Call for Study Participants — Three Sisters, Companion Planting

The institute will be assisting with an agricultural study in 2019. Please see below and get in contact with Scott if interested in being a paid participant in this study.

Study Summary

20170715_075852Companion planting has become a popular way to increase yield, better utilize garden space, and encourage symbiotic relationships among plants. This study will test whether or not growing crops planted together is preferential to growing monoculture beds in small-scale growing operations (market-garden scale). We will be examining one of the oldest and best-known examples of intercropping: corn, beans, and squash. The “three sisters” of Central and North American agriculture consisted of nitrogen-fixing beans growing up corn-stalk trellises, both of which benefiting from the weed suppression of the squash plants.

This proposed study will pay participants to grow two plots of corn, beans, and squash while holding other variables (sunlight, moisture, fertility, variety, etc.) constant. Results will include yield, labor, and other observations. Participants can keep and use the produce as they wish.

The Low Technology Institute assisted a similar study to test five potato-growing methods in 2018 with results currently under analysis. Growers participating this year appreciated the pay in addition to produce as well as the ability to help find more effective growing methods for smaller-scale operations.

Study Details

The grant proposal is currently being written and will require some input from the study participants. What follows is a short draft summary. The details are subject to change. Participants are encouraged to make suggestions to improve this study design and will be notified of final grant details.

Nine growers recruited from market gardeners around the Madison, Wisconsin, area will participate in this study, which will be organized by the tenth participant, Scott Johnson. Each participant will set aside two plots with full sun measuring 150 ft² each. Each plot’s soil will be characterized and recorded. Johnson will gather supplies and distribute them to each grower in mid-May. The corn, bean, and squash varieties grown will be decided by a vote among participants. Organic methods and materials will be used.

One plot will have interplanted corn, beans, and squash. The corn will be planted in clusters with bean plants. Between the groups will be hills of squash. Each cluster of corn and hill of squash will receive organic compost. The plot may be mulched with straw but this is a decision to be voted on by participants. The second plot will be divided into three sub-plots. An equal amount of corn, beans, and squash will be planted in segregated areas, but fertilized and treated the same as in the first plot.

Johnson will assist each grower with planting and installation to insure uniformity among participants. Growers will water, weed, and otherwise care for the plants as needed. Every two weeks growers will record basic data about the plants’ growth, observations, a photo of each plot, and their hours worked. During harvest, Johnson will visit each participant to assist. The growers will report their experiences with each growing method. Participants will keep any yield and be paid for all tracked hours. The grant application will stipulate a rate of $20 with an estimated 25 hrs of work for season with a maximum of 35 hrs.

How to Participate

Potential participants should be market gardeners (or others who grow large amounts of vegetables) who have a 300-ft² area in full sun. If you would like to be considered, please provide a 3–4 sentence paragraph indicating your experience (i.e., describe farm, years of growing experience, market-selling experience, etc.). Also provide your name, business’s name, phone number, email, and website (if applicable).

Please list your top three varieties of corn, beans, and squash, if any. Typically, this was done with field corn (i.e., not sweet corn) and dry beans (i.e., not green beans), but we may have to be flexible to accommodate what sells in your markets. Please describe your favorite method of growing corn, beans, and squash and indicate if you have experience with unusual growing methods.

The deadline for providing all of this information is November 26, 2017.

Interested growers should contact the study organizer at scott@lowtechinstitute.org or 608-886-9584 with any questions.


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