Last year was the first year that we really tired growing corn. This was combination of factors related to our gardening experience. First, in our reading, we understood that, because corn is wind-pollinated, we would need more than a couple of stalks to assure fertility, and second, we had not gotten around to picking up corn seed. But, to talk about corn, we have to start with potatoes. The land that we are working has been forest for… I guess longer than this country has existed. The valleys in this region were settled for their silty soils which could support subsistence gardening and livestock. The slopes were mostly forested, and used for lumber for building and charcoal for iron smelting. When we purchased the property, it has been logged for generations. We have learned from local neighbors that the ridge on which we build used to have a sawmill on it and was used for deer run hunting. Geologically, our mountains is layers of shale, sandstone, capped with the broken remains of limestone. We would be accurate to say that we have mostly a mix of mud and rocks to start a garden in. Our solutions has been potatoes.
One reason for planting potatoes is that we do not need to dig deeply to get them started. Rather, we helped one of the local farmers clean out his cow barn and hauled a lot of manure to put on the ground. The potato slips go into this mess. As potatoes grow, you hill them up with lighter material. We found that the breakers and ditches along our dirt roads were filled with rotten leaves and silt. Great stuff for hilling up potatoes. At the end of the season, we dig up the potatoes, which pulls up about 8 inches of the rocky soil and mixes this into the decomposed manure and leaves, minus a few drywall buckets of rocks.
Each year, we move the potatoes to a different part of the yard to start a new section of garden. This could be tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. Last year we tried the Three-Sister’s garden: corn, beans, and squash. After adding all the organic material for hilling up potatoes, a Three-Sisters garden added more drywall buckets of manure, rotten leaves, and silt, which I formed into hills, about one foot high. Each hill received 4 to 5 corn seeds. When the corn was as thick as my middle finger, I planted 4 bean seeds a few inches downhill from the 4 corn stocks, and squash at the base of the hills. Each hill was 3 to 4 feet away from each other hill. The corn grew quickly, to gain enough strength to support the beans later in the season. The squash shaded the ground, cooling the roots, preserving water in the summer heat, and reducing weed growth. In the Fall, we harvested the corn first and let the beans dry on the vine. The squash could be harvested when ripe, depending on whether we planted summer squash (e.g. zucchini or crook-neck squash) or winter squash (e.g. pumpkins, spaghetti or acorn squash). This is a system of gardening used by the Native Americans. After harvesting the corn, beans and squash, we were left with more piles of good, organic material to turn in prior to moving the succession of the garden over to tomatoes, peppers, etc.
How I got the corn seed has to do with purchasing straw, a ground cover that we use on the garden. I had noticed that a local farmer had grown winter barley, then cut and baled it in Spring. Then a bale showed up by the side of the road with a “For Sale” sign on it. I had to investigate this local source of straw. While that is a whole other story, suffice it to say that each trip out with the truck for straw required about a half to three-quarter hour conversation about weather conditions, local politics and history, etc. before we finished the transaction. This was not like going to the Do-It-Yourself Big-Box store. After a number of visits, the farmer left me chatting with his son for about 10 minutes. He returned with a ear of field corn, a rich red color. He explained that this is the corn which they have been growing for generations in their field. No worry about being genetically modified. I had to try growing this. The next Spring, I turned one of our former potato patches into our first Three-Sister’s garden.
If you have become accustomed to sweet corn in the summer, you may not have much appreciation for field corn (yes, this is the stuff that farmers feed livestock). Sweet corn has been bread to have about 30% more water content, which allows the carbohydrates
to more quickly change to sugar, thus the “sweet” taste. Field corn has all the starch and will fill you up like eating a whole loaf of corn bread. The best way to cook field corn is to select slightly under-ripe ears (the kernels should be round, not dented), pull them off the stalk and drop them directly into boiling water, or grill them. Otherwise, you will chew on the cob for 30 minutes and be too full to eat anything else on your plate. (Just so that you do not think that we are too eccentric, we do eat sweet corn from the farmer’s market and vacuum seal/freeze lots for winter consumption)
So, what do we do with 50 corn stalks producing 2 to 3 ears each in a couple of weeks? We certainly could not consume that much corn. But, then the dogs and cats love the stuff. Thus, all those ripe ears go into a bushel for husking, plucking off the kernels, and then pressure canning. More about Pet Stew when we get to winter butchering. But wait, all those beans are ready to pick!