Gaithersburg, MD

Three Sisters Garden: A community treasure trove

Heather Jauquet

Through a labor of love, three neighbors collaborate to create a community garden providing food, education, and friendships
Three Sisters Gardeners Steven Lapham Sellers, Ella Truelove, and Nelson Reyes (not pictured)Heather Jauquet/Author

On any given school day, as the students of Strawberry Knoll Elementary School arrive for a day of learning, they pass by the Three Sister’s Garden on a once-forgotten patch of public land on the north edge of school grounds. As teachers greet the students, they might find tall sunflowers lining the sidewalk towards school, strawberries ripe for the picking, or handpainted signs directing them to "Peter Rabbit’s Den" or "Ella’s Ancient Forest." The handmade signs, the garden path, and the new plant shoots pushing through the earth look like they are from a fairy tale.

The Three Sisters Garden was created and has been meticulously maintained by neighbors Steven Sellers Lapham, Nelson Reyes, and Ella Truelove. In 2020 when the pandemic shut down everything, Lapham, whose daughter, Casey, attended Strawberry Knoll Elementary School 20 years prior, walked through the once overgrown plot of public land to clear out the invasive multi-flora rose. Seeing what Lapham was doing, Reyes, who lives next to the school and grew up on a farm in Nicaragua, joined him. There, the idea of a sustainable organic community garden was planted: The Three Sisters Garden or "La Huerta de Las Hermanos." The name is derived from the Iroquois and Cherokee’s “three sisters” corn, bean, and squash, the three plants that nurture and grow together.

“The garden sparks curiosity.”—Steven Sellers Lapham
The invasive multi-floral rose that Lapham removed to create the Three Sisters GardenHeather Jauquet/Author

During a time when the world was looking inwardly and keeping to itself, the neighbors came together and created a community space for everyone to benefit.

“Walking through, I felt a sense of peace.” --Ella Truelove

According to Lapham, “One day Ella showed up with seeds I'd never planted--okra seeds,” and together, they expanded the plots to include a variety of plants and crops. Growing up on a farm in Alabama, Ella has 30 years of experience growing a sustainable organic garden. Using her garden walking stick, she pointed out what she planted this year: asparagus beans, watermelon, squash, okra, beefsteak tomatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus beans, ancient beans, and an herb garden.

A collaborative relationship

The gardeners and the school have formed a collaborative relationship mutually benefitting one another. As oak leaves fall from the trees and carpet the ground surrounding the school, the building service team rakes them into a pile for the gardeners to use as compost, thereby eliminating the need for the time, energy, and money to haul them away. In turn, the gardeners can grow their garden with natural resources without resorting to chemical and store-bought fertilizers. It is better for the environment and for the people who attend and work at the nearby school. It also teaches students how to grow a sustainable and organic garden with resources found right on the property.

The garden is a perfect spot for teaching and learning experiences for students of all ages. Fore example, Nelson's ten-year-old daughter helped to plant strawberries in the garden. Truelove, Lapham, and Reyes work hard to cultivate the land and provide learning experiences for the neighbors and students by using signs to identify the plants and sharing their experiences and knowledge of the land. As experienced gardeners, each brings a wealth of knowledge of cultivating the land to produce a multitude of crops and plants. For example, Truelove turned a tree stump into an ancient forest, growing as much as possible with the land provided. As I looked over Ella’s ancient forest sign, she said, “Why would you remove a tree stump when you can use it to grow things like food, flowers, or something pretty?”
Sign describing Ella's Ancient ForestHeather Jauquet/Author

While Truelove focuses on food crops, Lapham likes to plant things simply because it brings beauty to the garden. In 2021, Reyes plowed a truckload of organic soil conditioner (made from autumn leaves collected by the county) into the clayish soil. Each neighbor brings something unique to the garden. While visiting the garden, I listened as they collaborated and planned for this season, talking about using natural resources like bamboo to create poles for the beans to grow up and around.
Strawberry plantsHeather Jauquet/Author

While the three residents are the primary stewards of the Three Sisters Garden and meticulously maintain the crops so that nothing is left to rot or go to waste, they welcome neighbors to walk through, pick some organic produce, or learn how to garden with them. Even neighborhood churches have inquired about obtaining surplus for their food pantries to feed the community.

The perfect learning environment

“We want to become an official garden” —Steven Sellers Lapham

The garden is perfectly situated near Strawberry Knoll Elementary School and offers students a perfect cross-curricular teaching and learning opportunity. According to Lapham, the gardeners are “trying to bring the school and community together." They are waiting for guidance from Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) as to how to provide students a learning experience on local sustainability, gardening, and the science of observing how things grow. According Lapham, "We want to become an official garden."
The mini pollinator garden in front of Strawberry Knoll Elementary SchoolHeather Jauquet/Author

With the support of Principal Patrick Scott, Mr. Lapham created a pollinator garden in the empty square of dirt in front of the school, providing beauty and a simple environmental lesson as students read about the little garden on the small handpainted sign.
Description of one of the uses of the pollinator gardenHeather Jauquet/Author

Cross-curricular and multi-sensory opportunities abound in The Three Sisters garden as teachers could easily incorporate all the subject areas in this unique learning environment: history, science, math, reading, writing, and art. Even without entering the garden, the students can learn so much as they walk along the adjacent sidewalk. For example, the garden is ripe for historical lessons, as demonstrated when Ms. Truelove shared the history of the Cherokee trail beans, also known as Survivor Beans, planted during the Trail of Tears when Native Americans were forced to relocate to Oklahoma. Lapham learned about his own heritage from Truelove. His grandmother's maiden name was "Muskrat," which is a Cherokee family name.
The Three Sisters Garden SignHeather Jauquet/Author

The Iroquois and Cherokee call corn, bean, and squash, the “three sisters” because they nurture each other like family as they grow together. The Three Sisters community garden on Strawberry Knoll Road does the same thing, bringing together the wider community, the local neighbors, and the neighboring school to support one another and grow.

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Certified educator K-12 and Reading Specialist with a focus on the adolescent brain. I write about how educational decisions affect parents, students, and staff. As an educator and parent I also focus on community events for the whole family.


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