I just ordered a raised bed from Quickcrop to do some “square foot” gardening. I’m going to use it for an experimental “Three Sisters” bed.

4×4′ area staked out. Raspberries tied in to their frames in the background.

I’m going to try to do it the traditional native American way. Their technique was to put two fish at the bottom of the planting hole where the corn would go. This would feed the hungry corn and bean plants throughout the season. These fish were often menhaden (from munnawhatteaug — “that which manures”) and likely alewives (herring) which would be running up even small rivers around mid-April when planting time was approaching. When I was young, my parents would bring us to Cape Cod’s Stony Brook herring run in Brewster, usually on Patriot’s Day weekend, to watch the alewives jump the ladders that were all along the brook up to the mill pond—a tradition we kept with our own children when we moved from Ireland to Massachusetts back in the late ’70s. My problem will be finding “throwaway” fish during this COVID-19 pandemic… are the fishing boats still going out? I’ll be asking friends. I’ll need 32 for my 4×4 foot raised bed.

The type of beans native Americans grew 400-500 years ago would probably be less heavily productive than modern varieties, so they would have planted six to eight seeds around the corn once the stalk was about a foot high. To that they added squash (probably some kind of pumpkin) around the plot to let the squash ramble, providing cooling shade to the soil.

I’m planting a variety of sweet corn, ‘True Gold,’ that is supposed to work in our Irish climate. For beans, I’m using a purple French climbing bean, ‘Blauhilde’ (a Monty Don favourite as seen on Gardeners’ World). And then I’m using ‘Buttercup’ (Cucurbita maxima), a dark green winter squash with golden flesh that can be baked. I will keep a record here as I go along because I want to document this… for me and for anyone else who’s homesick for a taste of homegrown sweet corn.

I am starting these off in the greenhouse… the corn and beans in root-trainers because they don’t like their long roots disturbed, and the squash in 9 cm pots.

Gardening runs deep in my family’s culture. My Canadian cousins all seem to have a garden going and it’s the first thing you are invited to inspect when you stop by for a visit. My grandfather’s grandmother was a Mohawk from Kahnawake in Quebec, Canada, and he grew up in the Beauce region south of Quebec City. My grandmother grew up on a farm in Stornoway, the middle child in a family of 10 or 12. I’m never sure because my grandfather also had a huge family of brothers and sisters. They both grew up on tillage farms with tracts of sugar maples for sugaring in the spring. I have fond memories of dribbling wooden spoonfuls of the boiling hot syrup over pans of pristine snow to make maple candy, and Sunday brunches at the Cabane au Sucre in St. Eustache.

My grandmother grew the Three Sisters in her garden, but on a bigger scale than I can in our small garden. She also grew tomatoes, peas, onions, potatoes and whatever else she had room for. My love for Rhubarb comes from the row of red-stemmed plants that stretched along the brick foundation of her house. She would give my sisters and I each a small jar with some sugar at the bottom, instructing us to pull up a stalk, lick it, stick it into the jar, and eat it for a snack—but NOT the leaves! She also put up preserves of just about everything she harvested and would bring us cases of piccalilli (green tomato relish), apple jelly, apple sauce, stewed tomatoes and crisp green beans and pickles in jars. My mother had an entire wall of cabinets in our kitchen dedicated to storing these and other foodstuffs.

My mother’s cousin Gaëtan, who lives in Sherbrooke, south of Trois-Rivière and Quebec City, does an annual “corn shuck” family reunion in August. I haven’t been able to go for a few years, but the routine is this: they set out wheelbarrows filled with huge hessian bags of freshly picked corn… you pick out as many ears as you yourself commit to eat—no waste in this family! You shuck your own corn (the husks going into a pile to be shredded for compost) and pop the ears into the already boiling water. You get yourself another beer or lemonade and fill up your plate with cold chicken, potato salad, green salad… and your hot buttery corn.

However, I now live in Ireland, not known for the kind of weather best suited to sweet corn—at least, not until recent summers. Nevertheless, I am homesick for the taste of real late August sweet corn. Not the starchy frozen stuff you find in shops, but the kind you only get when you can pick the ear off the stalk when the water is boiling and then serve salted and dripping with butter. Bliss!