Perfect Mates – Corn, Beans and Pumpkin

by | 9:32 am

Image source: Photobucket

If you are thinking of planting corn this spring for summer goodness, you could look to the Native American Indian custom of planting corn with climbing beans and pumpkin (or any member of the squash family) and get some yummy extras. This is tried and true companion planting and eating! 

The beans climb up the corn stalks and the pumpkins grow in and around the corn and beans. This food forest approach helps to keep the soil moist and the roots shaded by the corn stalks and leaves. The added benefit is that corn enriches the soil with lysiene which the beans take up, and the beans, in turn, enrich the soil with nitrogen which both the corn and the pumpkins use.

Spring temperatures have been going up and down so wait until the weather is warmer, above 15C before planting. Check your soil is well mulched and loamy and if not, add some more manure and compost, or turn in a green manure you may have been growing.

Mound up the soil in rows about 1 metre apart; plant seeds at about 3cm depth and 15 cms apart on each row. It is a good idea to plant the corn in one garden bed with plants close to each other to aid pollination. Try to choose heirloom varieties of seeds and you may want to hand pollinate the corn flowers to avoid contamination from neighbours’ GMO crops. (see below)

Bean on corn actionPrepare the seeds prior to planting by soaking them in like warm water for a few hours and keeping them well watered after planting. Mulch the bed with sugar cane mulch or Lucerne hay to lower evaporation.Place generous drip irrigation lines around the rows of plants and check for moisture levels regularly, irrigating at least once or twice a week to ensure strong growth; Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, so water once a week with Seasol, worm tea, or other organic nutrients, to ensure that you have healthy disease resistant corn.

As they grow, mound up the soil gently around each seedling and, once they reach about 15-20 cms high, you can plant the beans – around 4-6 seeds per corn plant – and the pumpkin, squash or zucchini seeds – about 4-5 seeds for every 7th corn plant (so they don’t get overwhelmed by pumpkin growth!) It is a good idea to place some small stepping stones as a path in between the plants to gain access later for harvesting without compressing your soil.

Pollination of corn plants

With heirloom corn seeds, it is best to keep the plants isolated from other varieties which may be hybrid or GM to prevent cross pollination. If you want to have fun though, try cross pollinating two types of heirloom seeds by hand, using a cotton bud or toothpick to transfer the pollen. The male flower of the corn plant is known as a corn tassel and the ear with the corn silk is the female part. …usually wind carries pollen from the tassel to pollinate the female flower or corn silk to produce a corn ear. Planting them close together ensures a higher chance of pollination. It is great to see what corn results from these mixes!

Another way to have a bit more control over your hybrids is that once the corn cob silks have started to form, you can place a paper lunch bag over each one to protect them from unwanted pollen. When the cob gets to about 5 cm you can take the bag off and shake or tap the desired pollen you have collected from another or the same corn variety over the silks and replace the bag. Make a note on the bag or write on a plant marker which variety was used, so you can remember later!

Harvesting & Storage

After about 60-100 growing days you can check that the corn ears are ready to pick and enjoy. The cob should be dark green, the silks turn a sort of dirty brown and kernels are plumped up and soft. You can push a fingernail into a kernel to check that the juice is milky and not clear. Wait until the corn husks are dry and you can pick the ears and store them in a cool dry place. If they are not for quick eating, you can shell the kernels and store them in a covered container or freeze them in bags. Some of the kernels could be dried to be cooked later for corn bread (or arepas) and some can be saved and dried as seed for your next crop.

3 sisters bountyPumpkins should be picked and stored in a cool dry place away from sunlight once they have some colour. When you cut them open, don’t forget to save and dry some of your seeds to grow next year or eat them. The husks can be used for to make baskets, dolls or other decorations – use your imagination!

Of course any left-over plant material can be broken down in your worm farm or compost pile.

Climbing beans can be eaten in salads and soups or dried and stored for use later. Zucchini can be eaten raw, barbecued, popped into soup, used in slices and cakes….you can freeze it to for later!

So I am going to try all this out in my patch and I will let you know how I go…


Beans growing up corn image source: Southern Urban Homestead