Grow your own popcorn

Colourful flint corn isn’t just eye candy; some varieties, such as glass gem corn, can be eaten as popcorn and cornmeal.

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Unfortunately, each colourful kernel is white inside

It’s best to let the cobs dry on the stalk, but if that’s not possible (or if you’re like me, and you picked them a bit early because you couldn’t wait any longer to see what they would look like), you can continue drying them inside.  Peel the husks back, leaving them attached to the ends of the cobs so that you tie them together.  Hang the cobs in a dry place for a few weeks, or, place them on a screen, and rotate them daily.

As the kernels begin to dry, they will shrink.  This makes it easier to remove them from the cob.  Place a pan beneath the cob, then grab one end in each hand, and twist each hand in the opposite direction, gently wrenching the cob.  The pressure should cause some kernels to pop out.  Once there are gaps in the rows of kernels, it’s easier to use your thumb to push the rest out.  Place the kernels in a wire basket to continue drying, shaking them around once a day.

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Blue glass gem kernels

To make popcorn on the stove, this method works well: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_popcorn/.  You can also, of course, use a conventional popcorn maker.  I just did a small test batch, since it was my first time trying the stovetop method, and got a few burned kernels.  Overall, the taste is superior to bought popcorn, though I may be a bit biased.

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Popcorn!

Many varieties of flint corn can also be ground into corn meal and corn flour.  To do so, run the kernels through a food processor, a blender, or a grinder specifically made for processing seeds and nuts.  Afterwards, sift the results.  You may be left with corn flour and corn meals of various textures.  The coarser grits below will be rerun through the grinder.

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Cornmeal / corn flour

Who says polenta and cornbread have to be yellow?  🙂

Glass gem corn

Sometimes, you just have to grow something because it’s so beautiful that it takes your breath away.

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Glass gem corn was developed by Carl Barnes:

Like many heirloom treasures, Glass Gem corn has a name, a place, and a story. Its origin traces back to Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer living in Oklahoma. Barnes had an uncanny knack for corn breeding. More specifically, he excelled at selecting and saving seed from those cobs that exhibited vivid, translucent colors. Exactly how long Barnes worked on Glass Gem—how many successive seasons he carefully chose, saved, and replanted these special seeds—is unknown. But after many years, his painstaking efforts created a wondrous corn cultivar that has now captivated thousands of people around the world. (source)

I wasn’t sure how well it would fare in Eastern Canada, but I am happy to say that it thrived.  The stalks grew 8-10 feet tall, and produced 2-3 cobs each.  I haven’t found a single buggy cob yet, which is not something I can say for other varieties I’ve grown.

Glass gem corn is flint corn, so it’s not suitable for eating on the cob (it’s very starchy), though I picked some of the cobs while they were fresh, blanched them, cut the kernels from the cob, and froze them for chilis and sauces.  The rest I left on the cobs until the husks began to dry, then brought them in for further drying.  I am now in the process of removing the kernels from the cobs, for popping and/or grinding into cornmeal.  Blue cornmeal, anyone?

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Harvesting and freezing corn

The corn is a bit late to mature here this year due to the cold, wet summer.  The cobs are getting larger–but how do you tell if they’re ready?

There’s a simple way to determine if a cob is ready to be picked for eating fresh.  If the silky end of the ear is blunt or slightly rounded, rather than pointed, the cob’s ready to be picked.  Some suggest that you peel back the husk and pierce one of the kernels to see if the liquid is clear (not ready) or milky (ready), but if you do this test, and the cob isn’t ready, you’re opening the door for earwigs and other pests to crawl inside and eat your unripe cob.

For some varieties of corn, as the plant ages, its cobs develop chewy kernels that aren’t very appetizing eaten fresh.  These can be used for chili, soups, and other recipes that call for canned or frozen corn.  To get the kernels off a cob, cook the entire cob as you would were you to eat it fresh, then let it cool and cut the kernels off with a sharp knife.  Start at the top and cut down each side to the bottom.  Use the kernels fresh, or put them in a freezer bag and freeze them.  There are special tools, called corn strippers or corn cutters, which you can purchase, but a knife works just as well.

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Growing vegetables in hot, dry conditions

Following are some tips on how to encourage a productive garden during a hot, dry summer:

  • Choose varieties that mature quickly and produce smaller fruit.
  • Lay your garden out so that plants that need similar amounts of water are grouped together.  Raised beds retain more water than open beds.
  • Plant in groupings or hexagonal offset patterns rather than rows so that the leaves can provide shade.  Space plants 1.5 to 2 times further apart than usually recommended to provide plants with access to a larger area from which to draw moisture.
  • Sow tall plants, such as corn and tomatoes, on the south side of heat-intolerant plants such as leafy greens, to provide them with shade and lower the temperature.
  • Add large amounts of organic compost to the soil; this helps trap moisture and encourages deep roots.
  • Apply a thick layer of mulch to the soil to prevent moisture loss and keep the soil cooler.  This will also help prevent the growth of weeds, which compete with your plants for water.  You can use natural materials such as grass clippings, straw, dried leaves, pine needles, or shredded bark.
  • Water plants heavily when they are very young, and producing blossoms or fruit.  During other times, they can do with less water. Use drip hoses, which direct water into the soil, rather than spraying the plants from overhead where it is wasted on the leaves.  Water in late evening and early morning.
  • You can place shade cloth over the south sides of eggplant, pepper, and tomato plants.  This will reduce the temperature by 5-15 degrees and may prevent sunscald.  Plants like peppers and eggplants may produce less during a drought, but they will still produce.

Avoid planting these vegetables

Vegetables like peas, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.), and leafy greens like cold weather, so they won’t do well in the heat of summer.  You can try planting them in the early spring or late fall, when the heat is less extreme.

Do try these drought-tolerant vegetables

  • Amaranth
  • Artichokes – Jerusalem and globe
  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Chard
  • Chickpeas (I made the mistake of overwatering these and they started to germinate in the shell!)
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cowpeas
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Melons
  • Mustard greens
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Oregano
  • Peppers
  • Rhubarb
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Savory
  • Squash
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon, especially the sugar baby variety

Plant of the week: Corn

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!

In 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