The Coast News Group
Summer is the perfect time to share with your children or grandchildren about where food comes from and to how to grow it. Stock image
ColumnsJano's Garden

Creating a family summer garden

When I was in high school, I was an excellent English student and artist, but I had a very difficult time learning history. The textbooks seemed out-of-date and boring, and my teacher recited dates, time periods and countries as if drawing from yet another textbook in her head.

But, when my dad, who was a commercial artist, decided that our Milwaukee family needed to spend Christmas in historic Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, a new world opened up to me. 

Actors, performing daily life in the streets, shops and gardens depicted life in the early 18th century. The food, gardens and crafts of the Colonial period came to life and inspired me to learn more about historic gardens and food history. 

Now, many years later, after studying both art and horticulture, I now have the pleasure of passing on my knowledge of gardening and nutrition to children and adults.

As one of the Master Gardener Educators at Cornell University’s Cooperative Extensions, our goal was to teach parents, children and teachers how to grow food. 

Serving as a consultant to the Kids Growing Food Project, I worked with dozens of other Master Gardener Educators to build 25 vegetable gardens throughout New York state and create an integrated curriculum for the elementary school classroom.

What emerged as the students’ favorite project was the construction of a Three Sisters Garden, following the educational guidelines of the Cornell curriculum. 


If you and your family have children or grandchildren home this summer, now is the perfect time to learn more about where food comes from and how to grow it. 

The Cornell University publication, “The Three Sisters Garden,” is available free online and presents not only the historical background of this Iroquois garden, but also step-by-step instructions for planting this project at home or school.

“Corn, beans, and squash are considered by the Iroquois to be special gifts from the Great Spirit. The well-being of each crop is believed to be protected by one of the Three Sisters, spirits that are collectively called De-o-hako. This word means ‘our sustainers,’ or ‘those who support us,’ says Marcia Eames-Sheavly, from the Cornell University Department of Horticulture.

“The Three Sisters system refers to the planting of corn, pole beans, and squash or pumpkins together in hills. The practice of planting more than one type of crop together is called interplanting. Although this planting system is not common in the United States today, it is in Mexico.” 


(Adapted from “The Tree Sisters Garden”) 

Planting instructions

• Plan and select a site – plant your garden in late spring once the danger of frost has passed. The corn can be planted anytime after the night temperatures are in the 50ºF range, but no later than June. Choose a site that has direct sunshine for most of the day (6-8 hours) and access to water.

• Prepare the soil – Build a mound about 12 inches high and 18 inches to 3 feet in diameter. If you’re in a dry area, flatten the top of the mound and make a shallow depression to keep water from running off.

• Plant corn – soak four to seven corn seeds for several hours, but not more than eight hours before planting. Soaked seeds may dry out quickly, so keep the seeds well watered for the first week or two if the soil is not kept moist by rain showers. Plant the seeds about 6 inches apart in the center of the mound. You will eventually thin to three or four seedlings. In the San Diego area, it is useful to select corn that is specifically designed for our climate. Check the San Diego Seed Company for their suggestions.

• Plant beans – when the corn is at least 6 inches high, soak and then plant six pole bean seeds in a circle about 6 inches away from the corn. You’ll eventually thin to three or four bean seedlings, leaving only the healthiest ones to produce. Be sure to purchase a pole bean, not a bush bean for this project. Kentucky pole beans or scarlet runner beans work well. 

• Squash or pumpkins – Depending on the length of your garden, choose butternut squash, kombucha or acorn squash. Each of these varieties will sprawl to over 10 feet in length given the opportunity. Plant six seeds next to the mound, 1 foot away from the beans, eventually thinning to two strong seedlings. 

• Watering – your plants will need water each week. If it does not rain at least an inch per week, the planting will need to be irrigated. If you are using presoaked seed, remember to water more frequently at first. 


There will be so many ways that your family can enjoy the corn, beans and squash throughout the summer, and check the Cornell University website for recipes such as corn soup, cornbread and white corn mush. 

Please send us your family summer gardening ideas and we might just publish them next time.

Jano Nightingale has been a Master Gardener for over 20 years and teaches vegetable gardening classes at the Carlsbad Senior Center. Contact Jano Nightingale at [email protected].

Leave a Comment