Category Archives: Corn

Sweet Mother, Corn

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 27, 2021

My partner grew up on sweet corn in southern Idaho. At community potlucks he was famous for being able to eat about nine ears in a row… as a toddler! Everyone would show up to help pick at the Saitos’ garden, shuck it part way and strip the silks off, re-wrap it in its own husk, soak it in water for a few minutes, and then grill it on a Weber. Then his family would drive to Illinois every summer to visit grandparents, where they’d pick more corn from Uncle Rusty’s garden, shuck it, wrap it in wax paper, and microwave it before rolling its pearly surface around and around in the butter dish.

The point is: fresh sweet corn is not just a food for him. It’s a time machine to the happiest summer evenings of his childhood. There are also those for whom corn is a relative, a sacred ceremony, and a carrier of culture… for whom each ear of seed corn is greeted with a kiss and an incantation: “It’s good to see your mouth, good to see your face, Mother,” (The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic by Martín Prechtel).

I think you have to be that kind of person– or love that kind of person– to grow corn here on Fidalgo Island. Most people will tell you our weather’s too cool; the season’s too short; the soil’s got too much clay; and there are no afternoon thunderstorms to drench the shallow, mop-like roots. But love finds a way.

And so does genetic diversity. Corn and people co-evolved in almost every corner of our continent. There are as many types of corn as there are types of families… or at least, there used to be. The mechanization of farming and the ability to put a patent on genes have driven many varieties extinct. But there are pockets of resistance, with indigenous seed keepers leading the way. There are still so many types of corn that you can’t possibly have tried them all. Don’t let the naysayers scare you off. Look for varieties that take about 80 days or fewer to reach maturity. Last year I grew “Tuxana” and “Candy Mountain.” This year I’m trying “Honey and Cream” at Peter’s recommendation.

Sweet corn gets ripe all at once, so I grow two or three successions, depending on the weather. Corn won’t germinate in cool soil.  When you can walk comfortably on the damp earth barefoot, then you can plant corn. Sometimes it’s warm enough at the tail end of April, especially if you use a plastic tarp or a piece of black landscape fabric to help catch and store heat. If not in April, then certainly in May. I plant my last succession in June.

When it’s time to plant, I prepare the soil in a block-shaped bed, rather than a long skinny row, since corn is wind-pollinated. I soak the seeds for a few hours in a nice warm bath to wake them up. Then I poke them pointy-end-down into the soil. Once they’re a few inches high, I plant a half-high pole bean or a bush bean at the base of each one to provide a nitrogen boost:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want the little corn plants sown in May to be knee-high by the 4th of July. After that, they can mostly out-compete the weeds, so I lay down some mulch around the base of each stem and quit weeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My family of origin doesn’t have a strong corn tradition, so I was flabbergasted the first time her lush, tropical-looking leaves waved at me from head height! I couldn’t believe how quickly all that biomass had arrived. Accordingly, corn needs a lot of nitrogen, so I often plant her in places where the chickens have spent time. I spray diluted urine and “Liquid Fish” fertilizer, and dump dirty duck water in the patch. It’s hypothetically possible to over-fertilize corn, but so far I haven’t been able to, and goodness knows I have tried. I didn’t want her to think I was ungrateful for all that beauty.

Corn needs water especially during tasseling, but you don’t want to rinse the pollen off the flowers, so I try to water from the bottom with a drip line or a carefully-aimed hose. The corn is counting on a little breeze to knock microscopic pollen grains into the air and let them drift downward at a diagonal onto the waiting silks of neighboring corn plants. (This is why we plant in blocks rather than rows!) A corn silk is actually an elongated style that carries pollen to the waiting ovary. When a pollen grain lands on a corn silk, tiny hairs on the end catch it and move it through the hollow tube of the silk. When it meets the ovary, fertilization is complete, and it swells to become a single kernel on the ear of corn. Every kernel has a silk attached. If you’ve ever opened an ear to reveal shrunken kernels, those are the ones who didn’t get pollinated.

 

The ones who are pollinated will swell with the sweetest milk. When I watch my son tromp out to the corn patch barefoot, shuck an ear, and bite into it raw, I’m flooded with the memory of nursing him. It’s that intimate. He has a need, and she meets it without question. I’m glad he’ll always have a good mother in corn.

 

Surfing the Rain

By Peter Heffelfinger

June 22, 2020

It has been a wet June, which has caused germination problems in some crops, but has allowed others, if planted at the right time, to thrive. I think of it as being like surfing: sometimes you catch the wave and sometimes the wave catches you.

I usually plant corn on June 1st, waiting for warm soil and settled weather. My garden site is generally damp and chilly all spring, being adjacent to a year round stream and cooled by onshore breezes. In past years, I’ve noted that other early bird gardeners who plant in mid-May often suffer from rotted seed and have to replant. Better to wait, plant successfully once and have a good harvest even if a week or two later in the season.

