Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah
image Sweet corn is surprisingly easy to grow and is a big hit with young and old.

August 27, 2015
Corn, cones and credibility

As much as I enjoy gardening and all things horticultural, I have several other interests as well. Cooking, leaded glass, playing bass, remodeling and woodworking all come under the umbrella of things that intrigue me.

I subscribe to a couple of national builders’ magazines that feed my addiction for learning new things and seeing what other people are doing out there. One leans towards furniture building and shop setup and skills to be a successful and efficient woodworker. The other widens its scope to construction skills in general, including building framing, concrete, window and door types and installation, and a myriad of related topics.

One of the ongoing features in the second magazine are stories that people “in the trades” send in about quirky, funny, or highly unusual experiences they’ve had while working with customers or with their own projects.

One stands out that I read many years ago entitled “King Cone” — where a home remodeler/handyman noticed a higher level of respect and more requests for him to do work when he did one simple thing. When he parked his work van on the street in front of the house and placed bright orange safety cones leading up to and leading away from his vehicle something almost magical happened. His level of legitimacy, in the eyes of neighbors and those that passed by, soared. Conversations started, people asked him for his opinion, and asked him to do work at their place. He was the same man, but he was a different man than he used to be in the minds of others before he started using those cones.

Dave Bern, Editor-in-Chief of this paper, calls this “cred” — short for “credibility.” Somehow, by use of cones, our handyman friend went from the status of hobbyist or amateur to consummate professional — because “real” tradespeople use equipment like cones!

I’ve noticed the same dynamic for the gardener that grows a stand of corn in their garden plot. You can be successful at growing all sorts of things, but all of them seem to pale in the eyes of the observer when they see those corn stalks reaching for the sky and forming beautiful ears of corn.

We enjoy having guests at our house on an ongoing basis, and when it’s growing season for corn, there are invariably comments about the corn patch. There’s something iconic about corn and rural life that seems to resonate with a large number of us.

It’s ironic that corn is pretty easy to grow. Given basic needs, it will do quite well. It’s in the grass family, so you know it’s a heavy feeder and needs both ongoing moisture and nitrogen to do its thing. Those are also the needs of turf, so you can see the correlation. And, like grass, you wouldn’t plant your lawn in little long strips or rows. Grass does well in large patches where adjacent plants help with shading, weed suppression, and moisture retention.

Corn needs to be planted in blocks of at least 4 rows wide for all the reasons mentioned above and a couple more. First, because it is so tall and relatively shallow rooted, it needs other stalks around it to resist wind damage. A larger stand of corn will cope quite well with high winds, simply because each stalk has others around it to help support it and to deflect the wind up and over the planting. You can see this when the wind is blowing and patterns, that look like waves and swirls, flow across the tops of the plants. The plants flex and move, but rarely break or get pushed over.

Another key reason you need to plant your corn in blocks instead of single rows is pollination. Corn is a plentiful and messy pollinator, depending mostly on breezes and gravity to do the job. Corn does its part by having the source of pollen high up the plant on its tassels. Golden pollen, almost powderlike, is released at the precise time the corn is forming the silks at the head of the immature cobs. Pollen will more efficiently and completely reach the silks when pollen is also descending from plants in the next row. Corn that is planted “single file” will have poor pollination.

Here’s something I find interesting. There is a single silk strand for EACH kernel of corn. No wonder there is so many of them! For a kernel to form, the tip of the silk, connected to a kernel’s position, must get a single particle of pollen. Over the next day, the pollen forms a tube down the silk to a waiting ovary and a kernel begins to form.

You’ll know the corn is actively in pollination mode when the tassels start to release pollen and the silk is very light colored, supple and moist. This continues for about 10 days. When the silks dry, pollination is over. The wait for mature heads of sweet corn is pretty short, ranging from a couple of weeks to a month.

As for watering, some form of drip irrigation is much preferred over sprinkling or hand watering. Corn needs water right at its base on a consistent basis. Do that, and you’re a long way towards being a great corn grower! The best way I’ve discovered to accomplish this is to use a homemade system using PVC pipe with 1/16” holes drilled every six inches. This puts water only where it is needed, and also reduces the amount of weed growth.

Corn benefits strongly from high soil fertility. This year, our patch was planted on a highly amended plot that had an 8” thick layer of well-rotted cattle manure. The corn did quite well. For less fertile conditions, side-dressing of granulated fertilizers will do the trick. I’m a bit unorthodox in my planting spacing and row widths, but it works quite well for me. My plants are only 6” apart, but my friend Bruce plants his 12” apart in his plot and he grows great corn that continues to make him a hit among his friends and family! I know of others that space their corn 8” in the row. If the water and fertility needs of the corn is met, all of these distances will work — it’s your choice.

However, I prefer rows that are 30” apart. Some people plant closer, but I like the room because it makes tasks easier like weeding, putting oil and BT combo on the silks right after pollination to control cut worms, hand-picking grasshoppers (which are “crack” for my chickens!), and simply being able to walk among the rows. Any closer together, and the sharp edges of the leaves can do a number on you. You remember those scenes in movies of people running through corn fields? It’s not as fun or as painless as it looks.

If you want to enjoy fresh corn over an extended time, do succession plantings. Plant different stands of corn about 3-4 weeks apart. This allows you to have varying maturation and multiple harvests over the summer and into the early fall. This also allows you to grow differing varieties of corn without the negative results of cross-pollination.  We’ll address some of the different types of corn in a future article, but suffice it to say that keeping each type true to itself will result in a superior crop.

To extend enjoyment of your corn crop into winter, be sure to freeze batches of cut corn. There’s something almost mystical about enjoying corn when the snow is flying outside, and the bright yellow color is a real meal brightener whether it’s a side dish on its own, or put in a soup or casserole.

One last thing. The iconic status of corn isn’t only for the garden plot when it’s actively growing. Maggie prizes the corn equally for the stalks we’ll bundle and create autumn décor around our place. Come early fall, you can almost be sure you’ll see some stalks of corn placed at the entry to our driveway, saying “welcome” and providing a visible reminder of a summer well enjoyed.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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