It’s unfair to this food plant that I should feel the way I do. Corn is a wonderful crop despite what has been done to make it the most prevalent, unhealthy ingredient in almost every food you can purchase at the grocery market.
The Trailer for KING CORN a documentary on corn.
I actually love corn. I love the way it grows. It’s a fascinating overgrown grass that has been selected for eons to have starchy, sugary kernels that are the source of its nutrition. It’s also useful in the garden for having somewhere for your beans to grow up, and providing shelter for the roots of your squash plants (see my article on the three sisters). Corn is usually the tallest crop in the garden, along with amaranth and sunflowers–when you grow corn in your garden, it feels like a real garden.
Corn and GMOs
Between 7-10,000 years ago humans began to domesticate a grass species known as Zea mexicana or teosinte. Zea mays or modern maize or corn, is a human selected species. So we have been messing with genetics for a long time. This isn’t a bad thing. I believe you cannot break the rules of nature. You can only learn them and adjust your methods accordingly, even if during this modern time we are splicing genes between unrelated species. This isn’t to say there are no consequences. In fact, I believe that if everything in agriculture seems to need genetic modification to deal with the toxic levels of pesticides and fertilizers and lack of healthy biology in the soil, we ought to be dealing with those problems, not manipulating corn and other species to be able to deal with said situations. Sadly, this is what we are doing and why I have such negative views of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and modern, corporate agriculture, especially when the end result is the very thing that has given such rise to heart disease and other diseases related to our over-consumption of products derived from corn.
It’s also troubling that tax dollars that were meant to make American’s healthy, and were intended (if we believe congress at face value) on supporting farmers to grow healthy foods, have been diverted to corn producers, often whose end-products are corn syrup or some other unhealthy corn product.
What has happened to corn over the course of the last few decades is an over-emphasis on a few varieties, with increasingly drastic measures taken to make such a shallow-rooted, starch-rich food grow in mass quantities while avoiding pests and climate issues: a tall order, indeed. Ironically, more corn is fed to non-humans than anything else (livestock feed).
While some of what has been done to corn can be described as down-right evil, it doesn’t take away from the fact that corn is an amazing plant that has helped feed countless people. While I don’t believe we should rely only on corn to accomplish the burgeoning world population, it should and will be an important crop for doing so. And if we are to genetically modify organisms, which is an extreme measure, we ought to be sure that we are manipulating the genetics of species not to tolerate bad conditions that are within our control to manage (like employing the toxic products we have been using over the past 50 years) but rather to manage those conditions that are OUT of our control like global warming. And we should trust such manipulations to entities we trust to keep the health of people and ecology in mind, not the bottom line of corporations. So far, it seems we are not heading in the right direction, but if the public is more aware of the facts, we can demand that the health of people be prioritized over the profit of a few people.
Types of Corn
Don’t let this information get you down on corn. It’s a fun and amazing plant to grow, and we need to help maintain the diversity of heirloom corn. Modern agriculture has focussed on just a few types of corn, and it is up to everyone else to keep the diversity alive. There are some beautiful, useful and delicious corn varieties out there.
There are a few basic groups of corn to know to help you select the variety that is right for you. But even if you don’t grow corn, a little knowledge about your food is never a bad thing.
Zea mays indurata
Higher in protein flint corn typically has a hard seed coat with rounded, smooth, kernels consisting of soft starch covered by horny starch. This is best known as “indian corn” and is also the type used for making hominy. Hominy is dry corn that has been soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution to remove the hulls. The process is known as nixtamalization and it improves the nutritional value of corn, removes fungal-mycotoxins from stored corn, improves the taste, and makes the kernels easier to grind. Here is an article on making hominy from scratch.
Zea mays everta
Yes, this is the primary corn used for popcorn, though flint corn can also be popped. There are two types of popcorn, pearl and rice. Pearl types have smooth and rounded kernels, while rice types have more elongated kernels. In addition to the variation in kernel shape, popcorn varieties are available in red, pink, blue, yellow, and multi-colored ears. Look for varieties like Early Pink, Calico, and Dakota Black Popcorn.
