The growth of our Three Sisters garden and its companion Apiary reminds us that biodiversity and interdependence are essential to healthy systems.

New York, NY
3,600 SF
Featured / Case Study

With discussions of urban farming filling news articles and successful examples seen in the work of groups like Brooklyn Grange, it seemed only natural that COOKFOX would use a portion of our former 5,600 square foot roof to explore our own interest in urban agriculture and rooftop farming. Located at 641 Avenue of the Americas from 2006 to early 2017, COOKFOX employees connected with nature through our constantly evolving vegetable garden and apiary.

While researching the Haudenosaunee longhouse for the Syracuse Live / Work / Home project, our office discovered the Haudenosaunee’s documented symbiotic farming technique known and praised by most as the “Three Sisters.” The story told varies according to different tribes. According to one legend, corn, climbing beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive when they are together:

“A long time ago, three sisters lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their height and in the way they carried themselves. The little sister was so young and round that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright, sunshine yellow dress, and she would spend many an hour reading by herself, sitting in the sun with the soft wind blowing against her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters, looking for danger and warning her sisters. She wore a pale green shawl and had long, dirty-yellow hair. There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.”
- told by Shelia Wilson, a member of the Sappony tribe.

The diversity created by these three specific crops is mutually beneficial: the corn provides a natural structure for the beans to climb; the beans add necessary fertilizer in the form of nitrogen to the soil; and the squash spreads to cover the soil, blocking out weeds at the ground level, while its leaves act as a “living mulch” to retain moisture in the soil. The tradition of inter-planting corn, beans, and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies beyond the Haudenosaunee, is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term fertility and a healthy balanced diet to generations.


Our own Three Sisters garden became a seasonal harvest, with active experimentation into saving heirloom seeds for future seasons. The second generation of our garden’s corn crop was successfully grown from seeds previously harvested during the first growth. Each season we tested and planted multiple varieties of heirloom crops and other native species to determine the right balance. We also experimented with bee-friendly plants to help those crops that do not self-pollinate. While the Three Sisters represented a very strong and cooperative relationship amongst the crops, research into the work of Toby Hemenway mentioned the use of a “fourth sister,” plantings used to attract bees for pollination purposes. Our efforts in urban agriculture progressed in various stages since the completion of the green roof in 2006, yet beekeeping was only legalized in New York City in March of 2010. Inspired by this “fourth sister”—its implications driving a stronger link between flora and fauna—and to help further our research and interest in our organic food production, we established our own apiary on April 4th of 2012.


Apiary and Three Sisters Case Study