Gardens have been harvested for some time and Thanksgiving is just around the corner. I still have time, I think, to sneak in a post about a great experience I had this summer growing a special heirloom corn called "Glass Gem" which provided not a huge crop of corn but certainly a bounteous amount of learning about the grand design of pollination and what beautiful variation that is nature.
I'd gotten excited about Glass Gem corn when I saw a photo of it on Facebook last spring. Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, AZ had acquired a supply of heirloom seed for Glass Gem and was making the seed available to members who signed up to be on a waiting list. For a mere $7.50 I succeeded in scoring a 50 seed packet of Glass Gem, termed by some "the most beautiful corn in the world."
Since I didn't have a space big enough to grow corn, I asked around and Athena Sutton said she'd plant the seed out for me. There was one hitch--she'd be gone for the summer so I'd be responsible for "corn chores," which meant hand pollinating as many of the ears as I could.
As you well remember, it was a very wet, cold spring, and it took a very long time for the seed to poke its head out and begin to grow. On July 2, I got an email from Nancy, Athena's mom, letting me know that the corn was chest high and growing well. By July 23, tassles began to appear--I knew I better get busy ordering tassle and ear bags. Thankfully, Athena had shared a great video with me on hand pollinating that showed me that being a tassle/silk go between was definitely do-able!
By July 29, the good news was that some nascent ears had begun to form. I would soon be amazed at how quickly corn develops--when my shoot (ear) bags arrived on Aug. 5, the teenie 1" ears I'd seen the previous week were 5-6" and in full silk!
The next three weeks were busy--making regular trips over to the garden to 1) bag tassles the night before I planned to hand pollinate; 2) cover newly forming ears to protect them from errant pollen in the air and 3) snip the silks of previously bagged shoots for pollination before 11 a.m. the following morning!
Some interesting observations during this phase of my project: 1) The stalks were really tall! Not at all what I expected from growing sweet corn in the past! A 6-foot step ladder for bagging the flowering tassles was definitely a necessity. I would estimate most of the stalks were 7 to 8 feet tall! 2) The individual stalks were incredibly productive--it's common for sweet corn to have an ear per stalk--almost all the Glass Gem had three and a couple four or five ears on them. 3) Navigating through a tightly packed block of 50 corn plants (perhaps 1 foot apart) was an interesting exercise in the heat of August.
Each day that I would go to pollinate, I'd follow the method recommended on the video--slightly bending the tassle bag and tap-tap-tapping as much pollen as I could into the bag. I'd then carefully remove the bag and fold it in half to avoid losing any pollen. Next, I'd take the pollen to an adjacent stalk (called "chain pollination) carefully remove the shoot bag and then quickly put the folded portion of the top of the tassle bag over the shoot. I'd then fold and hold the tassel bag around the prepared ear and "snap!" the top of the bag up, releasing pollen onto the trimmed silks of the ear. The last step was to staple the bag around the stalk so that it would remain secure through the rest of the season.
Thankfully, I am not depending on the fruit of my harvest to survive the impending Iowa winter. My technique in hand pollination resulted in some spottily fertilized ears (e.g one silk per kernal, so if my "snap" didn't distribute the pollen equally, no resulting kernal!). The open pollinated corn (the ears not covered by shoot bags) filled out more uniformly. Nevertheless, I was thrilled with the result, mostly because I'd grown attached to this little plot of corn and its bounty. Athena and I split the crop--she kept both the open- and hand-pollinated corn to share in a seed exchange this winter. I came home with many beautiful ears of multi-colored corn, most of which I shared with close friends.
I am thankful the for the experience of hand-pollinating this beautiful crop, for the generosity of Athena and her folks who gave of their organic plot to plant it out and for a re-awakened wonder at Mother Nature's impeccable timing of flowering and silking to make this crop possible. If such a simple activity could rekindle the wonder of this 60 year old gardener, imagine what it might do for children in some grade school in Iowa. Now THAT is a thought to be grateful for!