}

November 21, 2018

Pie Wars - Pumpkin or Squash?




Tomato tomahto? With squash and pumpkin, it's much worse than that timeless debate. Without even daring to step into the omnipresent 'Pumpkin Spice' arena (I wouldnt dare), this post does demonstrate how we humans sometime just get carryied away with perception and marketing.

My point here is this: There is no such thing as pumpkin pie.
It's all Squash.

Seems like even brand marketers can't make up their mind. Or they feel that this option is the safest route.



Sort of, because there is something called pumpkin pie actually made from orange pumpkins. I see it all the time on some food blogs and on Instagram. An eager and overly-ambitious food blogger will usually show us how. Well meaning, yes, but unless they are using a modern sugar pumpkin which can pass as a marginally suitable filling, you just can't use any old orange pumpkin left over from Halloween. If you do, you will end up with a watery mess with little taste.

This confusion does start with the history of the word 'Pumpkin'. While old, it is just an alteration of an even older name for many squashes from around the 1500's when many simply called these clunky, bulbous fruits 'pumpion', or 'pompone', depending on what country you lived and farmed in. The Middle French name for a squash with this shape was even 'Pompon'. It is beleived that American colonists brought these names over and some stuck. As for 'pumpkin pie' .while it too is nearly as old (1600's), what we thought then was 'pumpkin' (or even 'pie' for that matter) is quite different than what we associate both with today. Even as late as the 1800's, 'Pumkin Pie' wasnt a pastry-sort-of-thing, but a custard often cooked inside of an actual pumpkin (or actually, a squash - you'll see.).

The good news is that there are plenty of fine new and heirloom winter storage squashes available today to use, and many might still be in your autumn displays.

At the original Thanksgiving, winter squash looked something more like this, and it was probably baked in a Dutch oven or whole with the cavity filled with a custard-like mixture.

Much of this might already be familiar to you. Countless historical articles appear every autumn in cooking magazines hinting to parts of this lore. We've read that 'Punkin' is a vulgar slang for a 'person with their hair cut short all around, (as in 'punkin-head' - and yes, this does sound like a premise for a Hollywood movie) (I think it was.), but the while the story on how we arrived today with these very two, different  words for winter squashes (particularly 'pumpkin' for the large, round orange-shaped one) is still confusing. Especially since marketers have run off with not only 'Pumpkin Pie', used in Holiday Lyrics and now that the spices have even become trendy.

Have you ever tried to make a pumpkin pie from an orange Halloween pumpkin?

If you have, then you may have discovered that the result wasn't exactly what you might have expected. Often, it's a big mistake (or at least one that your great, great, great, great grandmother wouldn't approve of). A sugar pumpkin perhaps might work, but in no way should any of us use an orange pumpkin to cook with.

Chefs know (and you'll see the canned 'pumpkin' companies know too) that the best (and most authentic) pumpkin pie comes from any number of hard-shelled winter squashes and not a watery-ol Halloween-type pumpkin. How do I know this? First of all, thanks, mom. I grew up in one of those families who not only grew their own winter storage squashes, but who spent a couple of days preparing them (in the 1970's before we had a food processor) by smashing them on a rock outside, peeling them without losing a finger then roasting them in the oven (or was it steaming them?). My job was usually forcing the now soft flesh through a chinois or Chinese hat shaped sieve with a mallet. Fine for an 8-year-old, but it's not something I am going to do today.

This year I am using up some Red Hubbard along with a few Warted Green Hubbard squashes. Peeling and cutting these beasts is a task best saved for those with protective gear and muscles. This one is small enough to cut inside, but usually I throw them off the deck onto the stone walk to split first.


Eventually, a meat grinder was employed as if we were making sausage, and then finally the first Cuisinart - thank God. Our Squash of choice was either Waltham Butternut (Cucurbita pepo) or Blue Hubbard. There are finer cooking squashes of course, and today, even more heirlooms are available, but when it comes to pumpkin, one learns quickly if making from scratch, that the results will only be watery and tasteless, not to mention colorless.

Sure, there are a few new sugar pumpkin varieties which by name alone tells us that they might be a bit better for pie, (they aren't), but regardless of what some hip cooking blogs might be telling you, peeling a pumpkin and making your own pie will be disappointing. You might as well steam and mash up an old, giant zucchini or an Acorn squash to get the same results.

OK, let's be honest. If you are like me, you've had to zip out to the supermarket one more time before Turkey Day only to find those who rarely cook - literally freaking out about having to make a pie from 'scratch' (meaning 1. buy a premade crust from Pillsbury. 2. Buy a can of pumpkin pie filling. 3. Dump, spice up, and cook.). Hey, I've done this too, and as my assistant at work pointed out one day - "your family didn't even know the difference, did they?".

The thing id - They didn't notice. Apparently only I seem to have the ability to distinguish the flavor and texture of a rare heirloom warted squash from that of a mush dumped from a can of 'Libby's'. Still, I guarantee that you can taste the difference, if not see it. Plant people have that gift.

But here's the thing...'Libby's' knows something much of us don't. That can of "pumpkin' is actually a winter squash - one that Libby's bred and continued to use today in all of its commercial pie filling. The squash they grow is called 'Dickinson's Pumpkin' (it's a beige or tan, a Butternut-colored winter squash that botanically is of a different genus than orange pumpkins that we are familiar with). Read more about it here The Great Pumpkin Pie Conspiracy in the Atlantic.

Have you ever noticed that there are not photos of real pumpkins or squash on the labels of pumpkin pie filling? There's a reason why producers turn to illustrations of pumpkins or just a slice of pie. It's because of the legal department.

What's interesting to me is that on the label of most every pumpkin pie filling is either a photo of a pie, or an illustration of a Halloween pumpkin, and never an image of a squash. Sure, squash itself has a bad name and many associate icky, pasty tasting gunk rather than sweet, orange, cinnamon-flavored desert - but why no photos of orange pumpkins then on the can? Every other canned vegetable has a beautiful photo of the appropriate vegetable on it?

