the idea of trying it. It is one of those gardening ideas that sounds good in theory but doesn't work in actual practice.


    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 10:16AM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

Thanks for the heads up Dave... I wondered how it would work since all the photos I've seen of established 3 sisters gardens look like a mess of leaves (hence, why I was looking for layout info, it's impossible to tell from those pictures).

I think in the first bed, I can leave a walkway between my zucchini in the front (which I've always staked so they take up less room) and the corn and beans in the back - that way I can get to them for bean harvesting. I have two types of corn seeds on the way - Golden Bantam and South American Yellow Popcorn (both heirloom, both about 5' stalks, so not super tall). I need a place to grow my pole beans, so I was thinking that using the corn for a trellis would both solve my space problem and help me avoid buying/making another trellis. If I have a walkway in front of the corn and beans, is it reasonable to let the beans climb the corn? Even if the corn only produces ~5' stalks?

I was hoping to put the second corn variety at the far opposite side of the house to keep them from cross-pollinating, but the back of the house sees a lot more wildlife so I liked the idea that the squashes would help keep animal pests away from the corn. What kind of set up would you recommend for growing these veggies in the new back plot?

I'll be taking my girls out to play in the snow in a minute, so I can take a photo of the area I have to work with. I feel like I'm really struggling with this particular area. I'm not set on a three sisters garden here, but I do need a place to put corn, beans, two types of heirloom squash, plus watermelon. The lilac bush on the corner makes things especially tricky.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 2:30PM
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Some problems with 3-sisters include zukes shading out beans before they get a chance to stalk hindering their growth, disease/pest pressure from the mass of greenery growing, not enough corn planted in a stand for proper pollination, modern corn varieties not growing tall enough to support the beans, fertilization demands (especially between corn (heavy feeders) and beans (lighter feeders)), and wading through all of it to harvest without missing a bean/zuke that will send production down because they're trying to ripen a past-due fruit/pod.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 2:41PM
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Listen to Dave and nc-crn say. They know their stuff.

From what I've read, it's only good in theory. I've heard that it's the varieties of each veggy that made it successful for the indians, like nc-crn suggests. Hard kernel corn(maize), not sweet. Winter squash, not summer. And Dry beans, not green.

I would think that different fertilizing/watering needs for each would play a part also.

Good luck.


    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 3:55PM
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persimmons(6b Southern Mass)

Most importantly, you need a large space to achieve the three sister's garden successfully. Others have touched on this but I want to stress it to you: Corn and cucurbits need a LOT of space. Corn, because of the issue of pollination, and cucurbits mainly because of aeration/pests.

Corn requires that multiple large stands be grown so that the wind can pollinate them across your yard, or garden patches. This isn't too bad of a deal if you've got a LARGE grid system where you can plant plot after plot after plot of corn. Cucurbits require a lot of space because they sprawl and detest moist/unaerated conditions. You mentioned how easily they've succumb to powdery mildew for you, and growing them in tight quarters is like inviting the PM in. Cucurbits grown using the three sisters method should never be allowed to grow back into the patch, or at least should be aimed to send the lead vine outward from the patch. This is going to require you to plant the stands of corn even further apart than what you'd probably have thought to, especially if you're growing larger cucurbits which inevitably take up awesome amounts of space (pumpkins). And you aren't going to just plant one cucurbit per corn hedge, you're planting around 4-6 per hedge (from the methods I've tried or heard about).

The idea of the three sisters is that these three plants work well together on large, fresh plots. Think super rich expanses, maybe a field that cows or horses had grazed the year before. The cucurbits WOULD have the space to trail where ever they needed. The corn WOULD be able to be planted in many successive hedges. The previous year's grazing has dumped tons of manure and compost into the plot, and these heavy feeders would have thrived.

Personally, the idea of growing beans along with the other two probably came along as a way to maximize the trailing potential of the beans. Sure, they fix nitrogen, but you'll be planting the corn and cucurbits so they'll grow in the summer time when beans are probably not going to thrive. Think about adding in the beans mid to late summer, allowing them to begin growing up the corn stalks as the corn and cucurbits set fruit. When cooler temps roll around and the other two sisters have finished production, THEN your beans will ramp up (cooler weather), REPLENISHING the nitrogen that may now be depleted after corn and cucurbit feeding. They won't be shaded out necessarily by cucurbits which are dying off, and the corn stalks will have grown to their tallest potential allowing the beans to maximize the amount of sun that's dwindling as autumn encroaches.

