Posts Tagged ‘Three Sisters garden’

Computer paper mulch

Remember way back when there was no such thing as a personal computer? That was a long time ago …

A young meadow vole sits in crownvetch.

A young meadow vole sits
in crownvetch.

Back when Eric and I were in graduate school at Penn State, the computer available to students was a giant mainframe that was housed in a computer center on campus. During the summer when we weren’t in the field collecting data, we basically lived in the computer center. This was kind of nice because in order to keep these giant computers from overheating, the whole building had to be air conditioned. Being in the comp center offered a nice break from the hot crownvetch fields where we were using a combination of live trapping and radio telemetry to study the home range and movement patterns of meadow voles.

Meadow vole being fitted with a radio collar

A female meadow vole being fitted
with a radio collar

We spent hours in the comp center entering data by punching cards (anyone remember that?) and later by typing our location data into a remote terminal. We would then plug the data into various programs to plot the locations and run statistical tests. The jobs were submitted to the big mainframe computer, and then we had to wait for them to run and eventually print out on the wide, continuous feed, green bar paper (or sometimes a heavier weight white paper). Depending on the job queue, it could take quite a while to get a printout. My how technology has changed since those days!

Anyway, there IS a point to this story!

Our years at Penn State left us with boxes and boxes of computer paper output which Eric has been storing in his office at the college. Last year, he decided that it would make the perfect mulch for our vegetable garden so he brought two boxes home for use in the Three Sisters Garden.

One year we mulched with composted leaves.

One year we mulched the tomatoes with composted leaves.

We have discovered that for people with busy lives and big vegetable gardens, mulching is one of the keys to success.

A cover of mulch around the plants and throughout the vegetable garden is wonderful way to reduce weeds and thus the time spent weeding.

Mulch also helps maintain soil moisture and keeps the soil from drying out too quickly. This not only saves water because you don’t have to irrigate as often, but the more even soil moisture helps to prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes.

Cucumber leaf ravaged by a fungal disease.

A cucumber leaf ravaged
by a fungal disease.

In addition, mulching the vegetable garden helps to reduce disease problems so you spend less time (and money) spraying fungicides. Fungal diseases, such as early blight, late blight, and septoria leaf spot, are the main destroyer of tomato plants. Downy mildew and anthracnose can wreak havoc on cucumbers, squash, and other cucurbits. The fungal spores that spread these diseases are lurking in the soil just waiting to jump onto your vegetable crops. A layer of mulch can prevent these spores from splashing up onto the leaves of your plants during a rainstorm or when the plants are watered.

Eric laying out the computer paper

Eric lays out computer paper

The mulch we usually use in our vegetable garden is a thick layer of newspaper covered with straw. This works really well and the newspaper prevents most of the straw seeds from germinating in the garden. Last year, we substituted the computer paper for the newspaper – it worked really well!

Since each computer job generated pages and pages of continuous output, we could literally walk backwards through the garden unfolding the paper as we went. When you got to the end of a row, you could either tear the paper at a perforation or turn around and go back to lay down a second (or third) layer. It was easy as long as the wind wasn’t blowing but this is true with the newspaper as well. Usually one of us would spread the straw as soon as the paper was laid down thick enough.

Computer paper ready for a covering of straw

Ready for a covering of straw


Straw completely covers the paper.


Laying computer paper goes much faster than putting down sheets of newspaper and it’s a great way to recycle the boxes of computer output that have been cluttering Eric’s office for all these years! But … I suppose there aren’t too many people that have boxes of old computer paper lying around!

Oh well, mulch that garden with something – you’ll be glad you did! Here’s to a prosperous gardening season with loads of fruits, vegetables, and flowers!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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A bountiful harvest

Last Sunday afternoon, we harvested the last of the vegetables from the garden (except for some carrots that I’m covering with straw and leaving to sweeten up for later harvest). There wasn’t much left out there but I dug the last of the potatoes and Eric harvested the last of the squash from his Three Sisters garden – and boy, were there loads of butternut squash. Yum!

Butternut squash vines grow prolifically on the edge of the Three Sisters garden.

Butternut squash vines grow prolifically on the edge of the Three Sisters garden.

