MILPA – The Three Sisters

 in Garden


“The bottom layer acts as a living mulch and the prickliness of pumpkins keeps some pests away.”  As if the critter knew it’s name, the plump squirrel trotted through the mulched path as it headed for a tree.  A couple rows of corn plants towered next to me, on the other side a thin row of wildflowers divided us from a bed of tomatoes, onions, garlic and greens.  “And that is why we call them the three sisters.”  While I had been surveying the beautiful plants, I had completely missed the middle part of the explanation and the tour continued.  We were three first years and our guide was aptly naming the plants and telling us about their likes and dislikes as we were oriented to the garden.  Two or three older student’s were already busy at their work, in no need of an explanation. I watched in awe as they pulled and cut and moved through the garden with grace.

The first day, they placed me in an overgrown bed with one of the other new students.  We pulled and cut and hacked back the tangle of weeds that had grown up in the bed over the summer, I laughed at the mess in stark contrast to the pristine college lawn, cut short.  We were growing vegetables.

I couldn’t understand why were were growing corn though, but I was too shy to ask.  A few weeks into my Saturday garden work it was time to harvest the corn, as the few of us worked together to cut down the fruit I asked, “Why are we growing corn, we live in corn fields.”  There were a couple of groans and and exchange of glances. This corn is different the garden head said, she picked an ear from the box and pulled down a small part of the top. Inside the corn kernels were bigger, more irregular. They were a light yellow, almost white and as all heirlooms you could feel their past energy as soon as you saw it.  I was entranced by the plant, I hadn’t really thought about corn before. Sure, I had grown up playing in corn fields; I was raised to count the passing of summer time by the height of corn. Not to mention, no matter where you were driving you were always driving by corn. I use to relax my eyes and watch the green and yellow paint in streaks as the car speeded down the road.

“Can you remind me about the tree sisters?”  She smiled, happy to share knowledge.
“The three sisters are corn, beans and squash.

The older sister is the first that you plant.  
She provided the support for your beans to grow up.

The middle sister bring nitrogen in through their leaves and give the soil needed amino acids and other nutrients.

The little sister, likewise brings in nutrients, but stays close to the ground and acts as mulch keeping the soil moist and shaded.

Growing these tree plants together dates back to Mesoamerica with the Mayas, Aztecs and other native tribes.  When the ships of Europe came bringing foreigners, generations of Iroquois had already been growing their farms this way, successfully using the same plots year after year.  

MILPA is a Nahualt word aptly meaning cornfield.  The Yucatan peninsula, where I live, boasts traditionally poor soils but permaculture gardening with MILPA is a leading way to enrich the topsoils year after year.  MILPA is not only a gardening concept, it is a way of life. Corn is at the root of a Mexican diet and culture, although there are still many traditional varieties and seeds, many are dying out.

This time last year, I was killing every seed I put into the ground, they were all carried with me from my seed saved collection.  I realized my tropical conditionals begged for local seeds. I was visiting a Yucatan seed market, talking to the farmers buying kale and lettuce plants, seeds and flowers.  Anything I thought would actually survive. It was at the end of the long market row when the tables of corn farmers started to come in. There was row after row of red, blue, white, orange and yellow corn.  It took my breath away to see so many ancestral corn varieties in one place. Each table was full of its own passion and energy. I went around gasping from one cob to the next. Finally, I left with 5 corn cobs each in a different color.  

How to Plant MILPA
In my urban space I have to work in rows.  
Many people use rounds and mounds but it isn’t practical for me.


My rows are 10 feet long and 15 inches wide
Step 1:
Corn can be planted 1 inch deep, every 5 inches apart.
Some people like to plant multiple seeds, I usually only plant one per hole.
If you plant multiple and both sprout, at 3-5 inches pull the extra ones up and eat them in salad.

Step 2:
When the corn is 5 inches tall you can plant the beans.
I plant one bean for each corn because in my rows I don’t want to overcrowd any of the plants.

Step 3:
One week later you can plant your pumpkin or squash.
I plant only 1 per 10 foot row because they like to stretch out and need a lot of sun.

Because of the delayed planting cycle your plants should be ready about the same time.
Corn 90-120 days
Beans 80-110 days
Squash roughly 60 days

As my first MILPA grew so did my other garden beds.
I continued to till the soil and move rocks, I bought in black dirt and started my compost bins.  Planting in the Yucatan is no easy feat with downpours during the rainy seasons and scorching sun in the hot season, but growing theser heirloom seeds showed me the pests and soil problems of this area. I think every gardener can learn something from corn, or at the very least can protect a local seed from going extent.  I have just planted this year’s MILPA rotation.

If you haven’t planted anything yet this year, and even if you have, I encourage you to consider a row or two of corn, beans and squash.  It could be heirloom, popcorn, or even sweet corn, but it is our job to carry the three sisters and share their seeds with our next generation so they can eat them too.

Let me know if you have any questions about milpa, the three sisters.

In the coming weeks we will discuss some organic, homemade pesticides to use on your plants.
I will also be sharing periodic updates of my corn babies as they start to grow this year.

Happy planting!


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Showing 6 comments
  • Anna Speakman

    The first time I remember growing corn we planted a long row at the back of the garden. We had beautiful plants but no to very little corn. We were told it was because we only planted one row and the bees won’t pollinate it enough. The next year we planted several shorter rows and had corn. Is this why or just happened it was the seed?

    • Nik

      Corn pollinates through the wind, yes you usually need about 20 plants to get good enough cross pollination.
      I should have mentioned that in the post.

  • Michael Burgoyne

    So where is your favorite places to find heirloom seeds down here? I live in Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo. I would love any places you know of as I am traveling to the Yucatan occasionally … Thank you so much!

    • Nik

      Hello, sorry I’ve been offline due to sickness and didn’t get to this any sooner. I get almost all of my seeds at the North Slow Foods Market in Merida and a few from marcado libre. I was thinking about writing a post about the market and what it offers. I hope your travels are beautiful.

  • Lenore Goldstein

    I would love to know more about the slow foods market in Merida.
    I’m in Carillo Puerto.

    • Nik

      I want to write about the North Market which I go to far more often but we are lucky and Mérida has 2 slow foods markets both are every Saturday from 8-1pm. North is called Slow Food Mérida Norte on Facebook and is in front of CUM if you want to google it but it’s very near Gran Plaza to give you an idea. The other is near Centro and is called Slow Food Yucatan on Facebook and is near Avenida Colon. Both are wonderful markets and have different providers, I go to the one that is closer to my home but you might want to try both and see who has the products you are looking for.

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