Just remember to give the plants space!

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 4:12PM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

So, how much corn do you need to plant for proper pollination? Regardless of how I set up the gardens, I don't have much space for a big patch of corn and I was hoping/planning to grow both sweet corn and popcorn (in two separate areas).

This post was edited by emorems0 on Tue, Feb 18, 14 at 16:22

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 4:18PM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

Also, other than that first fatal year with the pumpkins (which were admittedly in too small an area and I was clueless about powdery leaf mildew until it was too late), I've always trellised or staked my summer squash & cucumbers and they've done quite well in spite of being spaced closely in a square foot garden layout. I've always made sure to keep them up and have good airflow ever since the first year that I lost those pumpkins. I like the idea of growing big squash like pumpkins on the ground though so that I don't have to try to figure out how to support the heavy fruit - so the key to that is to really give them space to spread out?

I guess my biggest problem is that I am having a hard time figuring out where to put these veggies in my limited space if the 3 sisters plan isn't feasible (which it appears not to be). If I uploaded an image of my garden plan, would you be willing to help me figure out where to go with these veggies?

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 4:38PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

The established plot is about 4'x4' and the new one will be somewhere around 6'x3'...but I do need a place to put corn, beans, two types of heirloom squash, plus watermelon

Well you asked for recommendations so I honestly have to say that you are trying to grow far too many things in such small garden space. Your wants are bigger than your gardening space. :) Is that all you plan to grow?

Traditionally corn, winter squash, pole beans, pumpkins, and watermelons are BIG garden crops. It's not that you can't grow them but that they require so much room to get sufficient production from them that it just isn't an efficient use of gardening space, especially when your space is so limited.

For example, why plant corn if you are only going to get 10-12 ears from it? Why grow vining winter squash if you are only going to get 3-4 squash? Grow one good bush variety, properly spaced, and get 12 squash instead.

Added to that is you further compromise your production by mixing crops with very different nutrient and water needs in the same space.

The 3 sisters concept can be made to work in a 50'x100' garden if one uses a dried corn, dried bean varieties, and a late fall harvest variety of squash as the Indians did. But in such a small garden it is filled with disaster at worst and minimal production at best.

If you can't expand your beds substantially consider investing in some large containers (like 1/2 barrels) for your squash and melons and set them where the vines can run out over the yard. A 4x4' bed can only grow 12-16 ears of corn max if normally pollinated and probably less but it can grow plenty of pole beans for canning or freezing assuming nothing else is planted there.

A 3x6' bed might get you approx. 25-30 ears of corn if nothing else is planted there so if you really want corn that badly then pick one variety and save the other till next year. But if that garden space was all I had to work with then corn would be the first thing to skip growing and pumpkins and watermelon would be close seconds to skip

Again, not what you want to hear I know but keep in mind that even such small spaces as you have to work with lots of food can be grown if you shift your focus to things like tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, chard/kale, etc.

Just some points to consider.


    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 4:42PM
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theforgottenone1013(MI zone 5b/6a)

I have to agree with what Dave said about the corn. In the size beds you mention corn just isn't a good idea. You are much better off planting a different crop that takes up much less space and gives a higher yield. I understand your desire to grow corn, I've got the same desire, but it just doesn't work too well in small gardens. I have a small garden too and I've tried growing it with poor results. The biggest problem was with poor pollination. It needs to be planted in blocks several rows wide for proper pollination. There is nothing worse than carefully tending your corn and using up valuable garden space only to have ears with terrible kernal formation.


    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 5:25PM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

Oh, I have plenty of other veggies in my other beds... I've always done really well with my tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, green beans (although they are getting booted from their normal spot for more peas), carrots. I'm working on improving my partly shaded bed of broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, etc. This question was just focused on what I want to expand.

