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Homegrown: the three sisters

By Susan Simons

HUERFANO- When the weather warms up after this week of rain has penetrated deep into the soil, it should be ideal weather for planting corn, beans and squash.  They are considered warm-season crops.  The soil should be at least 60 degrees and the temperature between 50-80 degrees.  Corn and squash are considered heavy feeders which require a nutrient-rich soil.  Beans are considered heavy givers because they fix nitrogen in the soil.

    It is said that these three can grow side by side.  The corn will grow tall and feed off the nitrogen-rich soil provided by the beans planted at their base.  The pole beans will climb the corn stalks, using them for support.  And the squash will shade the base of the corn and bean plants which need to be kept cool and moist.  These three are companion plants and complement each other even if they are not planted as such close companions.

    Corn is an extremely heavy feeder.  Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening recommends adding 20-30 pounds of compost to a 10 x 10 plot and/or planting where beans, clover or vetch has grown before.  Some people place a fish head a few inches below the seed.  Then fertilize with blood meal or fish-based fertilizer at six inches and at knee high.  Plant in a block at least three rows wide, protect from heavy wind, and be generous with water.  Spread compost around the shallow roots and then several inches of straw mulch.  Try pinning a clothespin to the tip of each ear as the silks start to brown to keep the earworms out.  Pick at just ripe and eat the same day!

    There are many kinds of shell and snap beans to choose from.  Because of our short growing season, bush and pole snap beans (green beans) are likely to  give the best yield.  You can prop up bush beans if they are in a windy area with twigs or with stakes and cord, but pole beans will need a fence or trellis or pole teepee for support.  Water deeply and mulch once seedlings pop up.  Fertilize as they set fruit.  Harvest just before beans have fully ripened.  The beans will be more delicious and the plant will continue to produce. A variety called scarlet runner beans will attract hummingbirds.

    Types of summer squash include zucchini, crookneck and patty pan.  Types of winter squash include acorn, butternut, hubbard, and pumpkin.  It’s a good idea to look on the Internet at organizations like Seeds Trust, Native Seeds Search, or Seeds of Change to find varieties of winter squash that are adapted to high elevations and dry conditions.

    Squash is a heavy feeder, so work 2-3 inches of compost into the hill where you will plant.  Give lots of water but water the soil not the leaves.  Add compost or fertilizer when the vines start to lengthen and when the plant sets fruit.  When vines reach five feet, pinch the tips to encourage side shoots.  Squash need pollination by bees or insects to set fruit.  Or you can pick a male flower, remove the petals, and swirl inside the female flower.  Female flowers emerge from a rounded bulb; male flowers emerge from a thin stalk.

    Pick summer squash just before it matures (zucchini at 6-8 inches long) to keep the plant producing, but let winter squash fully ripen on the vine.  Use a knife to cut the fruit from the stalk and leave 2-3 inches of stem.  Don’t wash winter squash but dry in the sun, and it should keep for about five months.