As I mentioned in a couple of my summer posts, the Three Sisters garden did very well and we are definitely planning to plant it again next season but with a few modifications based on our experiences from this year. For one thing, the only squash plants that really grew well and produced were the ones on the periphery of the garden – the others just didn’t get enough light. To remedy this, Eric has decided to space the corn mounds a bit further apart next year so more sunlight can reach the plants growing between the mounds in the center of the garden. That should increase the squash yield. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, though – I don’t know how we could handle more butternut squash than we have already harvested!

What will I do with all this squash?

Our butternut harvest - and this doesn't include what we've already eaten!

Our butternut harvest - and this doesn't include what we've already eaten!

Luckily, butternut squash, like most winter squash, keeps very well and for quite a long time if it is harvested at the right time (not too early). If you are planning on storing butternut squash through the winter, harvest them in late September or October before the first heavy frost. The stems of mature squash will have turned from green to brown and the fruit will be a uniform tan color. Another sign that they are ready for long-term storage is that the skin will be tough enough that you can’t puncture it with your fingernail.

Before they're mature, butternut squash are lighter colored with tender skin and green stems.

Before they're mature, butternut squash are light colored with tender skin and green stems.

When you harvest butternut squash, cut the squash from the vine with shears leaving a short, 1-inch long stem. If a stem happens to break off, refrigerate the squash and use it first because rot can set in at the point where the stem was attached to the fruit.

Store your squash in a warm (55-60oF), dry (60-70% relative humidity) area like a basement and spread them out in a single layer so they get good air circulation. Under these conditions, properly harvested butternut squash can be stored for at least 2-3 months. Check them every so often for any signs of deterioration.

Butternut squash soup with apple and bacon from Fine Cooking

Butternut squash soup with apple and bacon from Fine Cooking

As for eating, I have discovered the most delicious butternut squash soup recipe from Fine Cooking. It incorporates bacon, apple, and fresh sage with the squash – so good and so easy to make, too. I made some that very afternoon. This hearty soup makes a perfect dinner for a crisp fall Sunday evening especially when there’s a good football game on! Soup and some Bisquick biscuits – it doesn’t get much better than that; except if you have some homemade bread to go with it!

Betty Crocker Autumn Chicken Stew

Betty Crocker Autumn Chicken Stew

One of our other favorite butternut squash recipes is Autumn Chicken Stew from Betty Crocker. The recipe actually calls for pumpkin or Hubbard squash but we’ve always used butternut squash. This stew also makes a good hearty meal for a fall or winter evening and uses lots of produce from the vegetable garden including the squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. For an added bonus, you get to make dumplings on top, yum!

Both of these are easy recipes. For me the most time consuming part of the process is peeling and cutting up the squash but the end result is stupendous!

For an even easier/quicker dish, just cut an unpeeled butternut squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, brush with olive oil, and bake cut side up at 400o for 25-30 minutes until tender. If you want, sprinkle each half with some brown sugar and put a teaspoon of butter in the seed cavity before baking. When it’s done, you can scoop the cooked squash into a serving bowl or serve individual skin-on pieces. Mmmmmm – sweet and delicious!

Boy – now I’m hungry!

Oh well, until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Eric's Three Sisters Garden in early August.Well, Eric’s Three Sisters Garden seems to be a success! It has been fun watching its progress through the season. In the past few weeks, the garden has really come into its own. The beans are beginning to flower and produce fruit, one variety of corn is nearly ready, and we have harvested several very tasty, but unusual looking zucchini. We had some for dinner last night and boy was it delicious despite its funky appearance!

In a post last January, I talked about the story behind the Three Sisters Garden and how the Iroquois Indians considered corn, beans, and squash to be inseparable “sisters” that would only grow and thrive when planted together, each supporting the others in their own special way. It’s an interesting story of sustainable gardening that combines the nitrogen fixing properties of the bean plants with the nutritional benefits of all three of these vegetables.

The corn has grown tall enough to plant the beans and squash

In early June, the corn was tall enough to plant the beans and squash.

Eric had decided that this would be his new project for the summer so in May he was out there tilling up the area he wanted to plant. It was quite a job getting the area ready but he persevered and eventually it was ready to plant. He made three rows and created planting mounds in each row at the recommended spacing. The corn was planted first; four seeds to each mound. When the corn reached about 5″ tall, he planted four pole bean seeds in each corn mound and planted squash seeds between the corn/bean mounds. Unfortunately, when the squash began to germinate, some critter decided the little seedlings made a delicious meal and Eric finally resorted to surrounding the whole garden with a fence of wildlife netting as a deterrent to these munching animals. This seemed to work and the replanted squash eventually caught up with the rest of the garden.

