I Can Bring Home the Cornbread, Bake It in a Pan, and Never… Um….Why You Can't Have It All In the Garden

Sharon February 10th, 2009

I’m mulling over what corn to grow this year.  I want it to be open pollinated, and in the green stage, sweet, probably as sweet as a moderate hybrid.  I’d like it to have good cold soil emergence, a quick maturity date, but a good extended harvest in the green stage.  I want something with a good bit of genetic diversity and an interesting color – green, red, or multicolored.  In the dry stage, I’d like it to parch superbly, grind into delicious cornmeal and also pop into delicate, light popcorn.  It should be easy to shell, but have a good, tight husk to keep out earworms, tolerate wet, cold, dry, hot and variable conditions, and produce a heavy crop, with five or six ears to a plant in dense plantings. 

Just in case you don’t realize it, that list is, well, insane.  That is, no one will ever breed a corn with all of those qualities – it isn’t possible.  The hard coating that makes a popcorn great means that in the green stage, it is never as tender as sweet corn.  On the other hand most corns as sugary as present day hybrids would never make good flour – they would mold instead of drying.  There are corns adapted to hot, cold, variable, wet and dry conditions – but not all at once.  There are some that can tolerate quite a range of conditions, because they’ve been selected for that quality – but that means that other qualities probably weren’t as high a priority.

And yet, if you read garden catalog copy, you might get the impression that the perfect corn or tomato or bean is out there, without compromise. It isn’t totally my fault that on some level I’m still looking for the perfect corn, rather than one whose compromises I can live with – just listen to the catalogs trumpeting “Most exciting introduction in human history!  Better than the domestication of the potato!  This melon stores for seven months at room temperature, perfumes a room and is delicious even after being on the compost pile for 3 weeks – the molds growing upon it are a traditional delicacy!”  Ok, maybe I exaggerate just a little – but not much.

If it were just seed varieties that had this problem we could all shrug our shoulders, but in gardening and farming, the “I want it all” disease tends to permeate our lives.  We want our gardens to be full of a huge variety of annual and perennial crops and have no weeds at all.  We want to emphasize calorie crops in a survival garden and also emphasize high value fruits and vegetables to save money.  We want to raise every animal imaginable – a couple of llamas, goats, a cow, five sheep, ducks, of course, chickens, bunnies, oh, and bees and maybe some pigs….

And all those ambitions are doable – I even know people who do them all.  But most of us, with limitations of space and time are probably going to find that we have to compromise.  For example, a lot of us want to be able to live off our gardens if times get tough – that means growing dense calorie crops – dried beans, nuts, root crops and some small grains.  The thing is, these crops take up space in our garden – and right now, most of us can buy these items pretty cheaply.  On the other hand, lettuce, basil, tomatoes, raspberries, peaches…these are not so cheap per pound.  So do we emphasize high value crops, or do we emphasize calorie crops?  Or do we compromise?  If you’ve got all the space and time in the world, you probably can grow all your potatoes, beans, corn and sweet potatoes, and also all the raspberries and lettuce you want.  But what about those of us on smaller plots, with less physical ability or time?

Well, you might need to cut your produce bill right now more than you need to prepare for TEOTWAWKI.  Or you might feel like you enjoy growing beans, corn and sweet potatoes enough that you are content with that priority.  Or maybe you have just one bed devoted to those crops, just so you know how to grow them if times get tough, while you mostly grow tomatoes and lettuce.

You want an enormous subsistence garden with no weeds, right?  Well, there are things you can definitely do to resist weed pressure – sheet mulching, not disturbing the soil.  But unless you’ve got nothing to do but hoe, the bigger the garden, the more likely it is that you’ll have weeds – while the lambsquarters can’t sneak past you in a 4×6 raised bed, you’ll find that your 1/4 acre garden has quite a few sneaky places for crabgrass to grow.  And it might be possible that you do want to do something besides hoe.  So guess what – welcome to weedland.  I remember visiting Old Sturbridge Village and being told by a gardener that they are constantly criticized for letting the weeds go in their gardens, and are often told that this couldn’t have been a common practice, because, after all, people relied on their gardens.  But in fact, the gardeners there observed that it was quite the contrary – weediness was normal, and as long as the weed pressure didn’t undermine the harvest too much, it wasn’t worried much about. 

Want a forest garden?  Great, that’s a terrific project.  Just remember, though, you’ve now decided to emphasize perennial plantings, which means that even if you scatter in annuals, you’ll probably have to wait a while before major production.  That’s not the end of the world – time passes faster than you think.  But it is worth remembering that your harvests won’t get large for a while in many cases, and that most perennial crops are fruits, nuts and greens  – you probably won’t be getting most of your primary calorie crops from that garden unless you eat a lot of Jerusalem artichokes.  Nothing wrong with that – just worth remembering that there are tradeoffs everywhere.

