Three out of four ain’t bad

Now, if I had stuck to a ‘three sisters‘ planting, as is normal, I would have been able to quote Meatloaf and tell you that ‘two out of three ain’t bad‘, but since I upped the ante, I’ve had to paraphrase.

The four sisters crop

The four sisters crop

You may recall that I tried a ‘four sisters‘ planting this year, adding sunflowers to the traditional mix of beans, corn and squash. The sunflowers were self-seeded from the bird feed, so were something of a bonus, but have turned out to be remarkably prolific. We have managed quite a few squashes (not bad for about four square metres), lots of runner beans – both fresh pods and seeds for drying – but once more the corn has been a disappointment. Despite growing flint corn rather than sweetcorn, and having a really sunny summer, few of the cobs are full.

So, what do I conclude? Well, corn is too unreliable to put much effort into, but I like the combination of beans and squashes, especially since the latter are so good at suppressing weeds. The beans make use of vertical space and so the squashes don’t seem to have to be planted at a reduced density compared to planting them on their own. I’m not convinced that the sunflowers were a particularly good variety for my needs, but they were easy to grow and successful and they were an accident this year, andI can be more selective in the future

Next year my three sisters will comprise squash and courgettes, beans (var. The Czar, again) and sunflowers (probably naked ones, such as var. Lady Godiva)

Squashy

Last year Patrick, from Bifurcated Carrots, was kind enough to send me some seeds that he had obtained from Carol Deppe. These included flint corn, which is now growing in my four sisters bed, and several varieties of squash.

Squashes of all varieties are flourishing in the 'four sisters' bed

Squashes of all varieties are flourishing in the ‘four sisters’ bed

I love winter squash – people keep telling me that I ought to try the variety ‘crown prince’, but somehow I have never got round to it. The most successful one I have grown here on the west coast of Wales is Boston – which I get from the Real Seed Catalogue. However, I was excited to have some different varieties to have a go with, particularly since Carol Deppe is in Oregon… another rather wet and dull part of the world with a relatively short growing season (at least as far as squash are concerned).

Anyway, I planted the seeds with great glee and was delighted that almost all of them germinated and started growing into robust plants. I had more than I needed, so passed some onto my friend Katy, who had a space in her garden and wanted some winter squash. Since then I have been watching mine grow… I was sure that I had labelled all of them when I planted them out, but one or two seem to now be anonymous; never mind, I will be able to match then to pictures on the internet, I’m sure.

Costata Romanesco - not a winter squash!

Costata Romanesco – not a winter squash!

However, I was happily inspecting the abundance the other day when it dawned on me that one of the varieties – Costata Romanesco – looked much more like a huge courgette (zucchini) than a winter squash. So, I dug out the packets and, sure enough, it’s a summer squash! I got out my copy of The resilient gardener by Carol Deppe and discovered that this variety can grow up to three or four feet long… although she recommends harvesting it before that. She claims that it’s very flavoursome (she hardly has a good word to say about courgettes on this matter) and can be dried for use over the winter in stews, soups etc. So now I’m even more excited about the prospect of a tasty and storable summer squash.

Delicious fried in olive oil with chopped fresh garlic

Delicious fried in olive oil with chopped fresh garlic

Just to test it out, I harvested one for dinner last night – only about 9 inches long, so a mere baby. I fried it in olive oil, with a little chopped garlic, straight out of the garden and it was, indeed, delicious. Another good characteristic of this variety is that it is dense and has a relatively low water content , unlike those horrible watery marrows that some people grow. This quality means that it is good for frying and should also be great for drying.

Dinner last night... all out of the garden except the small servings of chorizo cooked in cider

Dinner last night… all out of the garden except the small servings of chorizo cooked in cider

So: thanks to Patrick for the seeds; Linda – I will need to take you up on that offer to borrow your dehydrator later in the season; and Katy – some of those winter squashes I gave you are summer ones!

