CORN! I once had visions of giant corn mazes in my backyard, and huge harvests of corn to feed all of my friends at a Thanksgiving feast where we dress like pilgrims, and 10-foot tall corn plants that would make my backyard look like a real true farm. These are the reasons I planted corn.
As soon as I put the little corn seeds into the soil in February, I knew what I'd have to be doing come summer: hand-pollinating my corn plants. According to all the literature I had read on growing corn -and believe me, in America where corn is the number one crop, there is quite a bit of "literature" on corn- I was running the risk of producing unfertilized corn ears. Corn is pollinated mostly by wind, so corn plants are grown close together in large groups to make sure every bit of wind-blown pollen is caught and used. Here at FarmTina, where I only had space for 10 corn plants, the chances of natural pollination were slim.
Just to give you some background, here is what a basic corn plant looks like:
It is a tall skinny stalk topped with a bunch of tassels that hold the pollen. The stalk has long leaves growing up the entire height, and poking out above a leaf you'll sometimes see an ear of corn. Before pollination, this ear is just an empty cob inside a husk with silk threads poking out of the end. When pollen blows off of the tassels and lands on the sticky silks, it slides down the silks into the husk and pollinates the cob to create kernels. Yummy, juicy sweet kernels.
So, onto the task of pollinating my corn.
There are lots of different methods out there for manually pollinating your corn. I decided to go with the ole' Cut N Rub. (That process name is a Registered Trademark of FarmTina 2010, all rights reserved, I will sue you over it!) (Ok, that's not true at all.)
You'll need a bowl, a clean paintbrush, some scissors, and your corn plants.
1. First, cut off the tassels from the top of your plants around the time of year when you start seeing yellow pollen dusting off of them. In New York City, planting zone 7, I did this in June. Watch out for rainy days! If you do all this work and then it rains that evening, the pollen can get washed away.
You can mix together the tassels from different plants, which is how pollination would happen naturally in a big field of corn. But don't forget: if you have planted multiple varieties of corn in your garden, you will indeed have yummy corn to eat, but you won't be able to save the seeds for planting next year. Cross-breed corn seeds are a no-go! So if you plan to save the seeds, stick to one type of corn in the garden.
I had to do this process in waves, because each of my corn plants developed ears at slightly different times.
2. Next, grab your bowl and brush, and place your tassels inside the bowl. We want to collect as much pollen as we can from the tassels. You can cut them up if you'd like, I did that to see if it helped disperse the pollen (I can't tell if it made a difference, but it didn't hurt).
Add a leeeeetle bit of water to the bowl to trap the pollen and mix it all around with the paintbrush. You should start to see some faint yellow dust in the bowl- pollen! Woohoo!
3. Trim the silks from your ears of corn. The silks are purpley and slightly sticky, and are sometimes a big tangled mess. We're trimming them close to the top of the ear of corn to make a more direct route from the silk into the ear.
You don't need to save the silks that you've cut off- but you can compost them!
4. Use the paintbrush to paint the wet pollen mixture onto the newly trimmed silks of each ear of corn. I just kept doing this step over and over until I ran out of pollen.
5. This is possibly the most important step of all: Have a precocious 4-year old paint the final touches of pollen onto each ear of corn.
We did it!
All photos are courtesy of Josh Roxas and his farmer-to-be daughter Aiel.