I went to high school smack dab in the middle of high corn country–Champaign County, Illinois. (Well, it’s corn now. In the 40s it was hemp. It was fun going to high school there!) We lived, literally, in the last house in town. We were surrounded on three sides by corn fields. I walked through it, skated on it, and more than once accidentally ran into it (blame the, ahem, “hemp”). I never thought that someday I would actually grow it.
But I love growing corn. I grew my first backyard corn in 2007, and every year I find out something new about this amazing plant. Its unique vascular system that self-waters during droughts. The “adventitious feet” that keep the top-heavy stalks from falling over in our variable weather. That every strand of silk goes to a single kernel–if you’ve got “holes” in the ear, it’s because that one strand did not get pollinated.
Corn is such an iconic plant. For Americans I think there is no plant that moves us as deeply. Corn is ours. It’s in our earliest mythology and rules our midwest (where everyone is from, right?). Someone simple and honest is “corn fed.” In Ur-America, it was currency.
It’s silly to grow backyard corn in Illinois. Corn is cheap and available here. You have to devote a lot of space to it to get a reasonable harvest. Most varieties give you only an ear or two from a single stalk; the high-yield ones I’ve tried sacrifice flavor. You can’t grow more than one variety, because it cross-pollinates in the current generation, so you don’t get the variety that you think you planted. (Another fun corn fact.)
It’s an amazing and wonderful plant.
Corn grown sustainably and eaten correctly (i.e. not in monoculture and not processed into everything you consume) is a marvelous food– high in protein and nutrients, easy to preserve, beloved by everyone. It’s fun to grow because there’s always something going on. Once the corn has reached its maximum height, a tassel, the male flower, will form at the top. After this happens, ears start to form where the leaves and the stalks meet. They start as just a little darker green thickening with translucent buttery-white silk forming after a few days. The pollen from the tassel drifts down and pollinates the impending ears turning the silk a soft pink. You mostly don’t need to hand-pollinate corn, the wind takes care of it. After a few days, the silk turns a deep mahogany and the ear starts swelling in earnest. Pick it when the silk is brown but not dry, and milky liquid squirts out when you press a fingernail into a kernel.
Corn handles transplanting well, inasmuch as it stays pert even after replanting, but doing this really slows down its growth and the seeds sprout so well it hardly matters. The first two years I grew it, I planted in dense rows along a fence. The last 3 years I’ve done 3 Sisters–corn, beans, squash. (The rabbit gets the beans. Sigh.) In one of the beds I tried a desert technique–multiple seeds in a single hole.
Another fun discovery was “corn feet.” You plant the Three Sisters in a mound, which I always thought was for the squash at the center, although I had read that corn would root horizontally into the mound, both anchoring the dirt and preserving the mound shape, and strengthening the stalk. Turns out corn sends out these cute little blunt-tipped feet called “adventitious roots”; the ones on the high side of the mound do indeed go horizontally into the dirt. The ones on the low side grow straight down like Midwestern mangrove roots.
It’s a little corny, but it makes me feel like a patriot to look out my backdoor and see corn.