We are on an acre of land so overall 'space' isn't an issue, the problem is that the land is pretty sloped and we are renters so we can't go digging up the whole yard for garden area. I have no problem letting vining plants spread as big as they want in the back or side yards though. The area where I want to put the new plot has just been growing weeds, so ripping up that area would be a good thing anyway. Really, I have a pretty long strip along the back of the house where I could grow stuff, but there is only about 5 feet or so before it starts to slope downhill.

Seems like there isn't room to grow corn properly in the front bed, but maybe I could do a narrow strip of just one type along the back of the house - it's maybe 20ft between the deck stairs and the corner of the house.

I should be okay to grow the bigger vining fruits and veggies in the new bed areas as long as I don't mind them sprawling all over the yard (which I don't).

Still leaves me wondering what to do with my pole beans. Last year I grew enough in my partly shaded bed for us to eat all summer, but this year I've designated the whole back of that bed to peas. I was hoping to plant more green beans this summer so that I could freeze some for winter eating.

We are only a small family of 2 adults and 2 young kids, so we don't need a ton of each crop, just enough to eat during the growing season and (depending on the crop) some to preserve for winter. I honestly can't see us using more than 3-4 pie pumpkins through the fall/winter, we really don't eat corn at all (but the occasional sweet corn on the cob is nice in the summer... we usually don't indulge bc commercially grown corn scares me, lol)... it would have been nice to get a couple meals of homegrown sweet corn, but if I don't have the space for it, then I just don't have the space. Popcorn is something the girls LOVE to snack on (right now I buy organic, non-GMO popcorn from the store) - that's something that we'll use a lot, but space is a factor. I guess the point is that for the most part I don't really mind not being able to grow big crops of these veggies because we don't really need a lot. I already do a pretty good job on the garden veggies that we use a ton of (like tomatoes, cucumbers, etc), I'm just trying to branch out to some other things that we'd 'like' since I do have some space to use for more stuff. *and I need to find a new place for my beans (and some new trellis, I guess) since they got booted from their normal spot.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 6:39PM
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Don't worry about the pole beans then. A ten foot row of them provides enough to have the coming out of your ears. Just take some rebar, drive that into the ground every 8-12", with 2 vines going up each, and grab the big ladder.

I've seen many people grow they're cucurbits on slopes. It actually makes perfect sense as far as air circulation and watering requirements are concerned.


    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 7:16PM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

I wish people out there would stop writing things about the 3 Sisters. It can never live up to the fantasy.

Corn for drying, beans for drying and winter squash can be grown together in a large plot where you don't plan to step into it all season. The varieties have to be selected extremely carefully. I would recommend very old heirlooms or landraces selected for low needs.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 9:10PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

A narrow strip of corn probably would not give adequate ventilation, blocks are what seems to do the best. The slope is the perfect place for growing the winter squash.

I think the beauty of the 3 sisters is that it is mainly things that would dry or cure in place for winter storage but not quite as useful for most who follow a modern diet. Good luck in your quest.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 9:40PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Glad to hear you have much more garden space then just the 2 small beds you mentioned at first.

As others have mentioned already corn isn't grown in strips but in square blocks for pollination and even then the outside rows on the four sides usually don't get adequately pollinated but they do provide the pollen for the center rows.


    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 10:54PM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

Thank you everyone so much for all of your help! 3 sisters is out, but I think I've figured out where I'm going with everything (except the corn). Zucchini will be in the front of the 4x4 bed, staked like I always do. Pole beans will be in the back of that bed on a new trellis. Winter squash will be in the new bed in the back of the house and allowed to trail down the hill. Watermelon will be around the corner as planned, also allowed to trail down the hill.

If I REALLY wanted to grow corn, How much space and light would I need? I do have nearly an acre, I just didn't want to go ripping up too much of the yard since we are renters. Most of the flatter areas in the back yard are partly shaded during the growing season, does corn need full sun? How big of a plot would I need for proper pollination? Would 6'x6' be big enough? A plot away from the house would be better since it is wind pollinated, right? If I choose to not save the seeds, can I put a few rows of the sweet corn in the same plot as the popcorn? Is a slight slope okay? I'm thinking that if I put a corn plot to the south of my pear trees it will get decent sunlight (not sure if it is 'full sun' I'll have to watch throughout the day to get an idea how many hours it actually gets), and also good fertilization bc of our failing septic system (LOL, the grass and weeds always grow twice as fast below the holding tank - all the septic systems in our neighborhood are failing :eyeroll:). What about water... It can get soggy at the bottom of the slope during wet weather due in part to the holding tank overflow and the wetlands/steam just inside the woodline below. Would it help to add sand to the soil to improve drainage? It is slightly sloped in that spot, and closer to the woods... I guess I would need to fence it if I don't want the raccoons and deer eating it all. Just trying to get an idea if it is feasible to grow corn, it's one of the crops my girls are most excited about.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 10:08AM
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I don't and have never grown corn, so I won't comment on it.

But, most veggies, the more sun the better. Also, don't look at how much sun that area gets NOW. You want to project where the sun will be in the summer. Which will be a lot farther North than right now. Something to consider.


    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 11:53AM
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I've done fine with corn pollinating in 3' X 4' sections.
Do some research about cross pollination, though. You'll need to plant them at different times so the dominant one (maybe the pop corn?) doesn't ruin the other one.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 2:48PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

does corn need full sun?

Yes, the more the better.

How big of a plot would I need for proper pollination?

Depends on how many ears you want as I mentioned above. When you factor in the lack of pollination in the outside rows and whether the variety tends toward 1 or 2 ears then you can generally count on an estimate of 2-3 ears per square foot planted on 6" centers as SFG recommends. Now that figure has a wide margin of variability depending on the variety used, the sun exposure and proper corn feeding. Personally I find 2 plants per sq. foot rather than 4 to be much better.

Would 6'x6' be big enough? For approximately 30-35 ears. Again depending on the variety and spacing.

You have mentioned Sq. Foot Gardening a couple of times. Is that what you are using? If so then their forum can give you better advice on plant spacing since it is a totally different method than most use. I do some

A plot away from the house would be better since it is wind pollinated, right?

Correct and you need to know your dominant wind direction.

If I choose to not save the seeds, can I put a few rows of the sweet corn in the same plot as the popcorn?

Saving seed isn't relevant with corn. The corn kernels are the seeds. Cross pollination with affect the current ears.

Is a slight slope okay?

Define slope? How much. Many of us garden on sloped ground with no problems. Your septic run off is more of an issue. lots of discussion here about trying to garden over septic fields.


    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 3:23PM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

It's not an actual drainfield if that's what you mean... we apparently have a holding tank or an overflow tank above the actual septic tank and that was where I was thinking. It leaks or overflows or something to send more nutrients downslope. All I know is there is no drainfield there, but the grass grows faster than everywhere else in the yard. Or is the septic runoff itself the problem? I can search the forum tomorrow when I have more time... just wondering what the issues are.

So, am I reading correctly that if I plant two types together, this season's corn may not develop true to type?
The sweet corn (golden bantam) is 83 days and the popcorn (SA yellow) is 105-115 days. Does this mean the sweet corn is likely to pollinate earlier than the popcorn? Would it be reasonable to stagger the planting more to make sure the popcorn pollinates later? My growing season is 170 days, so I should have time, right?

I am doing some SFG, but not entirely... I give my tomatoes a little more room, I give my broccoli and cauliflower more room, etc. Beans and peas are easier to set up in a long row for trellising, so that's what I do. I don't try to squeeze my zucchini into a square foot, but I do stake them (makes dealing with powdery leaf mildew much easier), so they don't take up nearly as much room as they would if I just let them grow on the ground. Basically, if it works well in a SFG set up, I'll do it... otherwise, I do what works best for the plant - but I don't have a large plot set up for rows. I'm mostly working in my expanded front flower beds, former weed beds along the sides of the house, and this year expanding into my hilly back yard (for large things that don't work in a SFG).

Slopes? We live outside of Pittsburgh, so flat ground is an uncommon find. We have steep slopes and slight slopes, I have no idea of actual % grade. Good for sledding, not great for teaching a young child to ride a bike, lol.

