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corn and marigolds late summerSome would say we’re fool­ish to attempt to grow corn on the cob in Wel­ling­ton. Why would you try it with our strong winds, lack of space and short, cool sum­mers? And at the very time you’re har­vest­ing your pre­cious crop, the road­side stalls are groan­ing with cobs that are so cheap they are almost being giv­en away. Even so, every year I grow some gor­geous yel­low pearls of good­ness. Just one of those bejew­elled beau­ties is worth the effort: the ker­nels truly are sweetest just after pick­ing – I love them steamed and nibbled from the cob. You can even grow your own pop­ping corn if you choose the right variety.

Corn is the most widely cul­tiv­ated grain in the Amer­icas, and world­wide more corn is grown by weight than any oth­er grain, includ­ing rice and wheat. Much of the United States crop is used for pro­du­cing eth­an­ol but it’s also used for anim­al feed, pro­cessed into high-fructose corn syr­up, and dis­tilled into Bour­bon whis­key. And don’t for­get polenta, tor­tilla chips and buck­ets of cinema popcorn.

You can sow corn seeds dir­ectly in the soil, but to get ahead I tend to start mine in pots in Septem­ber. Choose untreated seed, as the insect­icide used to coat treated seeds may be trans­mit­ted through the corn’s pol­len to honey bees fly­ing above your crop. Corn seed­lings trans­plant read­ily, and if you spread a lay­er of salty sea­weed among them after plant­ing, slugs and snails will stay away. The sea­weed will also sup­press weeds and feed the plants as it rots down.

Spa­cing corn plants 30 cen­ti­metres apart in both dir­ec­tions gives you large cobs, some­times two per plant. Corn is wind-pol­lin­ated so you’ll need to plant a min­im­um of 16 plants in a block (an area 1.2 metres square) to ensure good fer­til­isa­tion and full cobs. If you’re short of space, you can inter­plant nine spring lettuces among the corn. The salad will be nearly over by the time the corn provides too much competition.

Corn needs good soil and plenty of water once the cobs appear. With copi­ous amounts of com­post in your soil and a good lay­er of mulch, it’s sur­pris­ing how little you may have to water, even in dry years. The plants grow tall (about 2 metres high), so provide them some shel­ter from the wind. I have had years when my plants have been flattened by a gale before I got to har­vest my crop, des­pite a wind­break. But if you man­age to get your corn past the slugs and pick the cobs before a storm, there aren’t many prob­lems with which you have to contend.

Your crop is ready when the silky tas­sels start to dry out and turn brown. I often har­vest a few petite cobs earli­er than that, impa­tient for my fresh corn fix. Garden­ing, as with much of life, could be char­ac­ter­ised as a tri­umph of optim­ism over exper­i­ence. When grow­ing corn, if your optim­ism pays off, the sweet, golden exper­i­ence is worth it.


Septem­ber Garden­ing Recommendations

 Septem­ber can be a busy and test­ing month. The new season’s crops aren’t ready and most of last year’s are over. Spring’s here, but some­times it’s not.

  1. Sow early seeds for sil­ver­beet, salad, herbs, spring onions and root veget­ables (car­rot, beet­root, radish) outside.
  2. Sow corn, toma­toes, cucum­bers, zuc­chini and cap­sic­ums over heat or inside.
  3. Plant a few potatoes.
  4. Go hunt­ing for slugs and snails on damp nights with a head torch and a buck­et of salty water.
  5. Spring clean the garden. Chop back, com­post, mulch and com­post some more. Did I men­tion the compost?

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