The answer is legal. Packaging requirements established and controlled by the USDA  and FDA have very strict rules. While their description of what exactly can be considered 'pumpkin-pie filling'is vague, it does restrict it to being any hard-skinned winter squash, any golden-fleshed sweet squash such a

Libby's is considered by many to have the finest quality of all the canned pumpkin or squash pie fillings. After all, the kind of invented it!

We can buy seeds today of 'Dickenson's Squash or Pumpkin from many heirloom seed sources, but Butternut equals it for density, sugar, and flavor, not to mention color. It may be the easiest and will make a very fine pumpkin pie. It's my go-to most of the time, but I still try a few other winter squashes as each is so very different.

Around here in Massachusetts, we live in the land of winter squashes. The Blue Hubbard was developed here 250 years ago, and Waltham, of Waltham Butternut Fame, was a field station outside of Boston where the variety was developed. Not to mention that the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock happens to be an hour away.


To understand all of this a bit better, it helps to know that most of the fruits we call squash fall into three distinct species, botanically speaking. don't worry, this will make complete sense.  Our hard-skinned winter squashes come from two species. Most are grouped into Cucurbita moschata like the Hubbards, the Kabocha or Lakota squashes, the Turban types, Buttercups and many of the weird-yet-beautiful warted heirlooms. Most of these make a fine pie filling. Fewer come from Curcurbita moschata but many of the finest eating squashes including the beloved Butternut group, those Fairy Tale pumpkins often sold as Cinderella squashes, and surprisingly 'Dickenson Pumpkin', the tan commercial variety used in canned filling.

The last group - Cucurbita pepo includes not only Zucchini but also summer squash and other summer-types like patty pan, We know that when we leave a zucchini in the garden that the skin gets hard, but it is still thin. The orange Halloween and sugar pumpkins are also C. pepo, as are Acorn squashes. These usually need added sugar to make them more edible and are usually more watery when cooked.


November 13, 2018

Hey Kale, Your Closest Relative is Crunchier, Yummier and Even Healthier. Oh, and Apparently It's Cool Again - Some Cabbage Love



As Food and Wine magazine wrote this month - 'The Cabbage Craze is Officially 'Real'. I would add "The cabbage craze is real again.".

Of course, there are other family members to thank for this resurgence in total-brassica-love such as the kimchi 'kraze', (or any fermented brassica for that matter), cauliflower (both in it's 'steaks' and 'riced' forms), Kohlrabi and it's Instagramable visual appeal, and even Brussel's Sprout (now that we all know how to prepare them properly (raw and sliced in winter salads or oven roasted with sea salt and a spritz of walnut oil).

Sure, kale is still cool (for some) but honestly, it's probably the most challenging to prepare in the kitchen as it must be perfectly fresh (pre-cut in poly bags just won't do) and we all know the one or two supermarkets that have some mysterious ability to actually keep Tuscan kale crispy and fresh for 5 hours (until we bring it home and store it in the fridge.). Unfortunately, at least in our house - unless there is kale in the garden which one can pick fresh, it's far easier to turn to an old half-a-head of cabbage found in the back of the fridge which the clever home chef can trim off the oxidized greybits and rescue it for some lucky dish and thus 'save-the-day'.

Young cabbage plants (an kohlrabi in the background) in our garden last summer. This is an early variety, sown in late May in the greenhouse and set out in mid June, the heads were mature by early July and were as sweet as an apple and crispy like Iceberg lettuce. The bed was complete by the end of July and replanted with a non-brassica crop (dill).


Cabbage it seems has always been a lifesaver, not just on busy weekday evenings after work, but back almost to antiquity. One of it's most valued traits is its storage-ability. Before refrigeration (which really wasn't that long ago as my dad remembers when we only had an ice box (with ice delivered twice a week!), there were pits and root cellars - at least here in New England. We still have one but rarely use it but cabbage, though much maligned by some Europeans 400 years ago who dismissed it as a peasant crop (it was, after all), saved countless lives along with other brassicas like turnips and rutabaga.

We would be hard-pressed to find one distant relative who didn't survive on cabbage or a winter brassica - regardless of our ethnicity if one traces their heritage back to Europe, northern Asia, and even Japan or Korea. In many ways, cabbage is the true hero of the vegetable kingdom - and not just during the Middle Ages, but today with its cancer-fighting phytochemicals and who knows what else, we have much to thank cabbage for. Sure, the sulfur compounds might bother a few, but as my dad would say - those farts are 'cabbage kisses' (eww, sorry).


Drum-head cabbages are old-fashioned and are often found in Asian markets (or sometimes organic markets) wrapped in plastic to help maintain their unique, crispy quality. Don't be put off by their flatter heads, sometimes wider than a dinner plate, they are usually very sweet and have a higher water content than most winter storage cabbage, and thus are more tender and useful both raw and cooked. Given the option at the market, I will choose a flat-head over a round one.


In our house, this has always been true. Thanks to my Lithuanian heritage I am hard-wired to not merely 'like' cabbage - but to truly crave this Eastern European staple. I can remember my parents and my older aunts and uncles laughing about how old they were going to live due to their cabbage consumption (my grandfather and my Dad lived until 100 years of age so who knows?).  For others though, it may just be because cabbage is sweet and delicious. Crunchy, yummy and useful in so many dishes in the fall and early winter when the large storage cabbages come to market - the world of cabbage while to the supermarket shopper may seem boring, is indeed surprisingly broad and diverse. Close relatives like kale and collards aside, just plain old heading cabbage is anything but common to the clever gardener and curious cook.

