When the Puritans arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they found a land that had sustained a culture of people living in prosperity in villages along a 240 mile stretch known as the Mohawk Trail for over 300 years. In the midst of this great abundance the Plymouth Colony struggled to survive its first year. The survival of the Colony was due in large part to the peaceful welcome extended by the most prosperous of the Eastern Woodlands People - the Iroquois Confederacy. The leaders initially brought baskets of food from their storehouses and then taught the colonists how to produce abundant crops of their own while protecting this rich and fertile soil through the "seventh generation" using techniques such as companion planting. They also introduced the practice of "thanksgiving" at the time of the harvest celebration.
Corn, beans and squash -the three sisters- were as important to the Iroquois Confederacy as the buffalo was to the Lakota people. Each plant grew in such a way as to support and sustain the other plants so that planting them together produced the highest yield of each. This practice also insured protection of the soil from depletion of nutrients required for future planting.
The highest yield of beans results from planting them on tall poles, and the corn's tall stalks are perfect for climbing vines. Therefore, the beans were planted next to the corn.The bean roots capture nitrogen from the air and enrich the soil. This provides the nitrogen rich soil needed by the corn to produce a large crop. Unlike the tall vines of the beans, squash sends out long, winding vines that like to stay close to the ground. Squash leaves are extremely large, so when squash is planted in between the rows of corn and beans, the leaves provide an edible ground cover to keep the weeds away. The leaves also provide shade for the corn's yellow roots, keeping the ground moist during the intense heat of the summer sun. This helps the corn grow higher making longer bean vines and yields and the abundant cycle continues.
This farming practice was only one of many sustainable practices lost as the collapse of the Iroquois Confederacy gave way to the rise of the United States of America. After over 250 years of violating these sustainable principles involving food production and land stewardship, 21st Century Americans realize that we must rethink the way we have used our limited earth's resources in the past and return to more sustainable practices in the way we produce our food and protect limited natural resources. Companion farming is one practice that just makes sense. Read about other sustainable methods of government and economy practiced by the Iroquois Confederacy in "The Peacemaker" available at http://kentuckywoman.net.