Plant of the week: Corn

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Corn is the most common staple food in the world.  It’s grown on every continent except for Antarctica, and used as an ingredient in everything from marshmallows to fireworks and shoe polish.  It is a significant part of our diet both directly (thanks to high fructose corn syrup), and indirectly–through the livestock we consume.

Corn is high in carbohydrates and fibre.  It also contains some protein, and B and C vitamins.  When it’s mixed with lime, such as in tortillas, some amino acids and niacin are made available to our bodies for absorption.

Most of the corn on the market is genetically modified.  It’s hard to avoid GMO corn entirely, but if you grow a heritage variety, you can ensure that at least some of the corn you are eating has been proven safe for consumption.

Preparing corn

Some varieties of corn, such as the heritage variety Bloody Butcher, shown above and below, produce pale yellow cobs when the plant is young.  As the plant matures, the kernels darken and grow tougher.  This might sound unappealing, but it’s actually not.  You can eat the first few batches on the cob.  As they toughen, you can cook the cobs, cut the kernels off, and freeze them.  Frozen corn is perfect for chili and other dishes.  You can leave some cobs on the plant to dry, then grind the kernels into cornmeal or corn flour for breads, tortillas, and polenta, for example.  Some varieties of corn can be used as popcorn once their kernels have dried.

Ideal growing conditions

Corn likes well-drained, nitrogen-rich soil, and full sun.  It does not like cold soil, and frost may kill it.  Corn is a heavy feeder which takes a lot of nutrients from its neighbours.  Be careful what you plant next to it.

As it is pollinated by the wind, it is best to plant it in blocks of at least 4 rows, in which both the seeds and the rows are spaced a foot apart.  Do not plant different varieties next to each other, unless they mature at different times, or they will cross-pollinate.

Most commercially bought corn is treated with a surface coating that prevents fungus and disease.  Your local heritage seed supplier should have some untreated varieties for you to try.

Types

Often, we think of corn in terms of sweet corn, baby corn, popcorn, and cattle corn, but the six main types of corn are catalogued quite differently.

Friends

  • Beans, peas, and other legumes
  • Melons
  • Sunflowers
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash
  • Cucumber
  • Parsley

Foes

  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Cabbage

Fun Facts

  • The average ear of corn has 800 kernels.
  • Popcorn kernels contain a small amount of water inside their thick-walled casings. When they’re heated, steam builds up until the kernel explodes.

The great zupumpkin!

124_2466.jpgIn one of my first small gardens, I planted a pumpkin plant and a zucchini plant next to each other.  I didn’t save any of their seeds, but the next year, when I spotted a pumpkin plant coming up from the compost, I let it grow.  It started out looking like a bit like an elongated pumpkin or some sort of squash.  Then it ripened to the above specimen, which was christened the zupumpkin.

Cross-pollination

Cross-pollination occurs when an insect or the wind carries pollen from one variety of plant to another.  The resulting seed, when planted, sprouts a hybrid of its parents.  Since zucchini and pumpkins are both varieties of the same species, they can create the zupumkin (or zumption or pumcchini–your choice) but a cucumber and squash can’t procreate because they’re different species.

Cross-pollination does not affect the current year’s crop, but rather the next year–with one exception: corn.  If the pollen from the tassels of one variety of corn are blown into the silks from another variety, the cob that develops is a hybrid.

Self-pollinating plants

Vegetables like beans, peas, peanuts, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes are self-pollinating. Their seeds will produce plants like the parent, but insects will occasionally cross them, so if you want to be absolutely certain that your seeds will grow true to type, plant each variety at least 10 feet apart.

Insect- and wind-pollinated plants

Vegetables that are pollinated by insects or wind need to be separated by variety, and grown a distance apart (the distance varies with each type of plant).   To ensure that your seeds grow true to type, grow one variety of each type, or separate the different varieties.

Vegetables that willingly cross-breed

The following plants or plant families are prone to cross-pollination.  If you are planting them with the intention of keeping their seeds, keep varieties well separated.

  • Beets and Swiss chard
  • Cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and broccoli
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Honeydew, cantaloupe, and other melons, excluding watermelons
  • Peppers (hot and sweet)
  • Squash (some varieties)
  • Zucchini and pumpkins

 

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