What about animals?  Well, again, if you live on a farm, love animals and want to, you can have a lot of them.  I know someone living on 5 acres in quite a dense suburb who has more animals on her lot than I do.  But you have to want that – and it has to be a priority.  And the time, energy and feed has to come from somewhere.  Then you have to find a market for the animal – or arrange to butcher it.  Or accept that you have 143 pet rabbits ;-) .

It isn’t that I’m trying to discourage anyone from practicing polyculture, or from diversifying – quite the contrary, what I absolutely don’t want to see is everyone specializing in just one item and growing it over and over again.  We live in a society with far too much specialization.  The fact we’re generalists is, I think a virtue.  But even generalists often find that they have to pick and choose.  And anyone who tells you that their strategy doesn’t have any prices is selling something.

Maybe you can do it all – you are young, healthy, have a strong back and a lot of energy.  Great – enjoy it.  But even that’s a choice – you’ll be devoting your life to growing food. Now I can’t think of a better project for some people – but other people have other callings, and they need to to find ways to grow food that don’t take so much time and energy.  The world needs more people who grow food, especially full time – but it also needs teachers and musicians and nurses and carpenters who grow food on the side.  Someone with less time who wants to grow all their own food may need to change their diet to emphasize easily produced crops, or they may be able to say “ok, I’m content to produce half my meat and all my vegetables – and that’s enough.”  Knowing when to say “enough” is important too.  Now what is enough today may not be tomorrow – so being prepared to shift gears is important.  But we have to live with one foot in the future, but the other still in our present. 

The first project of garden design is dreaming, but the second is shaping your dreams to fit your life.  Most of us will have to choose between the perfect garden for the future and the perfect one for today, between animals and resources, between crops and varieties.  And every time we choose we give something up – and get something back.  The trick is to figure out what you really care about, and make sure you give up mostly things that don’t matter much to you, and that you get back the things that matter most – most of the time.

I think I’ve found my ideal corn – black aztec.  It is a corn that is sweet in the milk stage – not as sweet as most of the hybrids, or quite as tender, but tasty.  You’ve got to move fast to get it then, but we can do that.  It handles our cool, wet climate well, and as I save seed, it gets better adapted to my garden.  At the meal stage, it is sweet – not quite as sweet as my favorite dry corn “northstine dent”, but better than that as a green corn.  It is beautiful and tasty, and makes lovely cornmeal.  And for popcorn, well, I grow a second variety just for popcorn.  And when the corn passes the milk stage, I go down the road and buy sweet corn at my local farmstand.  It is almost perfect – although I’m still probably going to try another variety this year, simply because I can’t resist the temptation of finding something even better.  But even if I do, I won’t fool myself that I have it all.   Just enough for me and my needs.

 Sharon

6 Responses to “I Can Bring Home the Cornbread, Bake It in a Pan, and Never… Um….Why You Can't Have It All In the Garden”

  1. ChristyACB says:

    You had me laughing with your corn choosing! Aren’t we all a little like that? And you’re right, seed catalogs can sometimes sound like infomercials. :) Of course, it probably doesn’t help that many times the description for each is written by someone who loves it. We all have our little foibles, yes?

    I finally had to go with sweet corn this year, myself. A great heirloom OP that I’m sure I’ll be picking bugs off of like crazy. Them’s the breaks, as they say.

    Great entry!

  2. Amy says:

    Great Post Sharon!

    I looked for a long time for the perfect sheep too. The truth is there is no really dual purpose sheep (or chicken for that matter). We have to constantly decide what is important to us and make the best decision based on our needs. Unfortunately, having 2 kinds of corn around makes seed saving tough. 2 kinds of chickens is no walk in the park either.

  3. Christyk says:

    I found an ear of Black Aztec sprouting in my garden under some straw mulch about a month ago…and now have at least forty, apparently happy, potted four inch babies growing in a cold frame…It is a great corn. I am wondering if my last years experimental push it, starting these in a flat on top of the humanure pile for warmth, gave it the idea to start itself even earlier this year.
    So this is drought prone Santa Cruz, Ca and few grow corn but i have a large water tank fed from a neighbors old autobody shop, 1000 gallons per inch of rain, to garden with…It does only rain a few months of the year here though so the 5000 gallons have to be stretched out when it stops raining….There is ice on the birdbath now but all seem to be fine…My original grow it early idea was to use what water was in the soil for the water hungry if they would grow months too early and I had corn in June…
    Thanks for your writings, they are very upbeat to me, look at reality and move on it.
    I cannot over recommend moving to compost toilets. For those in town I really recommend complete hardware cloth enclosures with 3 pallet sides-and in this area, don’t forget to water the pile in the not rainy season. I have been at this for four years and it is a great system.

  4. Michelle says:

    Sharon, I’ve grown Black Aztec and it performed very well for me. Come to think of it, I grew popcorn one year, too… I think it was while I was still in Florida. The squirrels got all of my sweet corn (and darn near everything else) but I did end up with a few ears of popcorn. Never considered it as a breakfast food before, but it’s certainly just as/more nutritionally sound as anything else I can come up with!

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