One of the best things about keeping a home veg gardens isn't just fresh, healthy vegetables - it's that you can choose what varieties you want to grow - and when it comes to cabbage - don't fall for what's available at garden centers or as seedlings in 6 packs - for bedding plant growers generally know even less than produce buyers for supermarkets - and you will most likely end up with ordinary, generic and under-performing varieties simply because we all aren't asking for the best cabbage, or the newest, or oldest heirloom, or the tastiest. Plug growers will just keep ordering the least expensive seed from their mass market seed suppliers because as far as they are concerned - the consumer is just fine with what they have already. This is why those labels found in 6 packs with names like Danish Ball Head, Red Acre, Golden Acre or even simple ones that just say 'cabbage' are still the same labels as the ones printed in the 1980's. They assume that we don't care.



Commercial growers assume that most consumers don't care about the variety they are buying, and the sad truth is - they are right. We, gardeners, care though and should know better when it comes to buying a flat of seedlings - especially when finding one labeled simply 'Cauliflower' (or 'Cabbage'). The horticultural system doesn't make it easy for plug growers to get new or the best varieties either. I've seen their seed-source catalogs, and they are limited to mass-produced varieties that are generally old and haven't changed since 1970. Plug growers grow what they know the buyer at a big box store will buy, and usually, that buyer isn't that informed either. We can change this though - look at how the heirloom tomato trend changed the varieties nurseries now offer? We just have to care and sales data will train buyers and growers to try harder.

Think about it -those colored plastic plant labels in some veggies haven't changed from the 1970's. Cabbage varieties like ' Golden Acre' or 'Danish Ball Head' - even 'Savoy' still appear. (Savoy is a group or type, not a variety). What can you do? Look for nurseries who care about plants, those who hand write their labels and may offer new or choice heirlooms that can only be found in the specialty or trusted seed catalogs (like Johnny's, or Fedco). Better yet - order seed from reliable sources and grow your own. You can do it! (my book may help!).

But maybe that's about to change now that we trained the system to pay more attention to what we really want to grow - I mean, look at how quickly plug growers adapted to adding heirloom tomatoes to their lists?

Thankfully, we savvy types can order seed from many great sources of interesting, choice and premium varieties of cabbage - most of which will never find a space on a plug growers list for buyers to choose from. It would be too difficult for the few plug growers who supply the Home Depot's, Lowes, Costco's and Walmart's to ask their buyers to ask agent to ask their liner grower to ask their plug grower to deviate from their normal way of acquiring seed - from the largest seed houses in the world who buy inexpensive seed of old, generic varieties in great volume to fill the garden centers of the world.

Those who dare may order a pound of seed or so of a great variety from a Johnny's or Fedco, but there is always the risk that the consumer who is stopping by the hardware store to buy a bag of grass seed and fertilizer, sees the tomato plants outside and thinks 'I should really plant the veg garden this weekend', and then perhaps chooses their entire season's-worth of plant via 6 packs. Cabbage then, if they are interested, is usually just an afterthought - "Honey - do you want red cabbage or savoy?", and then that's about the extent of it. ]

Home-grown brassica plants from seed will produce the largest and healthiest plants for many reasons, but mainly because they will have been raised without PGR treatment. Chemicals sprayed to make seedlings look stocky are used universally by growers to create a healthy-looking transplant.  These will always look 'healthier' than home-raised ones, dense and ticght with thick stems. Don't be fooled, start your own seed and never use PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators (root and foliar applications of various chemical's). It's why that store bought tomato plant always looks nicer than one grown at home - even in ideal greenhouse conditions (and it's why fall mums look so dense and mounded), I'm not anti-chemical for I use both organic and inorganic fertilizer, but with food crops.

We, however, dare to look deeper.

We want to grow the finest, the best quality cabbage or even a very unusual but outstanding variety that grows tremendously large, or has some unique quality that enhances the creativity of the home chef. I like to approach it as "if the finest chefs of the world chose the cabbage variety they would want to serve in their finest restaurants - which ones would they choose?" And then, I would grow those in my home garden.

With my book on growing vegetables due to come out in early January 1, 2019 (Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening - (and yes - feel free to pre-order it right now on Amazon - shameless pitch!), I am tuned in to cabbage. In it I dedicate an entire chapter to this veg. I share lots of new cultural information on how to sow and grow the brassica's (the cabbage family) as well for growing the crop well is not exactly the easiest of tasks. Few have great luck when it comes to cabbage in the garden.

My favorite cabbage as a raw veggie is really a toss-up between Carflex and any red cabbage. Caraflex has a short season so it's a treat for a month in summer, but red cabbage stores well as become number one for much of the rest of the year.


Just as a musician is often asked "so what's your favorite song?'  I'm often asked "What is your favorite vegetable?' Truly, hands down for me it is cabbage. Really. In fact, it's red cabbage if you really must know. As a kid red cabbage felt fancy to me. Only found in restaurants or at salad bars and for some reason, it always tastes sweeter. I could occasionally get my parents to plant a row but they felt that red cabbage was wasteful in the garden for it didn't store well and one could not make sour kraut with it. Red cabbage was reserved mainly for two things - fresh eating in salads and sometimes in sauerbraten. It wasn't practical, and as such, was a novelty they planted to appease me. their nerdy child. White cabbage was more useful, for use in slaws, or kraut in the late fall and in those inevitablele pots of cabbage soup all winter. Yes, we were that Lithuanian.

Cabbage must be grown with perfect to keep its crispy quality. After harvest care is important too if one wants to keep the perfect crunch. Even cabbage from the market must be soaked overnight and stored in a polybag and then refrigerated overnight for maximum crunch-factor. The thing is, this crunch is what one will get from a head picked fresh from the garden.

Fall planting of cabbage in September benifits from a floating row cover, if only to keep cabbage butterflies from laying eggs and by providing a bit of warmth in late autumn. A fabric or poly mulch helps keep late summer weeds to a minimum.

