The botanical meaning of corn — “zea” (cause of life) and “mays” (our mother) — should clue you to the profound importance of this crop to mankind. The evolution of corn can be summed up in two T’s: Three Sisters and Thanksgiving.
The plant: The botanical meaning of corn — “zea” (cause of life) and “mays” (our mother) — should clue you to the profound importance of this crop to mankind. The evolution of corn can be summed up in two T’s: Three Sisters and Thanksgiving.
|Illustration by Gabriel Utasi, Tribune|
Believed to have been cultivated in Mexico more than 7,000 years ago, corn is a superstar of native Southwestern edible plants. American Indians learned that a garden grown with the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — provided the basic nutrition to sustain life. Thanksgiving might not exist had the Indians not introduced corn to the Pilgrims. From this introduction, Europe discovered maize and made it an important feed crop for stock.
Growing guide: Full sun exposure
Cultural notes: Corn is best grown from seed sown in midspring and again in midsummer. Choose shorter-season seeds and prepare soil for vegetable planting. Be sure to add copious amounts of compost, as corn is a heavy feeder. Follow the instructions on your seed packet. You can grow corn both to eat and to create a shady shelter for other plants. It’s important to understand that corn is pollinated by the wind. The silk at the top of the cob catches pollen blown by the wind and delivers a grain of pollen to form a kernel. In order to have a full cob of corn, each strand of silk needs to receive pollen. Accordingly, for success in the home garden I recommend planting corn seeds in a square block (not in long rows): A block of 16 plants is a minimum size for good pollination. Keep in mind that corn will cross-pollinate, so if you want to “stay true” to the variety you planted, keep other varieties no less than 400 yards away.
Maintenance: A few rounds of fertilizer will be needed even if you’ve prepared the soil well. Fertilize your corn organically by applying blood meal or a blend of fish/seaweed fertilizer when stalks are 6 inches to 12 inches tall, then again when stalks get knee-high. If you plan ahead, you can minimize fertilizer needs by planting corn in a nitrogen-enriched spot where beans or clover grew the previous season. Mulch soil when silks appear. Water deeply when tassels first form, then again when silks appear. Cobs should be ready for harvest when the silks on the cobs turn brown. Make sure by pulling back the sheath of leaves and piercing a kernel with your fingernail. If the juice is milky, pick the cob; if the juice is clear, leave it on the stalk a bit longer. Common pests include corn borers and earworms. I have read that a couple of drops of mineral oil inside the tip of each ear a week after silks appear will keep the corn earworm away. An application of BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) will also help prevent damage by either pest.
Barn Goddess tips: For best sweet flavor, eat corn within a few hours of picking. If you harvest during the heat of the day, cool the corn on ice and then refrigerate. The longer a cob sits uncooked, the less sweet it becomes as the sugars rapidly convert to starch. There are four types of corn seeds: Sweet (for eating off the cob), dent (for feed), flint (for native flour) and popcorn (for popping). Try Stowell’s, an heirloom sweet-white kernel for eating off the cob.