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.