The Question of Corn

A.V. Walters

It’s a tough call, especially if space and/or water are limited. Yet, what summer is complete without that incredible, mid-season jolt of fresh sweet corn?

At this point, I have to disclose that I grew up in The Valley of the Jolly (Ho, Ho, Ho) Green Giant. No, I’m not kidding. I lived just a little over a mile from the Green Giant canning plant where they processed Niblets corn. It was a rich agricultural area—Green Giant grew corn, Heinz grew tomatoes there, and it was generally considered the market-garden, banana belt of Southwestern Ontario. We weren’t farmers, but we knew farmers. When I was really little, the fields behind our house were strawberry fields. Time passed and the area eventually filled in with houses. Still, farming was an ever-present part of the economy. In high school I de-tasseled corn for Funk’s Hybrid during the summer.

While I never much liked canned, store-bought vegetables, Niblets corn was one of the better options. But fresh, their corn was incredible. If you found yourself driving behind a Green Giant corn truck (piled high with fresh cobs), you’d follow it and, occasionally, a bump or sharp turn would jostle free some sweet bounty. Sometimes we’d ride our bikes out into the county to nab a few ears from the fields. Some of the farmers were known to shoot rock-salt at anyone they saw pilfering. But finally, the cannery got smart and opened a fresh corn stand during the season. Cars would line up for it. We’d ride our bikes two miles along the highway to get it, and then hightail it home with a dozen corn ears strapped to our backs. It was well worth the effort.

I tell you this because, in the corn department, I have street cred. Growing corn is the toughest calling for the home gardener, and most don’t do it right. For years my city, square-foot garden didn’t include corn. I couldn’t justify the space. Each cornstalk requires about one square foot of garden space. Also, corn must be rotated in the garden, or else serious amendment is in order to replace the nitrogen that it strips out of the soils. And, it’s thirsty. Good corn requires a lot of water. So, if you have a good, local source, growing your own doesn’t make much sense. Local is important, because the secret of great corn is freshness.

This is so much so that there’s an American mystique about garden corn. Almost all home gardeners feel compelled to throw in a row or two of sweet corn. It’s often an exercise in disappointment.  I’ve learned some about how corn grows that makes me laugh at the memory of all those suburban gardens backed with a lonely, green line of cornstalks.

Corn pollinates by wind and gravity. The tassels, up high on the plant, release the pollen needed to make up those corn kernels. The pollen falls and hits the corn silk, which transports it, one silk at a time, to each kernel. It requires a lot of pollen to populate a full ear of corn. That’s why it’s pointless to plant a single row of corn. You just can’t get adequate pollination, and so you end up with spotty, incomplete corn ears. The Native Americans knew this; they planted their corn grouped together in mounds, combined with beans and squash. But somewhere along the way the agricultural concept of corn in rows took hold and that practice was imported into the backyard garden. In a field of corn, there’s no problem, there’s plenty—rows and rows—of cornstalks to create a deep enough bench for pollination. But in the urban or suburban garden, it can be a problem. If you want to plant in rows, you need at least four of them to consolidate enough pollen.

Here, we grow our corn in circles, hemmed in by a low border of corrugated roofing material. The edging holds in the water—or at least keeps it in the vicinity of the corn. The circles are about 6 feet across and hold about 18 stalks of corn. Unlike our buckets, there’s no bottom. Corn has deep roots, so there’s no easy way to protect them from gophers. (Though last year, they left it alone.) We just plant more than we need and hope it works out. Using circles, we use less water and get more complete pollination. When I first arrived here I was hesitant about planting corn, but Elmer looked so disappointed I changed my mind. We’ve had some great corn successes, except for last year.

Last year we used an heirloom corn variety. It was the tallest corn I ever planted, towering corn! The whole farm watched and waited. And then—the corn was tasteless. Really tasteless. (Which might also explain why we didn’t have any gopher losses.) I tried eating it twice, and then gave up. The sheep wouldn’t even eat it. What a waste! The most disappointing part was that we didn’t find out until after we’d put in all the work of raising it (120 stalks of it) only to be disheartened. I confronted the woman at the seed bank—this was really terrible corn, and they needed to know!

That one disaster has really damaged my gardening reputation. So this year, I’m trying two, tried and true, heirloom varieties—on separate sides of the farm. One is Golden Bantam, a perennial favorite, and the other is Country Gentleman a sweet, silver shoe-peg corn. We’ve put in 145 stalks in two shifts—early and late. I always try to stagger my corn to extend the corn-eating season. (Sometimes this doesn’t work, because if the two shifts are too close in age, they’ll “equalize” and come ripe all at once.) This weekend we transplanted the last round of starts. I was assured that these corns will be as tasty as some of the super-sweet hybrids.

I have another motivation for a good crop, this year. This year, the devil is releasing (from hell) the new, GMO, sweet-corn varieties. In the absence of labeling, there will be no way for the consumer to know whether the corn they buy will have been modified. So, suddenly home-grown takes on new significance. Also, with the heat and drought across the country—there may not be much sweet corn around this year. So, I’m counting on our water-saving, corn rings.

We’re also going to do an experiment to see whether it makes any difference whether or not you cut off the suckers. I’ve done the internet research that says it makes no difference, but our farm foreman, Don, swears that the suckers sap the plant’s strength. It’s a small sample, but we’re going to test it in a side-by-side study. (I’ll let you know about that one.) I may be overdoing it this year, but I have to try to rehabilitate my corn standing.

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