This year, having heard that one nearby gardener already had 4-inch high corn by late May, I succumbed to competitive garden envy and jumped the gun by planting seed on a sunny and warm May 28th. With our summers getting longer and warmer, all would be fine. Of course we soon had heavy rain and my corn barely came up. So I replanted a few weeks later. And then a second heavy rain ensued. So, finally by the last day of spring I spot-seeded a third time in between the few hardy sprouts that had managed to come up previously, hoping that I might get a small, mixed batch of corn by mid-September. Come nightfall, rain again. Wipe out, I’m sure. Now, I don’t expect anything like my usual stands of standard yellow, bi-color, and tall white corn. The early May corn planters got to ride the June waves of rain. Knee-high corn by the 14th of July.

But some other crops, planted on schedule in early spring, got a strong push from the wet weather. By mid-May the brassicas were pushing up tight against the tops of their floating row covers: broccoli, green and red cabbages, as well as Brussels Sprouts and early cauliflower. The Sugar Snap and oriental snow peas also took off in the cool weather. The tall snow peas have already reached the top of their 8-foot fencing and will need higher supports, not to mention a ladder for harvesting. The winter squash vines are filling in the gaps between their spaced hills, and the pole beans are starting to climb their trellis. Not to forget the abundant lettuces. So I shouldn’t complain. Nice to catch the wave when it comes.

Bee Swarm
While putting in tomato plant supports in my hoop house this past weekend I suddenly heard a very insistent hum, a loud buzzing of insects. Looking out to the nearby bee hives I saw a swirling, vertical cone of ascending bees getting larger and further away from their ground level boxes. The Queen Bee was leaving and taking all her workers with her. Fortunately the swarm settled into the overgrown vines on a nearby power pole instead of disappearing. The bees, now in a tight protective ball around the Queen, were still there when the beekeeper arrived an hour later. With a large bucket on the end of a long pole, he knocked groups of the bees into the bucket, and deposited the angry hummers into a large box on the ground. He hoped to catch the Queen, but she and her reduced retinue escaped. The next day the captured bees were given a new queen in a new hive. I hope the Queens who stayed home will continue to send out their pollen gathering workers to the flowering vegetables in the garden. We need the bees.

Late Spring in the Garden

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 1, 2020

 

First Brassicas

The early spring plantings of brassicas finally emerged this week from their protective cocoon of floating row cover, revealing small heads of broccoli that will be cutting size soon, as well as cabbages just starting to head up. It’s always a pleasure to free up the maturing plants straining against the white cloth, having successfully avoided any root maggot fly infestation, and only a few snails hiding out on the lower leaves. It is also a reminder that the late spring/early summer crop of brassica starts will need to go in soon. The cycle of year-round cole plants keeps turning.

Corn

I usually wait until June 1st to plant corn, allowing the soil to heat up to 60F degrees. Too often early sowings succumb to seed rot and poor germination. This year I jumped the gun a bit during the sunny week after Memorial Day and got my corn planted. Hopefully the day of rain that came soon after will be just enough to start the seed growing, but not too much to cause a problem.


Corn is always a favorite crop, if you have the space to grow it, as well as a reliable supply of water. Corn plants require consistent watering for their tall stalks, large leaves and the eventual ears. I enjoy the sound of the rustling leaves in the wind, and am always amazed at the process of the tassels shedding pollen down to fertilize the delicate hairs that lead to each individual kernel.
With the recent pattern of warmer summers, sweet corn has become more reliable to grow in the Northwest garden. I plant three varieties, a standard yellow such as Bodacious, a bi-color called Peach & Cream, and my favorite, a long-season white such as Silver King.
Corn is one of the easiest vegetables to process for freezing. I blanch the ears for several minutes in boiling water, quickly chill in cold water to stop the cooking, and then slice off the kernels with a sharp knife. To preserve the real sweetness of fresh corn, use the back of the knife blade to scrape down all the milky juice from the cob and mix it in with the cut kernels. When defrosted and cooked for just a few minutes you will have the taste of fresh corn, almost as good as ears of corn fresh picked from the garden.

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cukes

In the hoop house, tomato plants are leafing out vigorously and climbing up the rungs of the cages and a few flowers are appearing. The important thing is to trim off any lower leaf stems touching the soil, to avoid fungus infections. Consistent watering is required to promote steady growth as well as to avoid leaf curling, which can be a sign of either too much or too little water. To complicate matters, individual varieties may show different levels of water tolerance. Out of my 20 tomato plants, only one variety, a Sweet Million cherry tomato, has signs of leaf curl but still looks healthy, so I eased up on the water a bit. Gardening is always a mix of monitoring and adjusting.

Some of my peppers, bought early on from one source, were lagging behind others purchased later, so I dosed the smaller plants one time with liquid fish fertilizer, 2 tbsp. per gallon of water, to green them up a bit. I also pinched back all the peppers after they were planted, removing the first solo top buds in order to encourage branching and a greater number of secondary buds.

The cucumbers are finding their way onto their wire trellis, from the early Marketmore slicers, to the later planted Persians just starting appear, as well as a few pickling cuke starts just added to round out the collection. At some point in the summer there will be a first salad featuring homegrown cukes, tomatoes, and peppers to go with all the fresh lettuce that has been growing outside the hoop house.