The purple pole beans (Trionfo Violetto) have climbed up the corn stalks and are beginning to form beans.

The purple pole beans (Trionfo Violetto) have climbed up the corn stalks and are beginning to form beans.

Now the corn is tall and strong – much taller and stronger than my patch of corn that blew over in the storm. We do think that the beans twining around the corn helped to anchor it in place which is actually one of the roles of this “sister”. The corn has formed nice big ears, some of which should be ready to pick today – yum!

The pole beans have climbed up into the corn and are flowering and now producing beans. The corn makes a great support for the vines – one of its roles as a “sister”. Eric planted 3 different varieties of beans; rattlesnake beans, a purple pole bean, and scarlet runner beans. When they all begin producing in earnest,  we’ll be inundated with beans!

The squash grows around the base of the corn and creates a "living mulch" to shade out the weeds.

The squash grows around the corn and creates a "living mulch" to shade out the weeds.

The squash is growing well, too, but so far isn’t doing as good a job at shading out the weeds as it is supposed to. The squash vines have wound around through the corn and there are butternut squash forming as well as a few other obscure varieties of winter squash that Eric wanted to try (plus the yummy zucchini). I have a feeling that negotiating through the squash vines to harvest the beans and corn might be a challenge because in addition to shading out the weeds, the prickly leaves and vines of the squash “sister” are supposed to discourage critters from wandering into the garden and eating the corn and beans. I’m beginning to wonder if this might be a deterrent to the harvesters as well!

Rattlesnake beans

Mmmmmm, rattlesnake beans!

The Three Sisters Garden is a very neat gardening system! All-in-all it has worked out a lot better than I had anticipated.
“Ah, ye of little faith”, Eric says!

The legend of the Three Sisters will probably live on at least for a few years in our garden. We definitely have to plant it again next year so the corn can take advantage of the nitrogen that the beans have fixed into the soil. I’m sure we’ll add a bunch of compost to the garden over the winter so it will probably be even more productive next year.

Like I said, I think we need a bigger freezer!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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A trellis of cucumbers and squash.

Boy has it been HOT – too hot to work in the garden unless you work early in the morning or later in the evening! Luckily, our vegetable garden doesn’t seem to mind the oppressive heat and is growing and producing well. As always I have probably over-planted. So far we’ve been inundated with cucumbers, squash, and beans. That means lots of pickles – I hope my family and friends never get tired of them!

Rattlesnake beans have climbed to the top of the pole supports. The bush beans in the foreground have been producing well.

Rattlesnake beans have climbed to the top of the pole supports. The bush beans in the foreground have been producing well but have been attacked by bean beetles.

The beans are really producing well. I froze 19 quart bags yesterday and there are many more on the way. The unfortunate thing was that after I took all the bags down to the freezer, I realized that I hadn’t saved any out for dinner! Oh well, I’m sure there are already more that need to be picked and we had (still have) a ton of squash that we needed to eat anyway. I’m so glad that my daughter has decided that squash is one of her favorite summer vegetables!

Despite the hot and humid weather, rain has been very scarce lately. The afternoon thunderstorms have passed us by and the fields are beginning to become very dry. I find it very  interesting to watch how the field corn reacts to the dry conditions and hot sun. In the morning on my way to work, the leaves are fairly flat and arching so that much of the leaf surface is exposed to the sun and humid morning air. By the time I drive home in the evening, all the leaves are curled and oriented straight up limiting their exposure to the hot afternoon sun and reducing water loss from the leaves. Clever – sort of reminiscent of how the rhododendron leaves cope with freezing temperatures.

A developing cantaloupe stays clean as it grows on the mulch of straw.

A developing cantaloupe stays clean as it grows on the mulch of straw.

Our vegetable garden is not suffering from the dry conditions because it is mostly mulched with straw and when it needs it, we can water. The straw mulch has really helped with moisture retention in the soil and even with this dry weather, we haven’t had to do much supplemental watering. The mulch has also been great for weed control, although I wish I had put it on a little thicker because weeds are beginning to pop up here and there – but these are easy enough to pull up.

Last night the dry spell was finally broken (at least at our house) with some strong winds and a heavy downpour which eventually eased into a fairly gentle rain. We only got ¼” but every little bit helps.

