July 26, 2012

Nibblin' on Nubbin Corn

One of my goals for the garden this year was to grow my own sweet corn and eat it within minutes of harvesting, something farmers famously do and something I wanted to experience. They say corn doesn't get any better than when it's fresh off the plant, and people who are experienced at growing their own will put a pot of water on to boil as they're walking out the door to harvest the ears.

Technically, I guess I can say I accomplished the goal, but I wouldn't call my first planting of corn a success. Instead of nice, fat ears we got mini, appetizer-sized ears suitable for nibbling. These are officially known as "nubbin ears" in the professional corn growing world, meaning underdeveloped.

Nubbin ear is barely longer than the corn holder

The plants looked great at the start of the season, but the growth kind of petered out in late June and early July. The stalks grew spindly and it appeared that some of the tassels were depositing their pollen when there weren't even any silks to pollinate. By the time the first ears were ready, the largest stalk in the bed measured about four feet tall, just over half the height the plants are supposed to be.

Corn plants at their tallest

Compared to the DCC Corn Growing Project ears we planted and harvested out at the field in Knight's Landing, my ears were laughably teeny. But, they were MY ears grown in MY garden! And, they actually tasted good. Not quite as sweet as the Corn Project ears, but that may have been related to the variety. I planted one called "Honey & Cream", a bicolor corn with "old-fashioned flavor".

DCC Corn Project ear on top, our nubbin ear on bottom

Since I've never grown corn before, I'm not totally sure what happened, but I have an idea. I visited the Ohio State University Extension web site, which has a great page about various corn growing problems and abnormalities, including photos, descriptions, and causes. That information, plus a conversation with a corn farmer, led me to believe my two problems were nitrogen deficiency and lack of water.

That surprised me, until I remembered that I planted this corn in my experimental hugelkultur bed. Thinking back to what I put in the bed, I realized there was a lot of brown matter and not a whole lot of nitrogen-rich material such as compost. I did add a very small amount of all-purpose vegetable fertilizer when the plants were very young, and maybe that accounts for their healthy appearance at the 4-week stage. Clearly I needed to add a lot more, or better yet, start with healthy and nutrient-rich soil.

The other problem that may have been related to the hugelkultur experiment was lack of water. Being planted in a raised bed--as opposed to directly in the Davis clay--increases the watering frequency even if there's high-quality soil in the bed. Add the fact that this soil consists mostly of leaf mold, dry grass and logs, and you have a super fast draining bed that obviously dried out more quickly than I realized in the root zone.

I don't think pollination was a problem, as the ears we got, while small, had mostly fully developed kernels. That's good news because it means a 4 x 8 block of corn is a sufficient size to ensure wind pollination, though I think I'll plant an even larger patch next year.

So, the lessons have been learned and next year I'll probably plant corn directly in the patch of Davis clay that currently houses the tomatoes, after adding a large amount of homemade compost to the mix. I've also discovered through this process that I prefer a pretty sweet ear of corn, so I'm planning to try a variety called Sugar Dots next summer, and maybe Silver Queen, too. In any case, I'm now hooked on the taste of ultra-fresh corn and will definitely set aside the space for it in future gardens.


  1. That's so sad! Now I'm worried about our corn/hugul experiment...though we are a few weeks (or more) behind you in growing season.

    One crazy thing that we've been struggling with (though not in the hugul beds) is magnesium deficiency. I din't know you could have a magnesium deficiency but it turns out the cure is to go to the drugstore and buy epsom salts and spray them on your plants. Anyway, it manifests as looking a lot like nitrogen deficiency but is actually caused by the plants not being able to absorb the nitrogen even though there is plenty of it around. We added a TON of organic matter to our beds to try and improve soil texture and may be the root (haha!) cause of this magnesium thing. There's a lot of detail about it here: http://www.soilminerals.com/Cation_Exchange_Simplified.htm but it goes into the deep end of organic chemistry and biochem in a way that leaves me befuddled. Perhaps Mr. English can make sense of it?

    Still trying to wrap my head around it, but the epsom salts have helped...

    1. I bet your corn will be fine! I'll keep my fingers crossed. Interesting about the magnesium deficiency. Did you discover that through a soil test or just rule out other problems? We have so much salt in our Davis water, and the clay soil is so basic in the first place, that the idea of adding Epsom salt is scary to me. Your soils are so different from ours, though.

      Fascinating article. Now I want to read the "practical application" part! I did just check out a couple of soil books from the library because I definitely need to know more about that whole side of gardening.

      Good luck with fixing the magnesium deficiency. I'll be curious to hear how that turns out.