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Unit on Corn, Beans, and Squash
Grades: 3-6

Subject Areas: Science, Social Studies

Objectives: To provide an understanding of Corn, Beans, and Squash as a planting system; to explore the Wampanoag relationship to the earth.

TimeFrame: 1) Farm Research Project (two class periods); 2) Background (one class period); 3) Planting Garden (one class period); 4) Maintaining Garden (ongoing) 5) Compare Planting Systems (two class periods and ongoing maintence) 6) Harvest! (as planned by students: one period or more)

Farm Research Project
Before beginning this unit, assign students in groups of three or four to research farming practices in general. Assign each group a topic: 1) organic farming 2) factory farming 3) soil preparation 4) crop rotation. Have groups present on their topic to the class to give students some background preparation for this unit.

Corn, Beans and Squash are three of the main traditional crops for the Wampanoag. Our farmers planted the three crops together, rather than just plant one crop in one field the way that European farmers did. Corn would be planted first, then the beans. As the corn stalks grew, the beans grew up around them, using the stalks as poles. Then the squash would grow as vines around the corn stalks. Why might we have planted these crops together, you might ask?

Today science can explain what we as a Tribe have always understood from hundreds of years of experience living close to the land—that planting these crops together has special benefits and is a superior planting method to the European tradition of planting a single crop in a field. We have always had very advanced farming practices that did not harm the soil and yielded plenty of food. Today we call this method of farming organic and many farmers are converting to these practices. Here’s how it works:

The beans brought nitrogen to the soil, which benefited the corn and kept the soil from being stripped of important nutrients for future plantings. Nitrogen is a type of food for plants, so it’s important that soil have a source of nitrogen to nourish the plants. Squash was also planted in the same area. Squash plants grew low to the ground and had broad leaves. The squash leaves covered the ground, making it difficult for weeds to have enough sunlight to grow and survive. This protected not only the squash, but also the corn and beans. The squash leaves also prevented the soil from drying out, by keeping the ground covered and protected. All three crops attracted insects that ate pests that otherwise would have eaten the crops. The three crops worked beautifully together to encourage each other’s growth. Our Tribe, and other tribes across the land, tell stories about the origin of these three crops and this system of planting. Likening the three crops to three sisters, one tribe from the eastern U.S., called the Iroquois, saw the plants as kind women who helped take care of one another.

Not only do the vegetables protect and nourish one another as they grow, but together they provide a healthy and varied diet for humans. Each crop provides Tribal members with an essential nutrient. Corn is an excellent source of carbohydrates. The native flint corn of southern New England is still a generous plant that can produce 640 seeds from one planted seed! The corn the Wampanoag planted were usually yellow and white in color. Sometimes, the corn would have blue, striped or red kernels.

Beans are a hearty source of proteins. The beans planted by the Wampanoag included such varieties as kidney, navy, pea, and pinto beans. These were often found in many different colors. They could be eaten green (string beans) or fully mature.

Squash provided the Wampanoag with a healthy dose of vitamin A. There were a variety of squashes. Summer squash was yellow, soft and juicy. It came into season in the summer, along with the corn crop. Pumpkins and acorn squash came into season in the fall. They were firmer and could be dried.

While corn, beans, and squash formed an excellent diet, our Tribe did not limit ourselves to growing just these three crops. Watermelon and sunflowers can also be found in our gardens. We also have traditionally relied on harvesting nature’s natural bounty—picking blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, and hunting for wild game—to keep ourselves, as well as the earth, healthy.

New Vocabulary
Organic farming: Involving the use of fertilizers or pesticides that are strictly of animal or vegetable origin. Organic farming has little to no negative impact on the soil and earth while other non-organic farming practices often strip the soil of their nutrients and introduce potentially harmful chemicals to the food.

Discussion Questions

1) How does the Wampanoag method of planting differ from the way many crops are farmed today?

2) What does the way the Wampanoag farmed Beans, Corn, and Squash tell you about their values? What do you think is important to the tribe?

Plant your Own Garden

1) Research First

Before planting your garden, you may wish to research some of the Wampanoag customs around planting. This may help you determine how and when to plant. As a Tribe, we have always been very knowledgeable about the ways that various natural systems work together. For example, the Iroquois planted seeds for their corn “three days before the full moon” because the conditions were correct at that time of year. Do some research to learn if the Wampanoag planted at certain moon phases or through observing other natural signals. Then you can time your planting to coincide with the traditional Wampanoag practices.

The following sites may give you some help as you look for information about the timing of planting Corn, Beans, and Squash:

Assign as part of this research an internet scavenger hunt. On the list of things to find on this limited search include:

   * information about scrub oak on Martha’s Vineyard,
   * common traditional fertilizers for the Tribe
   * the occasional role of the Alewife in planting

For extra credit have students make a list of instructions for planting a traditional garden gathered from the research.

Teacher Information: Traditionally, the Wampanoag would plan on planting at the full moon following:

   * when the maple leaf is the size of a mouse’ ear
   * when the shad blush blooms
   * when the herring return

2) Measure Carefully

To plant your own garden, make areas about 12 inches high and 18 inches in width three- to four-feet apart in all directions. In each area, plant 6 wet corn seeds in a small circle. As the corn begins to grow, weed and press soil up around the plants. When the corn is about six inches high, plant four to six seeds of beans around the circle. Next plant four or five squash or pumpkin seeds in every area.

If you plant too many pumpkin or squash seeds, they’ll take over the garden!

3) Maintain your garden

Keep the soil moist and weeded. The Tribe uses summer planting areas for several seasons in a row. By tradition, we allowed an area to rest for several seasons by moving to a new summer location. From time to time, a new area would need an additional season before it was ready for planting again. In that case, the same summer planting field would be used for an additional season or two. If we thought the ground was becoming over planted we would bury herring in each planting hill before planting the new crops. As the fish decomposed, it provided nitrogen and other nutrients for the plants.

4) Watch your garden grow!

In time, you should see your beans twining around the corn and the squash, creating a cover for the earth. Keep a journal as you observe this traditional farming system from day to day. Consider drawing what you see and writing down your observations and thoughts. How does it feel to watch your garden grow? What was the best part of planting the garden? What was the most interesting thing you learned?

Compare Planting Systems

1) As a scientific experiment, create a separate garden in which the crops grow in separate plots—one are for corn, another for beans, and a third for squash. Why might this be helpful as an experiment? What is your hypothesis (guess) about how these two gardens might differ? Write down your hypothesis and explain why you believe it might be so. Check back later to see if you were correct.

2) Design a way to measure the following and test your hypothesis:

Which garden has more weeds?
Which garden grows more produce?

Is the traditional Wampanoag system a more efficient method than separating the crops out?

3) Report on your findings!


The Wampanoag always give thanks for the bounty of our harvest. Now that it’s time to eat what you have grown, share your food with others and give thanks for being alive! What ways might you want to celebrate this very special thanksgiving? Does the fact that you grew the food yourself impact how you feel about eating it? If so, how? How does it impact how you feel about giving thanks for it?

Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) 20 Black Brook Road, Aquinnah, MA 02535-1546
Phone: (508) 645 9265    Fax: (508) 645-3790    Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm
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