Amazing Maize

Whilst driving west with the grandkids one summer, we paused for the night dead in the center of Missouri. The next morning as I headed onto I-80, a child chirped, “Grandma, you’re going the wrong way!” Checking to confirm that the rays of the rising sun were in the rearview mirror, I asked what made him say that. He replied, “We drove past these cornfields yesterday.”

Indeed, anyone driving across the Midwest will see corn as high as an elephant’s eye for hundreds of miles. Our nation leads the world in corn production.

Much of the corn is used to make processed foods such as corn chips, high fructose corn syrup, ethanol and animal feed. Sweet corn is the one we love best to eat fresh. It has gotten a bad reputation in our “carbophobic” society, but an ear of corn does count as a vegetable serving. Containing less sugar than beets, corn is chockfull of fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, and is also gluten free.

For your fun fact of the day, consider that popcorn is the most commonly consumed whole grain food in the country.

A member of the grass family, corn was domesticated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago. This dietary staple gradually made its way south and then north along trade routes. It reached our area around 900 A.D.

Interestingly, scientists have been studying a variety grown only in Oaxaca, an area in southern Mexico. The roots of this corn secrete a gooey substance in which bacteria live. The bacteria are able to take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form which the plant can use. If this trait can be bred into other varieties, global fertilizer use could be significantly reduced.

Corn can be fun to grow in the home garden if you have enough space. It needs to be planted in a block of at least four rows to ensure pollination. The gardener needs to decide which type of corn to grow: sweet to eat, ornamental corn or popcorn. One cannot have it all because if corn is pollinated by a different type of corn, the kernels will have the characteristics of that parent. This unique phenomenon is called xenia.

We can plant corn here during April and May. To have a longer period of harvest, plant sweet corn every two weeks once soil temperature reaches 55 to 65 degrees, depending on cultivar. Side dress with 10-10-10 fertilizer when plants are 12 to 18 inches tall. Corn needs consistent moisture so mulch can be helpful. Ears are typically ready to harvest about three weeks after the first silk appears. Pick corn in the cool hours of early morning because the heat of the day causes the sugars to convert to starch. The best corn of the year is that which matures in autumn, because the cool nights increase sugar content.

​​A trend that is lots of fun in fall is the corn maze. I’m certain that field corn is used to create these. It is mechanically harvested after it dries out on the plants. The stubble

is usually left for winter forage for cattle.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home. You can email her at

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