    Bookmark   February 19, 2014 at 10:45PM
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Chiming in late here, but we grow two plantings of sweet corn, one early and one midseason. I use part of the three sisters plan with the early corn. Instead of filling in skips in the rows with corn, I wait until the corn is 12 inches tall and plant pole beans among them. The beans are just getting to ear height when the ears are ready to harvest. Then the beans take over, eventually causing the corn to tumble down, at which point I add some stakes so the beans can keep running upward. When handled this way, Kentucky Wonder in particular produces awesome late-season crops.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2014 at 8:40AM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

I have a real problem figuring out how to get rid of my corn stalks. It is a lot of work or I have to bring in a major tiller. I have permanent field beds. I also grow the corn in plastic mulch. But this year I am going to machete the stalks off (which I often do for shocks) as soon as the first beds are done, then pull up the plastic and then dump in some bush bean seeds. I might have to top the bean seeds with soil rather than try to bury them. I will be growing a 70-75 sweet corn and putting in some very early.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2014 at 7:25PM
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Corn cross pollination -- I would definitely stagger the plantings to prevent it.

Planting two types of sweet corn together has not been a problem for me -- just the white ends up with some yellow kernels is all.

But when growing popcorn or dent corn along with sweet corn, you want to make sure they're not pollinating at the same time. The recommendation is 2 weeks apart. Personally, I'm going to give them more time than that (growing dent corn for the first time this year) to prevent the whole crop being ruined.

Yes, 170 days you should have plenty of time. BTW, it always helps in answering questions to have your zone in mind. Pittsburg -- are you zone 5 or 6 or so?

    Bookmark   February 21, 2014 at 10:03AM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

Oh, sorry... I had my zone in the OP, but I forget to fill that in when I'm replying in-thread.. I'm zone 6a.

I think I figured out a better location for my corn plot... in the front yard, definitely 6+ hours a day of direct sunlight, flat, not near septic. My husband has been parking his car in that spot this winter, so with our current snow melt, the yard will already be ripped up from parking there when the ground is so soggy... once the snow is gone he'll be able to park back on the driveway (which we tend not to shovel when the snow gets this deep). Anyway, I'll need to really amend the soil there, I normally do lots of compost and some vermiculite... does that sound reasonable, or does corn need something more?

    Bookmark   February 21, 2014 at 1:28PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

or does corn need something more?

Oh yeah, does it! Corn is one of the biggest feeders there is. And it's high N supplement feedings have to be timed to it growth stages.

Literally tons of info online on how to grow corn as well as numerous prior discussions here about it that the search will pull up.


PS: sure hope the hubby's car hasn't been leaking any automotive fluids into that soil. And if you will fill out your profile page your zone location comes up automatically on every post.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2014 at 2:14PM
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emorems0(PA - 6a)

I did consider automotive fluids, but it is a very well maintained company vehicle and definitely doesn't have any leaks. Also, he always backs in to the spot, so his front end is out toward the road... its only where the back end sits that I'd be planting (and he's only been parking there for about a month - long enough to rip up the yard, but not really long enough to impact the soil toxicity).

Thanks so much everyone for all of your help working through this. I feel like I have a much better plan for these crops now!

    Bookmark   February 21, 2014 at 9:09PM
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grow_life(6A OH)

2cents from one who has done the 3 sister garden "successfully". The garden was 40x50, I did 4foot diameter mounds with about 3feet between. Put Silver Queen corn all over the mound with red yardlong beans around the perimeter of each. Threw in some butternut squash, Cinderella pumpkins, cantaloupe seeds and walked away. Weeded once mid season, picked a few bushels of corn, picked the yard longs as long as they were coming in, got a few anemic cantaloupe but several squash and pumpkins that were good. Even got some volunteer ground cherries and tomatillos from the soil seed bank. For not giving much effort, zero watering and maintenance, I thought it did fairly well. This method worked for a garden of neglect, I wouldn't bother with it again unless I had a large garden space that I didn't have a better idea for. This was my old garden that I didn't want to invest in because our house was on the market and I didn't want to sell after spending a lot of early season effort. New garden is much better cared for.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2014 at 10:21PM
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