Zea mays indenata
This is the type used for animal feed, and the type of corn that dominates the American agricultural landscape. It also makes milled food ingredients like grits, meals and flours. This is also the type used for making fuel, and corn-based, biodegradable plastics. Pencil Cob Dent Corn is a nice heirloom.
Zea mays amylacea
These are soft and lend themselves to being ground into flour, composed almost completely of soft starch with thin seed coats. Kernels are round and smooth like flint corns. Flour corn is not grown widely anymore since people don’t make their own flour very often. For arid regions, this crop does very well.
Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa
This is the type we use fresh at the dinner table. The only difference between sweet and dent corn is that sweet corn has a gene which prevents some sugar from being converted into starch. My personal favorite heirloom is the old-fashioned Country Gentleman. There is a lot of pressure on companies to keep making corn sweeter and sweeter, but the fact is that many of the old varieties of sweet corn are just fine if grown correctly and picked at the right time. Pick sweet corn in the MORNING and put in the fridge the day you intend on eating it. Some people wait just before dinner, but in the afternoon corn sugars get converted to starches. Corn is sweeter in the morning and putting it in the fridge suspends that sweetness.
Zea mays var. ceratina
These kernels appear waxy. Chemically, it has a different type of starch than normal corn starch. It was developed in China, and some waxy mutations have occurred in America dent strains. Very little is grown, and that which is, is used for producing a starch similar to tapioca starch which is a thickening agent.
Corn’s amazing abilities do not come at no cost: corn loves lots of nutrients and, to top off the challenge, has shallow roots. The better your garden soil, the better the results of your work. Prepare your bed with lots of compost and composted manure, and work it deep if the bed is a new one. Rather than planting in strict rows, plant in blocks. Though I say this for every crop, with corn it is particularly important to mulch well with compost and hay (or whatever your preferred top dressing is). The shallow root system does not fend itself well against our extreme temperatures, and corn does not like to have large fluctuations in soil moisture. When plants are about two feet tall, hill up some compost and soil around the base of the plants.
If you don’t have a lot of space, grow one variety. Cross pollination can harm the results of your crop and corn is wind pollinated and therefore easy to cross. If you have ample space, grow varieties very far from each other, hopefully with something like a building to block the flow of airborne pollen.
Sow seeds after threat of frost, or protect from frost if getting an early start. Keep in mind how big plants get, putting the shade they make to work rather than shading out plants that want full sun. Planting with vining crops like squash, melons, and cucumbers is beneficial because they will shade the roots of those plants and they can vine their way away from the corn to get needed sun.
Feed every few weeks with fish emulsion. I have written before about instructions on making your own. Fish emulsion will provide the nitrogen needed to keep up with the intense growth. When plants are big enough, between rows try putting red wiggler worms with lots of stuff for them to eat. To further encourage the worms to stay, put down a piece of plywood to keep moisture in and heat out. The corn will love the worms, and the worms will love the shade the corn produces.
Sweet corn is ready if milk spurts out of a kernel when you press it with your thumb. If your fingernail punches into the kernel too easily, the corn is a little green yet. As discussed above, pick in the morning the day you intend on eating the corn, and store in the refrigerator until then. The other types of corn are picked when the stalk is dead and brown but before frost. Popcorn can be harvested by removing the ears from the stalk but leaving the husks attached. The husks can be pulled back and used to tie several ears together, and these can be draped over a wire and hung from a rafter to dry. Protect from animals.
The European Corn Borer can be spotted by the presence of a small pile of sawdust like material beside a small hole beneath the tassel. Squeeze the stalk and smash the worm before it has time to crawl down and eat its way into the ear. Most other pests can be avoided by avoiding using the same location for corn year after year. Corn earworms can wreak havoc on nice ears of corn. It’s not a big deal to have a few, but here is an organic, bacterial defense against corn ear worms. Rotating your crops is almost always a good idea.
Birds can be a problem, and if they are, use bird netting to protect.
Corn smut sometimes attacks plants, but if you are in the know, this is a good thing.
There are so many sources for corn seed. Choose heirloom varieties and kinds that you are likely to use. Native Seeds/SEARCH has varieties that are best suited for our climate, and include teosinte (Zea Mexicana) on their availability.