Growing Open-Pollinated Heirloom Corn

Cultivating heirloom corn varieties in your garden offers outstanding taste and stunning kernels.

| March/April 2014

  • Mandan Bride and Bloody Butcher are but a couple of the colorful grinding corns in this harvest trencher.
    Photo by Karen Keb
  • Oaxaca Green Dent is an heirloom corn known for striking green tortillas and tamales.
    Photo by Karen Keb
  • Burleigh County Flint showcasing a sunburst pattern.
    Photo by Karen Keb
  • The vivid Painted Mountain flour corn.
    Photo by Karen Keb
  • Slate gray ears of Hopi Blue flint heirloom corn.
    Photo by Karen Keb
  • Navajo Sacred corn often displays a purple eagle silhouette on predominantly white kernels.
    Photo by Karen Keb
  • Smaller Glass Gem popcorn ear compared with Will’s Gehu Flint, both varieties of heirloom corn.
    Photo by Karen Keb

Growing Open-Pollinated Heirloom Corn

“One American farmer feeds 128 folks, plus you,” or so proclaims the adage found on roadside signs across the heartland. Yet ironically, most of those farmers actually produce commodities such as corn that get passed on up the line — and aren’t consumed directly or even indirectly by people. Thanks to steadfast seed savers and a growing interest in saving heirloom seeds, a number of nonhybrid, nonsweet eating corns are still readily available — for growing and for eating. And best of all, you can save seed from this year’s crop to grow next year’s.

Can the sweet corn

While I am not terribly fond of the super sugary sweet corn varieties, I don’t mind an old-fashioned sweet corn now and then, such as Will’s Early June or Golden Bantam. But limiting your corn growing experiments to sweet corn does this marvelous plant and its breathtaking diversity a total disservice. Most corns, even the open-pollinated heirlooms that aren’t sweet corn, are sold as field corn, feed corn or decorative corn. My ancestors and the native folks who farmed this country before them no doubt enjoyed the beauty of multicolored and textured corns, but the notion that they were good for little more than their good looks or feeding to livestock would have never crossed their minds. What about the smoky flavor of fire-roasted ears, or the crunchy delight of parched corn, or good grits made with hominy, or fresh tortillas, cornbread, Indian pudding and polenta? And don’t forget popcorn.

Whether you choose flint, flour, dent or popcorn varieties, some of the oldest and newest selections in open-pollinated corns are indeed utterly beautiful to look at, but more so, they are delicious, versatile and you don’t need to purchase seed more than once. Varieties of open-pollinated heirloom corn are also easy to grow, usually requiring fewer inputs than their high-performing modern counterparts. Adding nitrogen in the form of composted manure at planting and blood meal at the final hoeing or cultivating should be all they need in good soils. The best part is that the variety is virtually endless, and you can create your own by selecting ears with interesting traits and growing out the seed in an isolated bed next year.

Preparing the earth

Your corn patches will benefit from tillage in the fall or the early spring — possibly both. These are the times to work in cover crops and generous amounts of compost or composted manure if you need to get the fertility up a bit. Depending on the size of your patches, you can work the ground with a turning spade or fork, a small or large rotary tiller, or a tractor-mounted field cultivator or disc. If you have a wheel hoe with a tine cultivator attachment and your patch isn’t too large or compacted, use it to loosen the soil and work in the compost or other amendments. Alternatively and especially in mellow, relatively small patches, use a broad fork to loosen and aerate the soil and a hand cultivator (three-prong device attached to a handle) or soil rake to smooth the seedbed.

Once the ground is worked and you’ve left it long enough to become friable and mellow, it’s time to do some leveling and clod or rock removal. The metal “dirt” rake works well for this task. If you are going to plant your crop in ridges so that you can use gravity to help with flood irrigation, now is the time to mark the rows and hoe or use a middle-buster type attachment on the wheel hoe (or tiller or tractor) to cut troughs while forming ridges. If your soil is quite mellow, light and soft, you can accomplish much the same effect with a piece of 2-by-10 or other lumber of a similar dimension pointed at the front like the prow of a ship, adding sides to it and some weight inside, and pulling it through the garden. Likewise, there are attachments for some rear-tine rotary tillers called hiller-furrowers that will also do the trick. If you plan to simply plant the ground without furrowing, so much the easier. If you plan to plant your corn in hills, create soil plateaus about 8 inches high and 18 inches in diameter spaced on a 4- to 6-foot grid, depending on how much moisture you can deliver to them.

Sowing your seed

If you want corn in nice straight rows, stake and line out your rows with string and hoe furrows (drills) about an inch deep. Walk along the furrows dropping seed at 6- to 8-inch intervals. Once the seed is placed, you can use a hoe, your feet or a drag made from a piece of lumber to cover the seed. Walk along the rows or roll the field in some way to press the soil into contact with the seed. If you want corn planted in hills, use a dibble to poke holes in the hills (described above) for planting the seed. Use your hands or the hoe to cover them and to press the soil firmly into contact with the seed. For hill planting, plan to place six to eight kernels and thin to the strongest four to five plants.

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