Have you noticed how tough it is to find organic corn locally? Most farmers' at the markets around here bring their corn in from off-Cape, and most of it is labeled "conventional," i.e. grown with pesticides. (That word usage has always seemed a bit funny to me, as if pesticides have been the norm for hundreds of years, but that's an aside. Anyway.)
So the other day when I noticed Anna Henning of Redberry Farm in Eastham selling organic sweet corn at the market in Orleans, I got excited. I asked her how she'd done it, and here's what she told me:
1. She chose an early corn variety. The main reason people have so much trouble growing organic corn is because it gets invaded by corn ear worms (also known as tomato fruit worms when they eat big holes in your tomatoes). The later on in the season it gets, the bigger and more mature the corn ear worms get, so it's best to plant a corn variety that can be harvested in mid to late July.
2. She used the three sisters' planting method. You've probably heard of this—it's a Native American thing. Basically, first you plant corn seeds in the middle of a raised flat mound. Once the corn sprouts to about 15 inches high, you plant beans and squash around it. The corn acts as a pole for the beans, the beans in turn help stabilize the corn, and the squash acts as a sort of live mulch, keeping the soil moist and shaded and also helping fend off predators with its prickly stems. Nutritionally, the beans add nitrogen back to the soil, which is good for the corn and squash plants.
3. She planted it in a spot with plenty of sunlight and gave it plenty of water. Anna thinks that a lot of times when people don't do well with corn, it's because they planted it in a spot that's too shady.
4. She kept an eye out for corn ear worms. This is the hardest thing for most people. Anna kept watch over her corn, particularly when the leaf whorls were starting to come up, because the worms tend to get in through the top of the ears and then eat their way down. Unchecked, they'll eat the entire plant. So when the leaf whorls were forming Anna put a few drops of mineral oil into the top of each ear, which she says helped deter the worms. Then she kept checking for worms, and on any ears that had worms, she cut the tops off. This doesn't really hurt the plant, she says, although it doesn't look great.
And that's it! She had a lot of trouble with germination, she said, but otherwise success was mostly about paying attention. Of the 20 rows she planted, only about 5 came up, so next year she's going to plant a lot more.
I was lucky enough to buy ten ears from her the one day she had her crop for sale, and they were good. We ate most of them as snacks, just husked and raw and straight off the cob, but in case you're looking for sweet corn inspiration, here are some of my favorite recipes: