Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

From the Inbox: Spacing Corn

Joanne in Henderson, Nevada, left a comment the other day, in which she mentioned she might be planting corn in two 2-foot by 8-foot by 12-inch-high raised beds.

Corn is one of the vegetables for which spacing makes all the difference. You can scatter tomatoes all around the yard, plant peppers in amongst your roses, and sow your carrots willy-nilly, but not so with corn. Corn is unique in being the only grain we grow with any regularity in the home garden and, as with all grain, corn is wind-pollinated; this has practical consequences.

Corn pollen is produced in a tassel at the very top of the plant; these tassels are the "male" parts of the plant. The "female" parts of the plant are the ears formed in the leaf axils along the stalks. From each of these ears extends a cluster of what we call "silk." The far, unseen end of each silk thread is attached to a corn-kernel-in-waiting down inside the ear on what will eventually be the corn cob. What this means is that in order for a grain of corn to form, pollen must travel from the top of the plant, to deep inside the ear, all without any help – and this has to happen for every single kernel of corn.

On a perfectly calm and still day, it is possible that pollen might fall straight down from the tassels, land on the silks, and form a kernel. On a day like today, when the wind is blowing like mad, and rose petals are scampering back and forth across my yard like a flock of frightened sheep, there is a good chance that all the pollen will simply blow away – and that is the number one cause of failure when growing home corn.

The way we get around that is to always plant corn in blocks rather than in long rows. That way, the blowing pollen will likely blow onto the silks on the next plant over and pollinate the kernels.

All of which might be a long-winded way of suggesting, Joanne, that you want to be certain your corn isn't' stretched out in two 8-foot rows, but is rather in more of a block. If your beds are adjacent along the 8-foot sides, consider planting 2 four-foot rows at one end (the same end) of each, for a total of 16 plants, and then using the remaining end of each bed for either a different crop or a later planting of corn.

I hope this helps,

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