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How do the “three sisters” plants work together?

The science behind cooperative garden synergy

June 1, 2017 – Corn, beans, and squash—the “three sisters”—have traditionally been grown together for best results. The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) June 1 Soils Matter blog post explains how companion plantings use plants' strengths to their best advantage.

Corn, beans, squash: three sisters planting“Cooperative synergy is behind the approach of companion planting,” says Farrah Fatemi. Fatemi is assistant professor of environmental studies at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. “In companion planting, ecologically complementary crops are grown alongside one another. Native tribes in North America, most notably the Iroquois, utilized the three sisters approach.”

  • Corn, with its tall, strong stalk, is the leader.
  • Beans, which climb the corn stalks, bring the gift of nitrogen fixation, They work with soil bacteria to provide vital nitrogen.
  • Squash has broad and prickly leaves to protect the soil, prevent weeds, and reduce pests.

Other companion plantings, such as radish-spinach-bush beans, take advantage of fungi in the soil.

“Companion planting is a great way to promote crop productivity by harnessing natural synergies in the soil/plant system. Ultimately, this strategy can make for healthier ecosystems by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,” Fatemi explains.

To read the entire blog post, visit

Follow SSSA on Facebook at, Twitter at SSSA_Soils. SSSA has soils information on, for teachers at, and for students through 12th grade,

The Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), founded in 1955, is an international scientific society comprised of 6,000+ members with its headquarters in Madison, WI. Members advance the discipline of crop science by acquiring and disseminating information about crop breeding and genetics; crop physiology; crop ecology, management, and quality; seed physiology, production, and technology; turfgrass science; forage and grazinglands; genomics, molecular genetics, and biotechnology; and biomedical and enhanced plants.

CSSA fosters the transfer of knowledge through an array of programs and services, including publications, meetings, career services, and science policy initiatives. For more information, visit