A hundred years ago folks really appreciated and knew how to deal with cabbage. Two hundred years ago and they really knew how valuable their crop of cabbage was.  It often meant the difference between famine and life. It was preservable, either in cold storage or as a pickled ferment, and it paired perfectly with most of the storage meats, especially those from the curing shed like pork. In France, we find this best expressed in the classic Pot au Feu with its charcuterie, root veggie s,sausages and various cabbages including fermented cabbage. Germany, Eastern Europe, Austria, Switzerland even China has its braised cabbage dishes based on winter stock from the larder and root cellar. In a time before refrigeration a little kraut enhanced a pork belly, ham or confit duck leg pulled fresh from its comfy plunge of fat in a cold barrel kept somewhere cool. It's how many of our ancestors survived, and cabbage was often the partner in what many of us now consider high-fare dining.

Understanding cabbage takes some homework if you are new to cabbage. First, think of varieties as three main types - Early, mid-season and late.  This is how cabbage was organized by farmers who grew it in the mid 19th century but few today ever think about 'type'or variety beyond what they know. WIth cabbage, all 'types'have their star performers, and to enjoy really great - and I mean really great cabbage, you will have to test a few varieties out and type them for yourself, for like so many vegetables -the finest varieties are often a bit harder to find - meaning that one will have the most luck  with varieties found in reputable seed catalogs - and from the ones who actually grow the crops or breed them themselves and not from a generic package found in a seed rack. Certainly, not from seedlings found at a large garden center unless one really knows the variety well.

Late cabbage often has beautifully tinted leaves hiding a tender, crisp interior. Sown in July or even early August, plants in our New England garden can often remain outside until Thanksgiving.


VARIETIES TO TRY

True cabbage connoisseurs have their favorites,and more often than not the top winner here is a variety known as 'January King' and forget about finding it in markets, this giant, purple-tinted hard-headed late cabbage is one you will need to grow yourself - along with the short list of other top plant-geek favorites, including mine - the early cone-headed 'Caraflex', a weird pointy cabbage the British call a 'hispi' type.

If you don't believe me, try to grow an early cabbage like a conical or cone-headed variety next year - like Caraflex F1even in your raised beds. I suggest a variety called 'Caraflex', an early, small cone-shaped cabbage which is easy to grow. even in containers as an early summer cabbage. It's being discovered by top chefs as well as by foodies who are growing it in their backyard gardens. I have even found it sold in some specialty markets this fall (Wegman's and Whole Foods in the Northeast).


'Caraflex cabbage, a cone-shaped delight.


Talk about sweet and crispy,  Caraflex is tender, crispy and delicious that it is being marketed by its breeder in Europe along with other early, tender and sweet cabbages as 'Léttage' (Lettuce and Cabbage-like. You heard it here, first.). Because these cabbages are lower sulfur (i.e. less farting) yet high in sugar - they taste sweeter. Although best of all is that tender 'crunch factor'.  Brassica Magazine(yes - there is such a thing) lists these along with other trends as 'Brassica Concepts' that are changing how cabbage and other brassicas are being marketed. Expect in the near future Kohlrabi sticks pre-packaged (sold as Kohrispy) and new shrink-wrapped Danish flat-head tender and crispy cabbages. These are all hot items in Dutch supermarkets. The days of tough, woody leather-like cabbage may be over. Remember though- it will take time for consumers to adapt, but you can grow these varieties at home.

Caraflex produced such a slender head that it can be grown in large containers. I have grown great crops in elevated cedar beds.


It is short-lived in slaw as it will wilt and sweat out moisture quicker than storage cabbage but just dress it immediately before serving. A slaw made with 'Caraflex' is sensational - as tender as one made from Iceberg lettuce in a way, yet sturdy enough to saute in butter as well. OK - In pork fat. Who am I kidding?

'Carflex' isn't an heirloom variety though, introduced worldwide by its breeder Bejo Seeds, Inc. in 2016 yet trialed a few years earlier and distributed first by Johnny's Selected Seeds in the US for trial  - I first grew it in 2011.  So while this month's Food and Wine magazine promotes it as 'a lesser-known heirloom', it's new. It's so popular that the breeder has even published 'sensory data on how well people like its taste and texture. It has also been awarded an RHS Award of Merit.

Young cabbge seedlings still outside where they were sown in mid-May. The warmer and much brighter sun along with spring breezes keep these plants sturdy and strong. If a hatch of cabage butterflies is seen, I move them to the protection of the greenhouse until I plant them out in the garden. I've lost many trays of seedlings to the almost invisible larvae, but plants grown this way are much healthier than those found in garden centers in spring as they have never been treated with PGR's and the varieties are always better.


MASTERING CABBAGE

Like most brassica crops, growing cabbage well takes some commitment. Crop rotation is essential, yet difficult to achieve in the home garden if one keeps raised beds. Why rotate? For a number of reasons but most relate to disease. Clubroot and certain insects which lay their eggs in the autumn and hatch in the cold, early spring are problematic and difficult to steer around if one grows cabbage in a soil where any other brassica crop was grown the previous year. Forget about myths like marigolds and companion plants, for while nematodes dislike their roots, there is little data that this benefits cabbage at all.  I also discourage manure teas and other fads as cabbage is a heavy feeder and may require you to shop the carb aisle (blue instant fertilizer) if you really want it to grow stupendously. Hey, we all like a Twinkie now and then.

Sowing cabbage seed is often where the home grower makes a crucial but fatal mistake. While we often think of brassica (cruciferous - the old name) crops as cold weather crops, you might be surprised to know that cabbage germinates best at high temperatures - 80 - 85 degrees. Once germinated, plants can handle cooler temps, and knowing why this is will help you understand many of the requirements that will enhance cabbage (and other brassicas) success. Without getting into too much detail - all brassica's are native to the warm Mediterranean. As biennials, they naturally bloom in their second year during the hot early summer and set seed which drops into warm soil. Cool, moisture-rich weather comes in the autumn and seeds germinate, grow all winter in a cool, maritime winter, and then bloom and set seed in the summer again. When we try to grow cabbage or any brassica, knowing this helps us understand things like why cabbage and broccoli like warm germination temps but grow best when it is relatively cool.

