Uneven corn due to spotty pollination

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By Jeneen Wiche

Corn has been a staple food for centuries. It was first cultivated by Indians in Central America; in fact, the adoption of agriculture and the art of cultivating gave way to the grand cities of the Aztec and Mayans. What would the world be without corn and potatoes, both of which were first cultivated in Central America?

Modern corn derived from teosinte, a far less productive genetic relative. Teosinte is a wild grass that has small female spikes comprised of encased seeds; modern corn forms ears instead. The theory is that after many years of human selection the teosinte evolved into a small corn cob with soft-encased kernels.

Today corn remains a staple food and a summer garden favorite but for many gardeners (if the raccoons don’t get your harvest first) ears are poorly formed. It is not uncommon to find the silk-end of the ear kernel-less.

Uneven corn is due to poor pollination. Wind is the primary transport for corn pollen so weather will dictate how well pollination occurs.  For large plantings of field corn pollination is usually pretty efficient, it is in the small home garden that we see more problems. Small is the operative word.

In backyard gardens we often see corn plots that consist of about a dozen or more plants line out in a single or double row. This planting configuration makes pollination difficult. Each silk of each ear must be pollinated in order to form a kernel inside the ear. Corn needs to cross pollinate with other ears of corn so if your plants are lined out singly the exchange of pollen between plants simply doesn’t happen. 

Nature helps to carry pollen from one plant to another, usually across rows, so always plant in masses. For small crops try planting in a tight, triangular configuration instead of single or double rows to maximize pollination. Expect better formed ears in the center of your planting than along the perimeter.

Watch for the corn earworm, now, as well. The adult moth of the earworm lays her eggs on the silks of corn. Once the eggs hatch they begin feeding on the silks, working their way down into the husk where the real prize awaits, the developing kernels of corn. Commercial growers often use insecticides, but for the home gardener this is not necessary because there is generally only one earworm per ear (they eat each other if there is more than one!) The corn is still edible and delicious. Simply cut off the end that has been eaten by the corn earworm. I’ve read of one organic approach to deterring corn earworms is dropping a small amount of vegetable oil in the middle of the silks as they begin to form. I have not tried it but it is worth a shot if you have the problem. 

So, how do you know when the corn is ready to be picked and dropped into a pot of boiling water? The silks will dry and turn brown to black. Peel back the husk a little and pierce a kernel with your fingernail. If a milky juice squirts out you are ready to go. 

Sweet corn undoubtedly has high sugar content but it is best if it is eaten within 12 hours of harvest because as soon as it is picked the sugar in the corn begins to slowly turn to starch. If you are not ready to eat your harvest keep it cool in the refrigerator. 

In this modern age you no longer have to stand over a hot stove and boil a big pot of water to enjoy corn on the cob at dinner. The microwave proves an easy way to prepare ears of corn. Place your ears of corn, husk and all, in a covered Pyrex dish with about an inch of water in the bottom. Cook 4 to 7 minutes for two ears, adding about 2 minutes for each additional ear.  It turns out perfect!