Three Sisters (Failure?)

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’m reading BRAIDING SWEETGRASS by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Such a lovely book, I’m savoring every sentence.  From Robin’s preface, where she describes sweetgrass, I began to think of other people who would enjoy the spiritual embrace of the words written here.

As I read Robin’s chapter, “The Three Sisters,” I began to think of my own sisters.  

Faithful readers of Black Tortoise Press or Once a Little Girl probably remember that I have five sisters.  (And three brothers.)

Robin’s Three Sisters, corn, beans, and squash—”feed the people, feed the land, and feed our imaginations.” 

I’m the middle sister of the first triad of girls in my family.  

The Corn “grows straight and stiff; it’s a stem with a lofty goal.”  Deanna, a beautiful copper-haired baby, grew into a self-aware, drop-dead gorgeous woman. Standing proud and tall, I’ve always adored her and wished I could be more like her. She became a public health nurse and she continues to breathe insight into my world with her mindful observations about people and love.

The Bean “sends out heart-shaped leaves, grows with a mission.”  Bean’s job is to trap nitrogen from lightning; quietly providing nutrients for the three sisters.  I’m the bean in Robin’s scenario.

The Squash “is the late-bloomer of the family; steadily extending herself over the ground, moving away from the corn and bean. The leaves and vines are distinctly bristly, giving second thoughts to nibbling caterpillars.”Third in line is Bonita. A chestnut-haired, black-eyed-Susan, she is the tom-boy of the group.  She’s the attention seeker of the three. Bonita grew into a God-fearing, faith-filled wife and mother of her own three-sister tribe.

It sounds so beautiful.  Each plant (sister) with its own role.  Corn supporting Bean’s growth as she moves upward. Bean quietly providing for the three sisters’ nourishment.  Squash, an untamed spirit, protecting bean and corn from predators.

My own three sisters grew as beautiful as Robin’s metaphor.

So, I had to break from our traditional garden and I abandoned a garden segregated into neat rows. I just knew my figurative three sisters would turn out as lovely as my familial sisters.

I followed Robin’s Three Sisters planting, with the exception of planting some heirloom tomatoes around the edges, and of course a border of marigolds to help Squash keep the insects at bay.

I learned that the secret to Three Sisters lies with the Mother.

Corn broke through the ground first, with Bean following shortly after.  Bean became so aggressive, Love-One and I put up a netted fence to prevent Bean from strangling Corn. Squash came a little later and promised to behave.

For a while, all went well, albeit not as poetic as Robin’s Three Sisters.  I left the Sisters for 10 days for a road-trip vacation to Mount Rushmore.

Squash climbed the fence and tried to strangle corn. Bean had all but disappeared. The fence began to collapse. 

 I talked to my Three Sisters.  

I explained to them how they need to give each other space to do their own thing.  I gently removed Squash from Corn and told her to run along the ground.  I reminded Bean to partner with Corn and leave her some breathing room.  I refreshed the fencing and told Corn I thought maybe she needed a little support; she couldn’t do it on her own.

In all of this, I discovered a volunteer.  A new vegetable that looked familiar, but I couldn’t be sure.  Was it a melon?  Or maybe a cucumber?  I did plant cucumbers in that spot last year. Or was it a zucchini?  I set up a trellis to support the newcomer.  

Vickie is the first of the second triad of my own sisters.  A wispy blond-haired sister that came before any brothers.  She straddled the all-girls club created by the elder four and the girl-boy-girl-boy-girl-boy of the final six. A bit like the Three Sisters, but free to be, without a defined responsibility.

Today, my Three Sisters Garden stands with squash beyond our wildest dreams.  Corn tassels among sprawling Beans, giving Corn hardly a prayer for successful pollination.  I try to help with a paint-brush and a steady hand.  Beans managed to provide me one dinner and continues to promise more with tons of blossoms.

And Vickie, I mean the surprise volunteer?  She is producing beautiful fruit.  Cantelope! A surprise interloper from the compost bin.

What did I learn?  It’s hard to be a mother of Three Sisters.  

Next year, I’ll be a better mother.  I’ll give Corn a headstart.  I’ll plant the Bean a bit later so she can’t strangle corn. And less Squash, so she won’t demand to take over.

I included my hand, so you can see just how bountiful Squash became. Some are as big as my forearm.

I’ll be on the lookout for Loren, Julie, Frank, and John. Since I planted heirloom tomatoes, I’m sure I’ll get more volunteers.  And who knows what the compost will provide.