Outdoors
All those alluring photographs of wonderful garden flowers and vegetables look so tempting as I thumb through the seed catalogs in anticipation of the next growing season. My preliminary wish list, once I do the math, always far exceeds available gardening space and big decisions are required to narrow down the prospects.
Green Thumb: Lessons learned about container corn 072512 OUTDOORS 1 For the Capital City Weekly All those alluring photographs of wonderful garden flowers and vegetables look so tempting as I thumb through the seed catalogs in anticipation of the next growing season. My preliminary wish list, once I do the math, always far exceeds available gardening space and big decisions are required to narrow down the prospects.

Photos By Carla Petersen

Early to plant, early to harvest - these solarium grown ears of corn were ready for harvest on July 4th, about 90 days after being planted.


Photos By Carla Petersen

Two months after they were planted, the six corn stalks are doing well in a corner of Carla's solarium.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Story last updated at 7/25/2012 - 2:32 pm

Green Thumb: Lessons learned about container corn

All those alluring photographs of wonderful garden flowers and vegetables look so tempting as I thumb through the seed catalogs in anticipation of the next growing season. My preliminary wish list, once I do the math, always far exceeds available gardening space and big decisions are required to narrow down the prospects.

That's why I've never even considered growing corn here in Southeast Alaska where our temperate rainforest environment does not especially lend itself to the corn plant's preference for sunny, high temperatures. Sure, they love water (which we have) but the average air temperature is not acceptable in their circle and I have enough trouble providing heated room for my precious tomatoes.

Be that as it may, one day a friend insisted on giving me a spare packet of corn seeds (other people try grow corn here) and I hated for those nice, fresh seeds to wither away in the packet, so suddenly there I was planting six little kernels in potting soil and nursing them along with the tomato seeds on a heat mat under lights. What the heck, it might be interesting to see if I could grow big, juicy ears of corn. Perhaps I could squeeze them into a corner of the solarium, normally reserved exclusively for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

Planted on March 23, the corn sprouted in a few days under these conditions and shot up a few inches, looking like grass. Before long I transplanted them into 6" pots, which should have been temporary, but ended up being their permanent home. This tiny (for corn) pot presented a real challenge for plants that like to grow downward three to five feet and outward about one foot from each side. By the time I noticed that I needed to transplant the corn, they were three feet tall and not in the mood to be dislodged from their present circumstance.

Thousands of strains of field, sweet, pop and ornamental corn can be found around the world. The sweet corn we grow today was developed from field corn in the 1700s, according to a National Gardening Association website. Over the years genetic changes have occurred from cross-pollination resulting in over 200 varieties of sweet corn alone. Starch and sugar content determine the kernel's texture, shape and flavor.

Having never grown corn, I soon realized I knew nothing about its clever ways but luckily a friend who grew up on a farm informed me that the pollen would appear in the tassels (male flowers) at the top of the plant and is normally transferred by wind to the threadlike silks (female flowers) that emerge from the ears lower down on the stalk. Lacking much of a breeze in my solarium, it was suggested that I tend to the pollen transfer myself for improved odds of success.

Sure enough, at about two thirds of the corn's full height, the tassels were replete with pollen. So far, so good. But when the small, developing ears had not sent out silks within a few days, Aaron, my farming advisor, was concerned. The corn was not developing quite right, struggling to cope with its lot in an undersized container and apparently, insufficiently watered. Corn requires excellent drainage and I had been overly cautious about watering before realizing that it was virtually impossible to overwater in these containers.

When the silks did finally appear, I collected pollen and sprinkled it on the silks as directed. Amazingly, each threadlike silk corresponds to a single kernel of corn that will develop on the ear. Without proper pollination (and plenty of water during that time), there may be gaps or large areas on the cob lacking kernels.

I re-applied pollen over several days and waited, feeling hopeful as the ears began to lengthen and fill out. The stalks had grown to over five feet, each with one ear. By July 4, although the ears were not large, the silks had all turned brown and harvest was in order. The moment of truth was at hand even if the corn hardly looked worth picking.

Aaron and I each broke off a corncob and pulled back the husks, revealing the underwhelming ears that were comically only about five inches long. Corn possesses its maximum sweetness if consumed immediately after being picked, before the sugars begin to convert to starches so we dove into those tiny, tender and juicy kernels right there, uncooked, standing outside in the sunshine and ate three ears apiece, cob and all. My entire harvest had been consumed in five minutes.

The container corn experiment had at least led to a much greater understanding about the plant. Even if I never try growing it here in Southeast Alaska again, I'll always appreciate corn in a different way.


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