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What is a Milpa bed and how to create it correctly? We explain everything important step by step!

To provide ideal conditions for his vegetable plants, many gardeners opt for so-called mixed cultures. The goal is a natural bed design, for which plants are combined that promote each other’s development. As you probably already know, some plants are ideal planting partners, while others are less compatible or not compatible at all. Have you ever heard of the so-called milpa? This type of bed aims to do just that, combining very specific types of vegetables. What is a Milpa bed? We will introduce it to you below, so that you can create it yourself in the coming season.

What is a Milpa bed?

What is a milpa bed - tips on how to create a mixed culture

As already mentioned, this type of bed is a mixed culture . More precisely, this mixed culture consists of squash, corn and beans – a combination so good that it is often called the “three sisters”. This type of cultivation is already known from the times of the Maya and the term itself means something like “the near field”.

Milpa Bed – The Three Perfect Crops

Space saving bed design with a Milpa bed in the garden

The main crop in this cultivation system is corn. This grows tall and sturdy enough to be a climbing support for the beans at the same time. Pumpkin plants, in turn, grow low and creeping. This has the advantage that the plants with their large leaves shade the soil around all crops. As a result, weeds and other undesirable plants have a hard time growing while keeping the soil evenly moist. Beneficial chemical processes also occur through these planting partners, ensuring good nutrient supply to the plants.

So, when you plant a Milpa bed, you only need to follow the usual plant care during the initial period. Once the pumpkin plants have grown large enough, you can leave them to their own devices. Nevertheless, regular inspection is recommended, because especially in very hot years, longer periods of drought can occur more quickly than perhaps expected.

What is a milpa bed - combining corn, beans and squash

But not only the type of vegetable should be right, but also the variety of each plant. What is meant is that, for example, a strong and fast-growing bean variety would not be a good partner for a corn variety that grows more slowly. After all, the corn is supposed to be a climbing aid and not eventually be suppressed by the bean. Bush beans are also less suitable. Good varieties are:

For beans: different varieties of pole beans or showy beans, such as Blauhilde, Flavourstar, Goldsfield, Grünes Posthörnchen, Markant, Matilda, Musica, Neckargold, Neckarkönigin, Scarlett Emperor, Sunset.

For pumpkins: Butternut, Hokkaido, Nutmeg squash

For corn: Black Aztek, Golden Bantam, Rainbow Inka, SF 201, XT Goldcrest

Tip: Instead of squash or in combination with squash, you can also plant zucchini .

What is a Milpa Bed – How to make it.

So you plant corn, beans and squash together and since they work so well together, you can keep a small distance between each other in this vegetable bed. Perfect if you only have a small garden and there is little space available for vegetables. Another big plus of this vegetable combo is also that a lot of the nutrients are covered by harvesting these vegetables (beans provide a lot of protein, corn provides a lot of energy and squash provides numerous other vitamins and nutrients). But how exactly is the milpa bed designed? We’ll explain it in a little more detail:

Choose the right place

  • Find a sunny place, because these plant species like full sun. Here, the area should be at least 1.50 x 2.50 meters. Also take a look at the surrounding plants or think in advance what else you want to plant around it. Corn grows very tall and at a certain point could provide too much shade for other plant species, thus interfering with their growth.

Prepare the soil

  • Loosen the soil and enhance it with compost. All three vegetable plants like humus and nutrients. A humus-rich soil also stays moist longer.

Milpa bed in a raised bed for small gardens


How to assemble the mixed culture of beans, corn and squash.

You have a choice of two systems:

  • In rows: plant the corn in the bed at a distance of 40 cm from each other. If you design several rows (for example, two rows are suitable for the size of the area mentioned above), leave about 60 to 80 centimeters between them. In this way, there will be enough space around each corn plant to distribute three bean plants each. Between the rows of corn, there is still room for the squash plants. These need sufficient distance from each other, as they take up large areas. You should allow a full two feet here.
  • In clusters: Three corn plants form the center, which you combine with two bean plants. Plant them close together so that the beans can climb up the corn. You then supplement this group with a squash plant, which should be spaced far enough apart to allow it to spread out at its leisure.

To bring forward plants or not?

Pre-planting corn plants indoors and planting them out in May

  • You can preplant the corn instead of sowing it directly, since it can only be sown in the field later. To do this, sow each corn plant in separate containers in March (otherwise pricking out will be too difficult due to the strong rooting and you would injure the plantlets in the process) and then transplant them into the garden in May.
  • You can preplant the squash indoors starting in April and then plant it out with the other plants, or you can sow it directly into the Milpa bed starting in May when you also plant the corn outdoors.
  • The beans you sow again in May directly into the bed, as soon as the other vegetables also come in.

Garden design with vegetables - promote plant growth with mixed culture