The four sisters

Image

Sunlight streams through the willow hedge onto the ‘four sisters’

When I wrote about the ‘three sisters‘ planting that I did earlier in the year, I promised I would report on how it has progressed. Well, the situation so far is good – beans are flowering, we have already harvested our first courgettes and the flint corn is shooting up. However, I have to confess that I introduced an extra sister into the mix by including sunflowers, and these too are doing well.

You may be wondering about the sunflowers and I have to admit that growing them was unintentional (although not unwelcome). We feed a mix containing sunflower seeds to the wild birds in the garden. Earlier in the year I left a tub-trug containing compost near to one of the window feeders and clearly not all of the seeds that the birds dislodged got eaten. Thus, when I planted my intentional seeds in pots, I got some sunflowers too. Never liking to let anything go to waste, I planted these in with the three sisters combination of corn, curcurbits (courgette and squash) and beans. And, my word they are doing well. No only that, but my transplants have been joined by some self-seeded individuals (volunteers) that have appeared directly in the bed.

The UK is currently experiencing very sunny weather, so I have high hopes for this bed, although I can’t see any winter squash fruit setting yet, and the female flowers on the corn are only just appearing. It certainly looks like there will be a good harvest of both beans and courgettes anyway, and I’ll let you judge the prospects for the fourth sister:

Good morning sunflower!

Good morning sunflower!

The three sisters

There is a planting scheme known as the three sisters; it comprises corn, squash and beans.

I tried it out last year in my Waste of Space plot, but the weather was so disastrous that I had little success. This year, however, I am going to try again, but in my rubbish bed – a location where squash cultivation has been particularly successful in the past. The rubbish bed has been added to over the winter and spring: cardboard, shredded paper, grass clippings, chicken bedding, wood ash and spent compost from last year’s pots in the greenhouse. The chickens have given it a good stir up and added a bit of extra fertility and so it’s ready to be planted.

Flint corn and beans ready for planting out

Flint corn and beans ready for planting out

The idea behind the combination of the three species is that they use different resources and support each other. So, for example, the beans add nitrogen to the system which can be used by the other two species; and the squashes cover the ground, thus shading roots, reducing evaporation from the soil and suppressing weeds. In theory, the corn should provide a physical support for the beans, but I am going to use bean poles in case the pace of corn growth does not match that of the beans.

Squashes - the third of the sisters

Squashes – the third of the sisters

This guild of plants, as permaculturists call it (guild means something else to ecologists) seems to be particularly adapted to North American conditions, so a little tweaking is required to suit west Wales. First, I’m growing Flint Corn rather than Sweet Corn. This corn originates from Carol Deppe in Washington State… a place much more like west Wales in terms of rainfall and light levels than much of the US. It isn’t as sweet as sweet corn, but you can use it to make things like polenta, so it seems like it’s worth a go. My beans are runner beans rather than pole beans, but these do well (usually) in west Wales, so I’m sticking to what I know. And, finally, I’m using courgettes and squashes that I know to be successful in my garden.

I have to confess that, in the past, I have had limited success with this sort of polyculture planting of annuals. My perennials in the fruit cage seem to do well, but last year’s salad leaves did not seem any more productive than if I have planted them in the usual way rather than completely intermixed… but it was such a tough growing year that I have no idea whether this is really true*. Anyway, I’m going to give this mixed bed a go and see how productive it is. At least this year, thanks to the new segregation of vegetables and hens, I won’t be fighting to keep chickens out of the beans.

And today I also want to mention a brilliant local project that I am supporting: a buffalo dairy. After failing to raise enough funds via a crowd funding website, our small local buffalo farm have launched an appeal for funds via their blog… they have great incentives and I’m certainly looking forward to raw buffalo milk mozzarella from just up the road. Check out the rewards they are offering… there are some attractive offers, and it’s a cost-effective investment if you like this sort of cheese (lactase enzyme at the ready for me!).

-oOo-

* Note to self: actually collect some data on yields this year!

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