Oh Sweet Corn! Those ten foot stalks of homegrown goodness, with their wind-talking tassels, and shimmering pink threads of promise that give way to milky, sweet kernels of creamy, crunchy candy-like wholesomeness. Sweet corn is the stuff that American dreams are made of. Roasted in the husk over an open flame, eaten like popsicles at summer cookouts, dripping with butter and basted in salt…I salivate just thinking of it.
This year’s sweet variety “Country Gentleman” – a classic heirloom favorite – held court in my garden for almost two months, presiding over the rest our vegetables like Jolly Green Giants heralding the mystical. When visitors arrived, one of the first things they noticed (besides our Bourbon Red turkey Woodford who greets you at your car door) was the immensity of those blades of grass – like giant exclamation points demanding notice.
Thanks to the hard-earned fertility of our soil and the productivity of the seeds we bought from Baker Creek, many of the stalks sent up side shoots that grew ears of corn almost as large as the ear on the main stalk. And one mighty plant had five ears of corn of varying sizes growing at once. Our sweet corn was a triumph and I beamed with self-righteous pride as others heaped praise on my corn-growing prowess.
OK – yes, I might be exaggerating…a bit. Too much reverie and too many adjectives. But, the reality is, sweet corn is something of a summer staple. Even though we know there’s nothing really wholesome about those ten for $2 ears on special at the grocery store, we can’t help but load our carts and dream of the good old days.
Fresh, sweet corn has a kind of charm that we equate with innocence and goodness. And that’s something most of us wish we could have more of in our lives. So, growing it at home felt like a moral imperative for me. The one year I didn’t (because the GMO farm down the road was growing corn that year) many visitors asked why I didn’t have any sweet corn.
Then, GMOs were to blame, but going forward I have different reasons for why I will no longer be growing sweet corn on our homestead – despite my obvious love of the stuff.
Frankly, when self-sufficiency is our goal, sweet corn is a luxury food that just doesn’t belong in our garden anymore. Meal or flour corn is far more useful from a durability, calorie, and livestock feed source perspective. And, now that we are trying to live money-lite (i.e. on what we can earn by from our property), I really need to be able to save my own seeds and have them perform to our expectations from year to year.
Unlike tomatoes which, due to their flower design, are likely to self-pollinate (making seed saving easier), corn is primarily pollinated by other corn plants and those plants could be as much as a half mile away in the right conditions. This means that if we want to save seeds each year, and have some consistency in their future performance, we need to control the varieties of corn pollen that come into contact with our corn plants. (If you want to learn more about the specifics of saving corn seed, check out this Corn Growing Guide from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.)
We live in a holler (a.k.a. a small valley surrounded by slopes) and we have a wide swath of forest between us and our nearest neighbor. There’s some chance that some of the upwind corn pollen could cross above our trees and come down into our dell (another word for a holler). But, anyone growing corn upwind of us is at a higher altitude and is likely to be a few weeks behind us in planting. Bees and other pollinators might still carry stuff from afar onto our property, so in the years when the GMO-growing neighbor a quarter mile down the road grows corn, I won’t. In summary, we have a pretty protected environment here and a reasonable chance at saving quality corn seed as long as we plant one variety of corn to mature at any given time.
And that’s what we plan to do going forward. We will plant one variety of flour corn each year to use for us and our animals. Next year, we’ll be planting a lot more of it because we will actually be growing it in our permanent duck paddocks, after the ducks have fertilized those areas. Also, our corn will not be planted in a monoculture, but will be interspersed with sunflowers (as a trap plant for the marmorated stink beetles that love to eat the corn silk unless their are sunflowers) and cowpeas (for fertility and to make use of the vertical climbing space provided by the corn stalks). I may also incorporate some nasturtiums or purslane to round out the planting guild as a ground cover.
Some gardeners will ask why I am not planting the three sisters – corn, beans, and squash as they are considered the perfect guild. Well, we’ve got a pretty serious problem with squash beetles. So after our beetle fighting woes this year, I’ve decided to take a year or two off cucurbit growing. Squash isn’t our favorite anyhow because it doesn’t have a lot of calories, except in winter squash or pumpkins and we can use sweet potatoes as a substitute for the long-storing varieties. We’ll miss our fermented cucumbers but now that we’ve had great success growing cabbage, we’ll make due with krauts and kimchis. (And I suspect some of our gardening friends may come through with cukes to share at times.)
So for now…goodbye sweet corn, may flights of angels sing you to other backyards less dependent on their homegrown food supply for calories and reliable seed saving. And may one of those backyards belong to a friend of mine so I can still have a few ears to satiate that inevitable summer longing when it comes.