Native American Three Sisters Gardens

Welcome to the garden of the Three Sisters. Who are the Three Sisters? The journey that you are about to embark on will inform you. The Three Sisters are not people at all...

In late spring, we plant the corn and beans and squash. They're not just plants- we call them the three sisters. We plant them together, three kinds of seeds in one hole. They want to be together with each other, just as we Indians want to be together with each other. So long as the three sisters are with us we know we will never starve. The Creator sends them to us each year. We celebrate them now. We thank Him for the gift He gives us today and every day.
- Chief Louis Farmer (Onondaga)


The Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) have been planted by traditional Native American gardeners in many different regions of North America. Although many different Native American people have adopted this traditional gardening technique, it originated with the Haudenosaunee (hah-dee-no-show-nee), or "People of the Long house".

The traditional Three Sisters garden forms an ecosystem by creating a community of plants and animals. This system creates a beneficial relationship between the three plants- each plant helps the others grow. This is a form of companion planting.

There is an abundance of folklore, stories, and history surrounding Three Sisters gardening.

Photo of Native American harvesting a food crop.

The Three Sisters of New Mexican Agriculture

The Task

Congratulations! You and your partners have been selected to be Botanists, Anthropologists, Folklorists, and Curators for the Abingdon Museum of Natural History. The first task in this WebQuest will be to divide your team into each type of expert.

During this WebQuest, you will learn about the science of the relationship between the Three Sisters and their importance in creating a stable food supply, how the Haudenosaunee's environment inspired this agricultural technique and how this type of gardening influenced their culture, the stories and traditions surrounding the Three Sisters, and how to organize information, prepare a museum display and present your findings.

Divide into 4 groups: the Botanists, Anthropologists, Folklorists, and Curators. You have the following tasks ahead of you:


  • Research traditional planting and gardening techniques, as they relate to the Three Sisters gardens.
  • Experiment with different varieties of corn, squash and bean seeds to determine which is more effective in your area. Use at least two types of soil samples for each seed species.
  • Contact the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to research the varieties of seeds used by the Haudenosaunee.
  • Contact a botanist through the use of the Internet, to discuss companion planting and why this gardening technique is so effective.
  • Define which environments naturally supported Three Sisters planting techniques and how modern farming techniques allow this to be successful in less hospitable environments.
  • Write the USDA to obtain information about the nutritional value of corn, squash and beans. What are the nutritional benefits of eating all three foods together?
  • Cooperate with the Anthropologists to construct two models of different Three Sisters planting designs. Focus on the types, number, and placement of seeds, as well as mound location.


  • Research to determine how the Haudenosaunee's environment inspired and supported the Three Sisters agricultural practice.
  • Determine how the Three Sisters planting influenced the Haudenosaunee culture and lifestyle.
  • Locate an advertisement that shows how modern food influences culture in your community.
  • Illustrate traditional Haudenosaunee farming tools.
  • Cooperate with the Botanist in constructing two models of different Three Sisters planting designs. Your responsibility will be to focus on the shape and patterns of the gardens.
  • Use the Internet and books to find representations of the Three Sisters in Haudenosaunee art, music, clothing, and housing decoration. Construct a visual display of these cultural influences.


  • Use the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Internet to obtain a list of resources about Three Sisters folklore and stories. Invite a guest to speak to the class about Native American food-lore. Check local Universities and communities for Native American organizations.
  • Use the Internet to find recipes using the Three Sisters. How do these compare with corn, squash and bean recipes in your community?
  • Each Folklorist should bring in a copy of a gardening or food-related story or book to share in a group discussion.
  • Pick the group's favorite folk tale. Write and produce the tale in play format for presentation.
  • Research music and instruments related to corn, squash and beans. Illustrate your findings in visual and written format.
  • Interview family members, classmates and people in the community to collect examples of food/farming folklore from other cultures.


  • Explore different works of art, music, and writing that relate to Three Sisters gardens for images and references.
  • Coordinate the findings from each group.
  • Find out how to build displays.
  • Organize the overall presentations.


Native American dancer

Web Sites

General Reference Books

  • Native American Gardening by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac
  • Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford
  • Enduring Harvest: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season by E. Barrie Kavasch
  • Earthmaker's Lodge: Native American Folklore, Activities and Foods edited by Barrie Kavasch
  • Blue Corn and Chocolate by Elisabeth Rozin
  • The Cultural Feast by Carol Bryant
  • Native Roots by Jack Weatherford
  • Why We Eat What We Eat by Raymond Sokolov


  • "High Yield Corn from Ancient Seed Strains" by Vikkie Stea (Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 1985)

Native American Children's Literature

  • People of Corn by Mary-Joan Gerson
  • Carlos and the Squash Plant by Jan Romero Stevens
  • Three Stalks of Corn by Leo Politi
  • Native American Gardening (Chapter Three & Four) by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac

Learning Advice

While completing your tasks, keep these things in mind. Record your findings on a regular basis. This means you need to copy web site addresses and graphics you will use later in your final product. A good place to save web site addresses is in a word processing file and save them on a disk. You can also bookmark web site addresses to use in school.

Remember to work cooperatively in your group. You will need to communicate with everyone in your group and include everyone in all areas. Assign each member of the group a role. Be sure to stay focused on your task. Have fun!


Refer to the Collaborative Learning Scoring Rubric and Summative Assessment Scoring Rubric.


Now that you have completed this WebQuest, you have learned about the science of the relationship between the Three Sisters and their importance in creating a stable food supply, how the Haudenosaunee's environment inspired this agricultural technique & how this type of gardening influenced their culture, the stories and traditions surrounding the Three Sisters, and how to organize information, prepared a museum display, and presented your findings.

Corn, squash, and bean: three seeds of change that have forever altered the world. These plants were important in the time of the Haudenosaunee and equally so now. How do these three plants continue to influence cultures all over the world? How are you connected to other world societies by the intertwined rope of the Three Sisters?

This WebQuest was designed, written, and implemented by Marykirk Cunningham, David McDavitt, and Beth Romero from Abingdon Elementary School in Arlington,Virginia.