Saturday, 5 June 2010

Stretching the Corn Harvest

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Old-timers' wisdom said to have your water boiling before you go out to pick corn for dinner. With today's super sweet varieties, the sugars don't convert to starch quite as quickly as the old heirloom corns did, so ears of corn nowadays do hold their sweet flavor longer. But nothing beats really fresh sweet corn, straight out of the garden in the summer.

Birds and bees lecture time (hint: for corn, it's wind). Each little piece of corn silk leads down to one kernel of corn on the ear. At least one grain of wind-blown pollen from the tassel on the top of the stalk has to fall on each strand of silk to get a fully filled-out ear of corn to eat. So you have to plant enough corn, in a square block (not just one long row), to get adequate pollination (or, play artificial corn inseminator - shake the top tassels into a paper bag, and then immediately pour out over the silks just emerging below).

But a whole block of corn all maturing at once means feast or famine. You might get a week's worth of fresh sweet corn to eat, more getting starchier by the minute, and end up freezing the rest. Nothing wrong with freezing some - frozen corn goes great in winter soups and chili. But I want weeks of fresh corn, right out of the garden.

So, following the conventional wisdom, I tried successive planting - another short row or two every week. And found that didn't work very well for me. The colder early summer weather around here would slow down the maturing of the earliest plantings, and then the later ones, planted when the weather was a bit warmer would grow quicker. I still ended up with everything maturing at once - it just made more work for me. Sometimes, the latest plantings wouldn't have enough roots to deal with the onslaught of summer heat, and they'd fry instead. And sometimes, I'd get busy elsewhere, get behind on the planting schedule, and then have nothing. Time to figure out a better way.

So I did. I now plant all my corn at the same time, but have my fresh-eating harvest stretching from the end of July into September. Instead of planting the same variety of corn at different times, I looked at days-to-harvest times instead. I start with the upwind-most rows, and plant a 60-day variety. The middle rows in the block fall more around the 75-day range. And then the last rows are the 95 to 100-day ones - enough of those to both eat fresh and freeze for later. If I could count on a long enough frost-free season, there are even 120-day varieties, but getting a harvest from those here would be iffy at best. I help the pollination along on the earliest-maturing varieties, rubbing the top tassel between my hands then dusting them off above the new silks below. Letting the little side-stalks grow, plus the wind, takes care of the later ones.

This same technique can work for other veggies too. I have the earliest leaf lettuces coming along now, the small heads of buttercrunch will be ready a bit later, and the romaines even later. Little round red radishes are ready in just a couple of weeks, the longer french ones a little later, the daikons after that, and then the winter storage ones keep growing into the fall. Differing days-to-harvest instead of successive plantings can mean more eating time, and less work.