Zero Waste: The Three Sisters Companion Planting Method And Why You Should Try It

Ryan Ramaker with the ‘fourth sister’ – the sunflower. Courtesy photo

Zero Waste Committee Member

So, there I was, chugging along, getting an Associates Degree in applied science, when I stumbled across the Sustainable Technologies degree at Santa Fe Community College and got to thinking: I could spend the rest of my life learning about Sustainability! Although I didn’t switch my major, I’m still in love, and delight in the joy of implementing many of the things I’ve learned first-hand like building the soil at my home and being honored to work at the Espanola Healing Foods Oasis that use both the 3 Sisters process along with a wide variety of others planting methods.

What are the 3 Sisters?

The 3 Sisters is an Indigenous American Agriculture process.  As I am not Indigenous, I do not feel qualified or comfortable talking about the cultural significance of the 3 Sisters. I will however share my understanding of the planting process. 3 Sisters planting mimics nature to help the soil stay healthy and ready to support multiple crops over a more extended period of time. 

3 Sisters keys into three areas of the Earth’s natural cycles using three traditional crops: corn, squash, and beans. The processes include 1) creating microclimates, 2) companion planting (there is no ecosystem on the Earth that is a monoculture other than the ones created by humans; why we continue to do this on a mass scale is beyond my understanding), and 3) crop cycling that keeps the soil covered during seasonal extremes. 

Why is it important?

Even Western agricultural science, previously dependent on mass, industrial farming to feed the world, is starting to recognize that lower-impact agriculture that supports the health of the Earth’s biome is our only way forward. Science is showing that lower-impact agriculture cultivates the soil as was once done by Indigenous populations creating healthier soil. The healthier the soil, the healthier the entire ecosystem.  Chemical input decreases, food nutrients increase, and more carbon is collected back into the soil for long-term sequestering. 

The purpose

This is simple: we are working with nature to help heal and rebuild itself, while simultaneously generating resources not only for us but the entire ecosystem that surrounds our chosen site. 

The impact

We live longer, better lives. We also directly impact climate change in these very specific ways.

  1. We encourage the diversity required for a healthy ecosystem.
  2. We increase life in the soil, building the overall soil health.
  3. We increase the ability for the soil to slow and hold water.
  4. We feed our native biome and ourselves. 
  5. We help ensure spaces for local flora and fauna to thrive.
  6. We trap greenhouse gasses in both soil and flora reducing global warming. 
  7. We build a higher nutrient profile on all the food that is grown and harvested.
  8. We build our connection to the Earth alongside our communities.
  9. We help close the gaps in food, water, and other critical sovereignties to decrease social and economic conflicts, and unrest on a global scale.

How to put this principle into action?

  1. Start simple. By this I mean if you chose to make a 3-Sisters garden or its principles, don’t go all out the first time. Find a small space to do some experimenting.
  2. Take inventory. Observe your space. See where you have the best sun and shade. Take note of what kind of animals might eat from your garden before you get a chance to. Then it’s time to plant your corn, squash and beans.
  3. Protect from pests as needed. Use natural methods of pest control to keep you and the environment safe and healthy.
  4. Use what you have. Use the space, plants, and tools you already have. Putting potted plants together even if they are not sharing the same soil can still help them grow and create microclimates. This is a great way to learn if you have no outdoor space. (Make sure all the plants are healthy) 
  5. Ensure simple, non-invasive processes like this to continue to grow the health of our communities. 
  6. Share this information.
  7. Change your understanding of what a beautiful backyard or lawn area looks like.
  8. Be sure to follow local ordinances and support laws and county ordinances that make rewilding our spaces possible.
  9. Have fun and enjoy the corn, beans and squash of your labor, and add a sunflower just for fun.

If you are interested in learning more on your own here are some great resources.

For more information, check out the Los Alamos County Environmental Services webpage at For those with questions or concerns, please contact Angelica Gurule Sustainability Manager at 662-8383 or

Ryan Ramaker is a volunteer member of the Zero Waste Team. Comprising Los Alamos County employees and community volunteers the team was tasked by the Environmental Sustainability Board (ESB) and Environmental Services Division (ESD) to educate the community on: 

  1. reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and 
  2. conserving energy and water, and
  3. promoting environmental stewardship.


Ryan was born in the beautiful state of Washington, Ryan found his love of nature early. His mother was one of the biggest influences on his passion for learning and respect for nature, helping him to see how connected we all are to the natural world. His interest in hiking, biking, and bushcraft came out of this connection. Ryan moved to Santa Fe, NM, in 2000, and while getting his degree, he stumbled across the world of sustainable technology and restorative agriculture. This discovery has shaped his life. Ryan has taught classes at REI, built an outdoor equipment rental program, and worked to expand and maintain the Española Healing Foods Oasis. “The ability to help people reconnect with the land they live on and visit is why I found my way to PEEC”, states Ryan. “I am looking forward to finding my place in such a welcoming space.” Ryan started at PEEC in September of 2022.