Three Sisters Gardens Connects Youths With the Land, Food, and Agricultural Practices of Their Ancestors

Lettuce and beans are planted at Three Sisters Gardens’ Cummins Way farm in West Sacramento. Photo by Samuel Ramos

More than a farm, it’s a movement.

The legend of the Three Sisters is ubiquitous throughout Indigenous cultures. As one version of the story goes, when the Original Woman passed, from her soil rose Three Sisters. Each sister was distinctive in her size, dress, and temperament, but they were inseparable. The first sister was corn — tall and slender with gold, flowing locks and a green shawl. The second sister was beans; she tended to frolic into everyone’s business. The third sister was squash, the grounded pragmatist, draped in green.

By embracing each other’s uniqueness, the Three Sisters flourished and grew. Not just a fable, these three crops were the center of Indigenous agriculture and have been proven to grow to their maximum yields when planted together. Corn provides a natural pole on which the beans can grow, and the beans help stabilize the corn against wind while reinvigorating the soil with nitrogen. The wide, low leaves of the squash keep the soil moist and cool, and its scratchy skin deters animals from eating all three crops.

While the legend refers to the successful symbiotic relationship among corn, beans, and squash, it also serves as a parable for how to grow successful communities — a lesson not lost on Alfred Melbourne, the founder of Three Sisters Gardens, a nonprofit organization in West Sacramento.

“Community is family,” Melbourne says. “Youths, adults, and elders getting back to nature and reconnecting with the earth is how our communities will heal and thrive.”

Founder Alfred Melbourne participates in a volunteer activity and workshop day at Three Sisters’ 5th Street farm. Photo by Samuel Ramos

My Background Does Not Define Me

Born and raised steps away from Three Sisters’ 5th Street farm, Melbourne is all too familiar with the challenges faced by youths in his neighborhood.

Melbourne’s personal mission is to take the skills he learned as a youngster, doing what he calls “hustling,” and turn them into something good.

“School-to-prison is a rite of passage in this community,” Melbourne says. “I want youths to see that their energy can be used positively by giving back to the community.

“They begin working with the land and learn how to respect and work with it, not against it,” he continues, explaining that once they embrace that, “not only do they change, but they can also begin to create change.”

Having served his own 18-year prison term, Melbourne says that coming home to found Three Sisters Gardens wasn’t just a job, it was a calling.

“An Indigenous, ex-incarcerated-led organization is part of positive growth in a community where incarceration is systemic,” he says.

While Melbourne doesn’t allow his past to define him, he also knows that his story serves as a powerful example to the young people he mentors that everyone has an ability to change.

“I love my community. I love what I do,” Melbourne says. “It’s more than just growing lettuce. This gives us a positive voice in the community. It’s our platform to highlight the disparities and dysfunction and to create our own successful solution.”

Growing and Growing

Founded in 2018 on a donated plot of land, Three Sisters Gardens is now comprised of four separate urban farms with a total of 1.15 acres in production throughout the Broderick neighborhood of West Sacramento.

Melbourne is actively pursuing opportunities to expand the program to other communities throughout Greater Sacramento. Ultimately, Melbourne’s goal is to create a model that can be replicated by other disenfranchised communities to create their own food resiliency, job skills training programs, and neighborhood empowerment through the agricultural activation of unused lots. His goal?

“Fifty total plots in the next five years,” he says.

With a focus on heirloom crops, Three Sisters sells its produce to Natomas Unified School District as well as to a variety of local restaurants; this includes growing specialty items for chefs such as Janel Inouye and Ed Roehr at Sacramento’s Magpie Café.

Instructor Sarah Wesley demonstrates food canning and preservation with beets from Three Sisters Gardens’ 5th Street farm. Photo by Samuel Ramos

Looking at the perfectly hand-weeded rows of Chioggia beets, provider beans, and assorted vibrantly colored lettuces, it’s easy to see why chefs are eager to include Three Sisters’ produce in their menus. As Melbourne boasts, Three Sisters Gardens is “growing some of the best vegetables around.”

Three Sisters Gardens also offers three different community-supported agriculture (CSA) plans to the public: a full season, 20-week plan with weekly customer pickups starting June 3; a four-week plan with pickups available in any four weeks during the peak growing season; and a single-box option. Customers can sign up at

Volunteers Mia Troches and Diana Garcia seed tomatoes in trays for transplanting at the 5th Street farm’s skill share event. Photo by Samuel Ramos

While Melbourne is proud of the respect his produce has earned in the Farm-to-Fork Capital, that clearly is not what drives him or the Three Sisters Gardens team. For them, it’s all about community. Each month, the organization donates up to 60 percent of its harvest to food-insecure individuals and families. In addition to providing a weekly delivery of produce to the Yolo Food Bank, the youths who work on the farm receive a small stipend and are encouraged to take produce home. Melbourne beams when he describes a picture one of these young people recently sent him — it features a traditional Indigenous dish that the team member and her grandmother made using produce from the 5th Street farm.

“Adults being good role models; youths being exposed to new, positive skills and interests; [increasing] respect for elders and traditions,” Melbourne says, “this is the spirit of Three Sisters.”

It has been my pleasure to work with Samuel Ramos, a youth ambassador from Three Sisters Gardens, on the photos accompanying this article. A huge thank you goes to edible Sacramento for offering Sam his first professional photography job!