Early ball-head types are very tender yet crisp, never fiberous. I think they could almost be named an entirely different vegetable than tougher storage-types. If you find cabbage to be too sulfurous or tough, try these. They don't store well however, so one rarely finds them in supermarkets, but their looser heads and tender leaves make a superior slaw - look for them at some local farmer's markets, or grow early cabbage yourself - as it's a treat few have ever experienced.


Plants should and could be set out in cooler weather of course as they grow larger. I wait to start all of my brassica seed be it broccoli, cauliflower or kale until June. Why so late? I have a good reason, and it's backed up by some new research. Later sowing of brassicas in man parts of the country gives the plants a healthier start for a few reasons. First, the bright early summer sunshine keeps the seedlings growing short and stout (a reminder that many commercial growers cheat by using PGR's or plant growth regulators on most of our veg. seedling crops which makes cells grow shorter, resulting in a more marketable ('healthier-looking') seedling. The sad part is many PGR's last a while in the soil and plants, and I  have found that plants grown from seed out on my own deck in full sun grow the best crops. Sure, the seedlings don't look as tight and thick-stemmed as the ones on the shelves at the nursery, but I know why - and, it's totally natural.

Sticky yellow paper traps will show you when the hatch or 'flights' of certain insects occur in your garden. Here, we are looking for the date of our largest flight of cabbage root maggot fly, usually in mid-spring while temps hover near 40 deg. Note this date and plant seedlings of all brassica's after it. even though there will be 5 or 6 more hatches, by the second largest hatch again in cool weather in autumn, the plants will be large enough to handle a bit of root damage from munching larvae. Why bother? Imagine the amount of insecticide used commercially on the entire cabbage family. Unless you can afford to buy organic year-round, these are great tips to use at home.

The second reason why I sow seeds later near the summer solstice is that research has shown that late sowing of brassica crops helps many avoid the biggest hatch (flight) of a destructive cabbage insect -the dreaded cabbage root fly maggot. The same goes for radishes, turnips and other cabbage family crops by the way. Ever get those brown tunnels in radishes or suffered from your cabbage plants that looked so healthy for a couple of months but discovered that they started wilting on hot days? That's why. Tiny rot maggots dine on the roots, and the largest hatch in most areas is in late April until mid-May. There are typically 7 other hatches but they rarely affect larger plants.

The cabbage root fly maggot (Delia radicum)  starts life as a simple fly that looks rather like a tiny harmless house fly. Mature females lay their last eggs in the autumn, looking for the roots of any brassica crop- from arugula to brussels sprouts, where the eggs can lay in the soil over-winter, and then hatch as soon as outside temps in spring reach 40 deg. Usually just as we all traditionally planted our broccoli, kale and cabbage seedlings outside. The largest flight happens near the end of cold weather season - when temps tip just above 40 to 50 degrees.

Late crops of any of the Asian brassicas are often more tolerant of insect damage. I sow my cress, Napa cabbage, Chinese Cabbage and Tatsoi in late August in raised beds. A floating row cover keeps the butterflies at bay and once light frosts kill the bugs off, the cloths can keep these greens fresh and frost-free in the garden nearly until Christmas. It also keeps the dogs from eating them (they can't help themselves!).


Cabbage root fly maggots are tiny larvae which feed on the roots of all brassica crops - resulting in wilted plants just as the plants start to look their finest - in late June and July, or brown worm trails and tunnels in radishes, turnips and rutabagas.  While Floating row covers may keep butterflies from laying eggs, they would be disastrous in controlling cabbage root fly. Adults hatch from eggs which have been eggs laid in the soil during the previous year. A row cover will only trap them in under the cover. Great for cabbage buutterfly, but not for soil born insects. Crop rotation would help, but few of us have the space to rotate ever 5-7 years.

The steps recently published by the UMass Extension service in steering your crops around the hatch of cabbage root fly maggots  is something I outline in detail in my book, but briefly - care begins in the previous year by noting what beds have had brassica crops growing in them and then avoiding those beds for other brassica crops in the following spring (crop rotation). Don't forget - this includes late turnips, sprouting broccoli, Napa cabbage, and Asian greens and arugula - yes, both species of arugula are brassicas. Note that cabbage root fly maggots also feed on broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, radish, rutabaga, and turnips.

A floating row cover saved many a brassica crop from butterflies and moths which find the leaves the perfect home for their eggs and larvae, but the fabric will do little to discourage other insect pests like root fly maggots which are already in the soil if one grew any brassica in the same bed the previous autumn. If you have no room to rotate, try covering the soil year round with a much and cross your fingers, or transplant seedlings after the first big spring flight  to avoid the worst damage.


Then there are flea beetles, but they are less problematic to cabbage crops as they merely are acne for young plants - more of an issue with radishes, mustards, and turnips.  For what it's worth - my tip for avoiding these pests is simple, but not for everyone. I've found that elevated cedar beds (the type on legs) deter them nearly 100% As flea beetles prefer to stay active near ground level, and not waist high. The use of fresh (replace every season) sterile potting mix helps tremendously in these raised beds that can be 3 feet off of the ground, and now I get big harvests of radishes that are clean - no chemical sprays needed. The same goes for other brassica crops like Napa cabbage.

Knowing what your particular pests are and when they hatch is key here. With Cabbage Root Fly Maggots I needed to know exactly what dates, particularly in the spring they hatched. I discovered that the first hatch was often around April 1st and in some years in late March if the snow melted by March 15th. To find out the largest flight or hatch for your garden you must set out yellow sticky traps. I get Safer brand sticky yellow cardboard traps and start setting ours in late March here in central Massachusetts. There will be no mistaking the big hatch of both flea beetles and cabbage root maggot fly as the adult fly's will stick to the yellow paper in great numbers.

