The plant culture of the Appalachian mountains is rich, both in native species’ and domesticated varieties that have been lovingly passed down from generation to generation.
Sow True Seed is honored to help to pass on some of these family treasures to you. One way enjoy them is to follow the Native American tradition of the Three Sisters.
The Three Sisters is a companion planting method, typically consisting of squash, corn and pole beans. Through timing and making use of the natural structures and qualities of the plants, they all grow better together. The corn provides a living stake for the beans to climb. The beans provide the nitrogen boost that the corn needs. The squash grow around the base to shade out the weeds and keep the moisture in the the soil. It’s a harmonious triad.
We are experimenting this year with a Western North Carolina version of the three sisters, substituting sorghum for corn; and including a bean and squash that are very local in their heritage.
You might not be familiar with sorghum, but if you like molasses*, you’ve probably tasted its bounty. Sorghum is an Asian native in the rice family and a relative of sugar cane. Drought tolerant, it is a staple food in parts of Africa. It’s been grown in the mountains for at least a hundred years. Processing it into molasses is hard work, but it tastes delicious! Here’s a page from Kentucky State University on making sorghum molasses.
Below is our plan for growing our WNC Three Sisters. We invite you to join the experiment and share your results on our Facebook page.
1. Plant the sorghum in full sun when soil temperatures reach 65°F (mid to end of May in Asheville). Make hills about 2′ wide and 2 to 3′ apart. Plant 8 seeds in the middle about 1/2″ deep and 1 1/2″ apart. After they sprout, thin to 4 seedlings about 8″ apart.
Our locally sourced, heirloom variety of Sugar Drip Sorghum seed is grown by Holly Whitesides in Watauga County, NC. This early-maturing sorghum makes high quality syrup and will provide a 9 to 12′ tall support for trellising the second part of the trio, the WNC Market Greasy Beans.
2. When the sorghum is about 6″ tall (it grows fast), plant the beans. Sow them in a ring around the sorghum seedlings, about 1″ deep and 5 or 6 per hill.
Greasy beans are a traditional mountain favorite. Ours is a collection of regionally (Mars Hill area) grown beans sourced from the WNC Farmer’s Market. They are called greasy because of their glossy sheen. They are delicious fresh, canned and can also be dried for soups.
3. On the same day you plant the beans, plant the 3rd member of the trio, the squash variety. In this Appalachian sisterhood, that is going to be the delicious Candy Roaster Winter squash, locally and ecologically grown by Firefly Farm in Yancey County. These should be sown in an outer ring around the beans, one or two in each of the four directions, thinned to four once they come up.
Candy Roasters have large, vigorous vines that produce 12-14 lb fruits. The fruits are warty and pinkish orange with green markings. They are buttercup-shaped, very sweet, excellent for baking.
FYI – The name Candy Roaster is attributed to a few different types of winter squash. There is a North Georgia Candy Roaster which is a small (10 lb) variant of the Pink Banana Squash. There is also the Georgia Candy Roaster which is a big (60 lb) variant of the same. Then there is the Candy Roaster we carry, a Buttercup type squash, said to originate in North Carolina.
4. As the beans shoot up, guide them to twine onto the sorghum cane. Thin to 1 or 2 per cane. The squash will be a little slower but will grow large leaves that will start to shade out the weeds and help keep moisture in the the soil. This looks to be a hot dry summer so mulch around the hills with straw to help keep in the moisture. The sorghum will flower in about 40 days.
5. Harvest: The beans will be ready to pick starting in 80 to 85 days. Pick them often and they will keep producing into the fall.
The sorghum takes about 110 days. You can grow it for the edible seeds (a gluten-free grain) as well as the sweet stalks for molasses. Harvest when your thumbnail can’t cut the seed or you see a dark spot on the end of the grains. Cut the head off the stalks, then cut the stalks and leave in the field to dry for a couple of days. See the links above for how to make sorghum molasses.
Thresh the seed heads by rubbing back and forth in your hands over a tray, the seeds will drop off. You can also toss the whole head to your chickens. They will be thrilled.
Candy Roasters, like most winter squash, taste bland and won’t store well if you pick them before they are fully ripe. Wait until the vines turn brown and the shells are hard. A light frost will improve the flavor by turning some of the starches to sugar, but it may shorten the shelf life too. Cut the vine about 3 inches from the squash. For longest keeping, don’t wash them and handle carefully so they don’t bruise. Dry in the sun until stem shrivels, then store in a cool, dry, place.
An autumn succotash would be a great way to enjoy these three sisters in one meal. We’ll let you know how our experiment goes.
* Molasses can be made from sugar cane, sugar beets or from sorghum.