I had been meaning to go out and take some pictures of the vegetable garden but things have been so busy lately with the Daylily & Wine Festival and then I was in Ohio most of last week at a wonderful field trip and conference at the Scotts Miracle-Gro Campus in Marysville, Ohio. Boy, talk about hot and humid but it was very interesting and I learned a lot.

My corn was flattened by the wind and rain but Eric's three sisters corn was still standing tall.

My corn was flattened by the wind and rain but Eric's three sisters corn which is about 10 days older than mine was still standing tall.

Anyway, this morning on my way to work, I stopped at the garden to take some pictures and found to my disappointment that most of my corn had blown over in the storm. Luckily, the corn in Eric’s three sister’s garden was still standing straight and tall – perhaps the beans helped anchor it down. Oh well, such is life. It’s not the first time this has happened to me – it seems to happen every year to some degree. Well at least we’ll get corn from the three sister’s garden and more beans, and more squash … Yikes – I think we’ll need a bigger freezer!

I figured my corn was a goner for this year (fuel for the compost pile) but I got a lovely surprise in my inbox this afternoon – a picture of all my corn standing up straight again! Eric had pulled all the corn stalks upright and supported each row using poles and twine.

What a nice guy!

Eric wove baler twine attached to a pole at each end of  the short rows to support the corn stalks.

Eric attached baler twine to a pole at one end of the row, wove it through the corn stalks, and attached it to a pole at the other end.

All back to "normal".

Standing tall again!

Next time – the success of the three sister’s garden!

Happy Gardening – try to stay cool!

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“I want to plant a “Three Sisters Garden” this year”, announced my husband Eric last Saturday as we were enjoying our morning coffee in front of the warm fire in the sunroom. We had been pouring over seed catalogs for the past few weeks trying to plan out our vegetable garden.

Corn, one of the "Three Sisters", creates a natural support for the beans.

Corn, one of the "Three Sisters", creates a natural support for the beans.

I was vaguely familiar with the American Indian legend of the Three Sisters; at least I knew that it involved the combination planting of corn, beans, and squash – the “Three Sisters”, but I guess I didn’t really know much beyond that. The legend originated with the Iroquois Indians and it’s a fascinating story of sustainable gardening that combines the nitrogen fixing properties of the bean plants with the nutritional benefits of all three.

In this planting system, the corn provides support for the beans, the beans add nitrogen to the soil to feed the corn, and the squash vines with their large leaves provide a living mulch, shading out weeds and moderating soil temperature and moisture.

Rattlesnake beans will grow up the corn stalks.

Delicious rattlesnake beans will grow up the corn stalks in the corn/bean mounds of our Three Sisters garden.

The roots of the beans fix nitrogen throughout the growing season, adding that all important nutrient to the soil for the following season’s corn crop. The whole kit and caboodle can be turned under at the end of the season adding more nutrients and increasing the organic content of the soil.

Nutritionally, these three crops are packed full of good stuff: carbohydrates from the corn, protein from the beans (especially dried beans), and the squash provides essential vitamins (from the fruit) and oils (from the seeds).

Well, I must say this is an intriguing idea that would be fun to try. Eric’s thought is to transform part of our old overgrown asparagus patch into a Three Sisters Garden. There is a great description of the how to plant one on the Renee’s Garden website.

We'll probably grow butternut squash or acorn squash between our corn/bean mounds.

We'll probably grow butternut squash or acorn squash between our corn/bean mounds.

Basically, you interplant mounds containing corn and beans with mounds of a vining type of squash like pumpkins or a winter squash. For good pollination of the corn, the minimum area to plant is 100 square feet – a 10′ x 10′ garden with three 10′ rows spaced 5′ apart. Within each row, the corn/bean mounds should be spaced 5′ apart with the squash mounds planted between them. The mounds should alternate in each row so that the first row has 3 squash mounds and 2 corn/bean mounds, the second row has 2 squash mounds and 3 corn/bean mounds, and the third row again has 3 squash mounds and 2 corn/bean mounds.

I think we’ll give it a shot! It will be a fun experiment. I was interested to note that the bean variety that is used in the Three Sisters Garden package put together by Renee’s Garden is my favorite – Rattlesnake beans!!!

I’ll keep you apprised of our progress through the season. I hope it works better than my attempt to grow potatoes in stacked tires! That was pretty much an “epic fail” as my daughter would say! This I’m sure will be great – but I’ll let you know!

Until next time – Happy New Year and Happy Gardening in 2011!

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