Young, healthy cabbage set out without a mulch in late June.

One or two may be early, but one morning you will find the cards nearly covered. Take note of this date and repeat noting the temperatures and weather. A garden notebook is helpful, or start a spreadsheet. You should start seeing many agricultural universities and eventually Master Gardener programs starting to suggest many of these newer methods.  Many organic farmer organizations are advising growers to plant brassicas after the large spring flight of these insects. Home growers should find their best results coming not from the traditional methods of sowing seed outside in the garden early (soil would be too cold) and certainly never in flats one sets outside in late winter with the assumption that cabbage and broccoli like cold temperatures - but by sowing seed in ones own plugs or cells set outdoors once the warmer weather has arrived - where seeds will warm in the brilliant summer sun of late May (in the protection of your close watch on a deck or porch) and then setting young plants out into the garden near to the summer solstice.

Certainly, nursery purchased brassica's will sulk compared to these other methods. Try it and see, resisting what may look like 'healthy' cabbage and broccoli' at nurseries and starting your own seedlings is quick (especially during those peak growing days of June), and seed sown in a 6 pack of sterile soil will often produce young plants in just a few weeks which will look decidedly better.



October 11, 2018

A New Book on Alpine Trough Gardening May, and Should, Change How You Container Garden

'Hypertufa Containers - Creating and Planting an Alpine Trough Garden is a new book by Lori Chips that addresses a very specific gardening method which while old-fashioned, may have found its time given climate change and a gardening audience which is growing more and more aware.

I'm excited to be introducing you all to a terrific and useful book; Hypertufa Containers - Creating and Planting an Alpine trough Garden by my good friend Lori Chip's. While some may struggle to get past the title with  'Hypertufa', as good, decent garden folk - we should all know about by now. I just hope the title doesn't scare off the mass market who could benefit from this book.

The visual design of the book will help attract curious gardeners as it is modern, smart and visually interesting.  But this book is so much more than just a good looking book. It does something rare in many gardening books today, for it has real content that is useful. Sure it will inspire, but even if you know nothing about alpine plants or rock gardenings, I guarantee that once you see the photos in this book that you will want to make a hypertufa trough garden.

This hypertufa trough is round and 24 inches deep - like a barrel. The hair-like root systems on these tight and dense saxifrages run all the way to the bottom planted in  pieces of real tufa rock, they bloom in late winter often when snow still sits on them. Talk about hardy.

If you don't know what hypertufa is...
It's a concrete/organic mixture which was designed to mimic Tufa rock (more about that rock, later).
It's a product well known to rock and alpine gardeners, but beyond that small and geeky world, few know about it.


Hypertufa is not a trendy trend.  It's far more horticulturally sound than let's say real trends like Hay Bale gardening or Lasagna gardening.

Hypertufa is more sustainable.
Gardens planted in it are intended to live a long time nd not be disposable.
Hypertufa is frost and freeze tolerant if made properly will last for decades.
Hypertufa in your garden will make you look like a serious plant person.

Here are some saxifrages planted in real tufa rock and sandwiched in Clay. A method only shared with a few folks a few years ago by rock gardening guru Josef Halda from the Czech Republic is a few workshops he did on the East Coast. We were fortunate to host him for a few days that year and he showed us a completely new way to grow alpines - sandwiching them in pottery clay between split pieces of tufa rock.  The troughs planted in the manner are about ten years old now and still growing strong. Lori shares this method in her book a well - this alone is worth the price!


Proper trough gardening has for years been defined as essentially 'planting alpine plants as long-term gardens in containers', but it can be so much more. Hypertufa itself is a substitute material for real rock troughs (which are virtually unaffordable to most).  It's where the name 'troughs' came from though- as alpine gardeners in the 19th and early 20th century started to use real stone farm sinks and troughs for their alpine plants. Today's troughs can be made in any shape, round, bowls, irregular, square, tall, deep, short or even looking like a piece rock - and Lori shows us all how to make them.

Hypertufa makes a sturdy stone-like container which can either mimic an ecosystem or a specific cultural need for a challenging plant.  This means that one can grow many plants that won't grow anywhere else. Look at it this way - if this was the world of aquaria, hypertufa trough gardening would be akin to keeping an authentic, sustainable fish tank of rare species intended to live long and not just bowls of goldfish that will die -which is how many of us treat our containers today. Disposable flower arrangement of plants.


Hypertufa troughs don't need to be large, this one is only 10 inches long.


I think that the challenge in the past was the while only serious plant geeks planted hypertufa containers, they rarely looked good which didn't help their cause. Most troughs ended up looking like cheap, concrete planters with rocks. But Lori's book proves that that doesn't have to be the case. Even my hypertufa troughs seen in the images throughout this post don't look as good as hers do -I am so inspired.

Trough gardening can be as simple recreating nature in miniature or as complex as recreating a bit of ecology from a very specific mountaintop in which to raise an endangered plant in.  While some are known to drift dangerously close to fairy gardening, most will fall somewhere in between.


Primula marginata blooming in March in a hypertufa trough that I bought at my first NARGS meeting 18 years ago but that still grows great plants.

Trough gardening has a history though, growing out of the Victorian rock gardening craze as enthusiasts in the late 19th century and early-to-mid 20th century found that it was even easier to raise these often difficult plants in containers and that large, rock sinks and stone horse troughs were common back then, and these sturdy containers were naturally considered as containers for these plants. Remember - back then most if not all containers were clay - a material that would crack in winter frosts. Rock was the only other option aside from wood.

There are many groups and types of saxifrages but the encrusted ones (dense rock-hard growing high-alpine ones) which tended to be only for specialists with alpine houses seem to thrive if planted in trough gardens. This one came from Wrightman Alpines already rooted in a piece of real tufa rock making me look like a genius with a green thumb.


