Recipe: Three sisters soup

The Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. — Heather Wolfe

I don’t know when I first heard about the Three Sisters. I do know they have transformed how I approach growing food. The Three Sisters (corn, beans, squash) method is an Indigenous agricultural practice of companion planting where all three are planted close to each other for mutual benefit. 

The oldest sister, corn, leads the way, growing tall and creating a natural pole for the beans to climb. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, an essential plant nutrient, important for a heavy feeder like corn. Squash, the youngest sister, sprawls out underneath, the large leaves providing shade and prickly vine deterring critters looking for lunch.                                                            

Interplanting helps to keep pests under control. — Heather Wolfe

Interplanting is in stark contrast with most modern monocropping methods. When I was a beginner gardener, I planted in this way as I had seen others do — long straight rows of single plants. It was neat and tidy, and, looking back, I might say boring. Fast forward to my garden today — the Three Sisters are inseparable and surrounded by other friends, including borage and sunflower, which attract pollinators needed to fertilize squash’s blossoms. 

Throughout the bigger vegetable garden, flowers and herbs are tucked in between traditional crops. Crimson clover grows underneath the tomatoes with parsley as a neighbor. Marigolds around the broccoli with alyssum provide ground cover. The garden is alive with beauty and buzzing. Pest problems have dramatically decreased. Yields have substantially increased. There is nothing boring about this companion-planted polyculture inspired by the Three Sisters. Adding diversity has created a healthier ecosystem. 

As a person of faith, I recognize the wisdom of God in the natural world that reveals the benefits of being in community with others and how differences can be complementary and also foster thriving. I wonder how I might live more deeply into this in all aspects of my life. 

This wisdom in the garden follows me to the table — diversity on my plate, eating a wide variety of colorful plant-based foods — and is proven to promote health. It is also something I endorse as a dietitian and inspires the recipes I write. The Three Sisters soup simmering on the stove last harvest season nourished both my body and soul. 

Be nourished,


Three Sisters Soup 

I adapted this recipe from Shelburne Farms, which collaborated with Fred Wiseman, an enrolled citizen of the Abenaki Nation and Indigenous scholar. The Abenaki have stewarded the land we now call Vermont for 12,000 years. If using fresh corn, save the cobs and add to broth for extra flavor. 

Their Sisters soup. — Heather Wolfe


2 cups dry beans
4 ears of fresh corn 
2 tablespoons oil, sunflower or canola 1 onion, chopped
1 ½ cups chopped celery or celeriac
1 winter squash, cubed 
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
8 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste


Put dry beans into a container and add water until it is one inch or more over the beans. Let soak for at least eight hours. Drain and rinse the soaked beans. Set aside.

Peel corn (compost husks if possible). Cut off fresh corn kernels from the cob (four ears should yield about four cups of kernels). Set aside kernels. Save corn cobs.

In a large soup pot, add oil and sauté corn kernels, onion, celery and squash for about five minutes, stirring occasionally, until onion is starting to soften but not brown. Add garlic, allspice, chili powder, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Stir for about 30 seconds to blend the spices. Add soaked beans, broth, tomato paste and saved corn cobs. Cover and simmer gently for about two hours or until the beans are tender.

Remove bay leaves and corn cobs prior to serving. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Yields about 15 cups. Enjoy! 

Substitution Notes: You can use three 15-ounce cans of beans instead of using soaked dry beans. 
You can also substitute fresh corn with four cups of frozen or canned corn and omit corn cobs.

Heather Wolfe

Heather Wolfe is deeply rooted in Vermont, USA, is in the Mennonite faith tradition and is part of a family Read More

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