Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Corn needs care at tassel time

July 4, 2001


Sweet corn in local gardens has begun to tassel, which means that actual ears of corn are about a month away.

Tasseling is one of those significant points in the garden cycle that lets you know that nature is right on course. Tasseling also is a signal for gardeners to do things just a bit differently in caring for their crop from here on out.

Tasseling is the process that precedes pollination, which allows your corn stalks to produce edible ears. The tassels are the male part of the corn plant; pollen from the tassels finds its way to the silks that form at the end of the ears. The wind usually does an adequate job of transporting the pollen, although gardeners with small patches or single rows of corn may need to hand-pollinate.

Once the tassels spread out at the top of the plant and the silks are evident, you can shake pollen off the tassels into a clean paper bag and sprinkle it over the silks. The procedure is simple but in most gardens unnecessary.

You'll know that the ears have been pollinated when the silks start to turn brown. The corn will be ready for picking about three weeks after the silks first appear.

As you wait out the pollination process, your corn plants may need a little extra attention. By now the plants, which are heavy feeders of soil nutrients, have pulled quite a bit of nitrogen out of the soil around them. If you haven't fertilized your plants, do it now.

When most people think of nitrogen, they think of manure. But you want to be careful here. Unless you have composted manure to sidedress the plants, you may overdose your crop.

You can soak livestock manure in water to make what gardeners call a manure "tea." Diluted fish emulsion usually made of fish solubles, kelp and algae also is a good nitrogen supplement. Another is fine grass clippings, provided that the grass hasn't been treated with lawn chemicals.

Any liquid fertilizer should be applied to the soil. At this point, you don't want to do any aerial watering or spraying that might wash the pollen off the tassels. During this period you'll also want to give your corn plants at least an inch of water a week and keep them well weeded.

Look out for pests

Once the tassels form, be on the lookout for corn borers, which eat the tassels and burrow into the stalks. The larvae light-colored with dark spots are about an inch long. If you find them, treat the corn plants with Bacillus thuringiensis.

Corn earworms, which are even more common, also go after tomatoes. Bacillus thuringiensis, rotenone and pyrethrin are good weapons. There is an easier remedy, however. Once the silks start to turn brown, place a drop of vegetable oil on the end of each ear. This smothers the larvae and creates a barrier that the worms won't pass.

Now that your plants are maturing, you should be aware that their shallow roots extend about a foot from the base of the plant. Keep this in mind if you till to weed between rows.

Also, some of your stalks may send out a side shoot, which looks like a new little corn plant. Leave it there, as you could do damage to the larger plant's roots if you try to remove the shoot.

For the most part, corn plants are hardy and resilient. Most of the varieties we plant today are resistant to the diseases that plagued our grandparents' gardens. Corn also has an uncanny ability to recover from hail and high wind. If a storm knocks down your corn, leave it alone. In a couple of days it will right itself.

About a month ago, deer chomped the tops off about one-third of my corn plants, yet it occurred early enough in the season that the plants came back. They're about a foot shorter than the others, but they are forming tassels nonetheless.

One thing to bear in mind, though, is that when the ears are forming, your garden may become a target for raccoons. Unfortunately, raccoons have the gift of manual dexterity and can do a lot of damage in one night.

Gardeners who have been victimized by raccoons say the critters pull the stalks down to extract the ears, often breaking off or uprooting the plants in the process.

Raccoons can also climb barriers like fences. They're skittish, though, and may be scared away by outdoor lights and dogs.

When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.