I suppose that trough gardening just never took off in the US as it did in the UK, at least it never moved beyond the rock gardening world. The reason may be that there were only a few stone farm troughs to go around, or simply that homemade hypertufa troughs never looked attractive. If a large container company designed them professionally it may have helped. but the hurdles to creative containers - that would be unrealistically heavy and then to raise the proper plants for them not to mention soil mixes I can understand why it all seemed like too much.



'Trough gardening' includes most any container - not only stone sinks. This is one I made out of a 1950's cooler that I designed to look perfect on the steps of a ski lodge. A little crazy, but I loved making it and planting it with high-elevation mountain plants.

Today we are different. Many folks have no problem making their own kombucha or attempting to make puff pastry at home. We have access to more materials and curious, smart people are always on the lookout for something new, authentic and interesting. Raising alpine plants in hypertufa troughs checks off all of those.


Since many true alpines are difficult to find, seed-raised plants are easier to obtain - and these are often available once or twice a year at local NARGS plant sales and seedling exchanges such as these yellow draba and white pulsatilla which I raised from seed and shared with my local chapter. Super-rare plants are often only a couple of dollars each when purchased as seedlings. By the way - Pulsatilla is so hardy in my troughs that I have them planted in most everyone- never losing one to winterkill or summer drought. They don't live in my garden, though! Only on my deck in hypertufa troughs.


Yet it's not about rarity either. Trough collections make a statement. They can be planted just for pure beauty alone or as a way to display a collection of plants. Clever gardeners like the artist and author Abbie Zabar keeps a curated collection in which she has planted only the prettiest forms of sempervivums - hens and chicks, which are true alpines by the way. These live on the ledges and rooftop in her New York City penthouse garden. She is somehow able to cultivate a spectacular collection which thrives in a number, tiny, stone and hypertufa troughs that Abbie has collected over the years. These troughs flourish high above the city - and I am certain that her plants believe that they are growing high on a mountaintop in the French Alps.



Lori shows all types of hypertufa troughs in her book, but also she outlines everything that you would need to know about rock gardening - from planting and designing with real tufa rock to choosing the right plants and where to find them. My troughs, which are all hypertufa sit all over my garden - on walks, near doorways and on the deck. Most are just planted and then left alone aside from a bit of weeding now and then. They are very long-lived and are essentially little ecosystems.

In a way, troughs can whatever the garden creator wants them to be. From the tiniest zoos - little environments for only the hard-to-grow plants to just lovely containers for a few dwarf trees and easy growing woodland plants.

Of course, you can plant anything in a trough. I often plant a few of mine with just an interesting annual of one type like Monkeyflower (mimulus) or California poppies just to be different. Californian annuals that I buy from Annies Annuals that wouldnt survive our winter often do very well in them if planted early in spring. Two of mine have a dwarf Japanese Black Pine planted in them.


Primula marginata selections blooming in late February on a mild day outdoors, unprotected in a hypertufa trough. Better than crocus or pansies as few people (or even botanic gardens)  have these rare plants in their colelctions, but you can.


LoriChips' book is thorough and comprehensive which isn't surprising as alpine plants are her life. The reader will find everything one needs to know about trough making and designing. This is a book that is jam-packed with information. It's will be useful for those new to gardening to those who are experts. Regardless of your level of experience this book will excite and inspire you.  It's  design is fresh and modern,  attractive enough to be a picture book alone but it is much more than that.

What I most appreciate is that this book is loaded with step-by-step pictures which frankly illustrate tips and steps which are not even found on the internet as few people grow plants in troughs.  All levels of gardeners will enjoy it.



One of my hypertufa troughs planted with various high-elevation alpine plants from the Pyrenees.  I like to choose mountain ranges that I've explored and then recreate them in miniature in troughs, but you dont need to be that geeky. Still, this Primrose marginata from the Alps will grow terrifically if planted in a trough, while in the garden it may sulk. Once planted, these troughs are rather carefree. Sure you might lose a plant or two each year, but that only makes room for others.

What should make trough gardening attractive to most gardeners though is that troughs are designed for long-term planting which is the smartest way to plant them. Consider trough plantings like bonsai for perennial plants for a well curated trough can last a decade or more. A trough could contain a mini-meadow or prairie, or it could be planted with woodland ferns and ephemeral wildflowers or miniature hardy perennials.




A row of alpine plants in troughs on my deck (and a few window boxes planted with a tender South African bulb that does well in troughs in zones 7 or higher - Rhodohypoxis sit on our deck. The hypertufa troughs are lined up in the winter so that I can cover them with either a hoop of fiberglass roofing material or an old storm window - just to keep the worst of the wet winter weather off of them, they are left open on the sides for cold breezes and blowing snow.


If you want to learn more beyond Lori's book, I suggest joining the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS). NARGS clubs are local too so look for a chapter near you and just show up at a meeting as see if you like it then join. Members are super friendly and love new gardeners, and I can't think of a better place to get started (at my first NARGS meeting in 2001 I came home with a car laod of plants and a trough!). NARGS isn't just about alpine plants though, most members are passionate plant people and gardeners with all sorts of interests from orchids to ferns, woodland plants, woody plants, bulbs, trees, shrubs, rhododendrons, conifers. cacti and succulents. and many wildflowers. There are local chapters all over the country and many international members as well. Join for their seed exchange in winter and their 4 color quarterly journal which is one of the finest plant geek magazines. Join!



This tiny Primula allionii 'LismoreTreasure' is growing in a real piece of tufa rock, not hypertufa. While hard to find and costly, pieces of this porous limestone rock are often for sale at meetings of local rock garden societies. I planted this hard-to-grow plant as a seedling into a hole that naturally appeared in the rock, and then just left it alone. It rooted through the rock and as the rock is set into a gravelly mix in a large hypertufa container, it's on its own - and thriving. 



As for finding the right plants, this might be the hardest part. The truth is that the finest alpine plants though are hard to find.- of course, this adds to the overall appeal. What I don't get from NARGS meetings and members I order from Wrightman Alpines in Canada - great friends of mine, and they ship throughout the US). Shipping just ended for the autumn but early spring is a great time to stock up on these rare plants. Other alpine nurseries include Arrowhead Nursery in Michigan but many specialist nurseries carry plenty of rare and interesting plants that could be considered 'rock garden plants' (plant descriptions will often say 'great for troughs or rock gardens'. Oliver Nursery in Faifield, CT where Lori works sells alpines to but only direct at the nursery. They have a fine collection.

Also try rare plant nurseries. Try Plant Delight's Nursery,  Sequim Rare PlantsThimble Farms, and Digging Dog. All good nurseries will have plants that might be appropriate for troughs, but my big secret tip here is again to join your local NARGS or Rock garden Society as most have bi-annual plant sales, and a membership in the national club allows you to purchase seeds from one of the finest seed exchanges with rare seed collected from all over the planet. These seeds become available every December and often shares seed from expeditions to remote areas all the way to members secret collections.





September 20, 2018

I'm 100% Corn Fed and Totally OK with It



I happen to love September because of one thing - sweet corn. Today many of us struggle with corn. We don't know how to fit it into our diet, many denounce it as a product of industrial agriculture and monoculture, we read labels and reject anything with a corn product on it and we steer clear of corn syrup. It sometimes seems as if the only safe corn product that I don't get raise eyebrows with at my local Whole Foods are locally made corn tortillas. I guess they're OK.




A few of us still celebrate sweet corn and dried corn however, especially as a garden crop. Even small -yard gardeners with limited space can grow some varieties - especially new ones specially bred for containers (although I do feel that these are best considered as a novelty crop and not something worthy of feeding a family with). The fact is a full raised bed 4 x 8 feet or a 10 x 20-foot plot can provide a decent crop if you have the room.

Adventurous gardeners and in-touch foodies still secretly seek out rarest varieties but don't make the mistake of assuming one is better than another simply because it has a fun name or an early introduction date. Unlike tomatoes, heirloom varieties aren't always better tasting, especially when it comes to sweet corn. Dried corn, on the other hand, is often more complex and interesting if one does find a rare, old variety. Just do your homework


My tiny plot of corn still gives us corn in the tiny gap season when our local farms seem to run out.


I'm a pretty easygoing dude but a few things get under my skin. One of those things is sweet corn varieties available at farm stands and farmer's markets. Mainly the names of the varieties. This very well may be my personal gripe but when I see "Butter and sugar" spray painted on a sign I go crazy. (I know, I'm crazy too but really?). Lumping all sweet corn into two buckets (bushels?) helps no one.


I snapped this yesterday as I was driving home near my house. This isnt a farm but rather a 'pop-up' farm stand every summer in an abandoned lot. I assume everthing here comes from the Boston vegetable market but it is rather typical of what one seees everywhere.


Corn is affected more by cultural trends than most any other vegetable. My father considered himself a corn aficionado (I mean - you have no idea, he was literally crazy about sweet corn).  My dad came from an entirely different era—born in 1914. I am certain that corn on the cob was often a complete meal for him and his 7 brothers in this house. I know this because we were one of those families that often had a few dozen ears of sweetcorn on the table for meals in the summer not to save money, but because it was good.


ARE YOU A 'BUTTER & SUGAR'  or a  'SILVER QUEEN' FAN?
 I am neither, although there is hardly a corn variety that I don't like, for fresh eating, I prefer a new hybrid by far (and not a super-sweet sugar-enhanced one from the 1980's either). Like most corn geeks I like a balance between corn flavor, starch, and some sugar, but mostly I like the popping texture that comes with some of the newest hybrids when you eat them straight off of the cob. There is nothing like it. If you've ever enjoyed very fresh corn cooked straight from the field, you know what I am talking about. The breakthrough of SE or Sugar Extender (sugar enhanced) corn was a big breakthrough in the late 20th century, and while those varieties are far better than old sweet corn varieties, they were bred for long-life on the supermarket shelf, and many of us just think that they are too sweet when compared against new Augmented Shrunken SH2 genetics or even Synergistic varieties.


Whah? Are you going all 'GMO' on me Matt?

No worries. I shall explain in far more detail than any human needs in this post. Which is probably why my publisher cut this chapter on corn from my upcoming book MASTERING THE ART OF  VEGETABLE GARDENING (shameless plug - avail on Amazon now, but not shipped until it is published in December). This chapter should give you an idea on how I approach veg gardening in the book, but know that I've edited this down quite a bit.

I am hardly a normal consumer of corn (I am also hardly an expert, but rather a fan).  My history with sweet corn dates back to the 1960's as I was tutored by a father (a serious corn addict) who demanded excellence when it came to fresh on-the-cob corn varieties.  We would hop with him into our 1969 Country Squire station wagon and drive to certain local farms (somewhere he used to work as a kid) as their fields became ready to pick. He somehow knew what varieties Mr. Allaire or Mr. Salo was planting that year, and he knew the maturity dates. He also would demand that we be allowed out into the field to pick the corn so that it would be of optimum freshness.


'Illusion' F1 is a sweet Synergistic corn, available both as organic seed and conventional. It's our most favortie mid-season corn for the home garden. 'Sugar and Butter'? It's probably sold as that.


We were one of those households where sweet corn was considered a complete meal. Dozens would be cooked and that would be supper on any given weeknight in the summer. We would only be allowed to cut corn off of the cobs if it was too old, or if we needed to take it somewhere like on a picnic or to school for lunch.

Dad always believed that white corn was less desirable than yellow corn (which isn't true, really) but his parents who were born in 1889 only ate white corn. Dad was born in 1914, a time when corn hybridizing was changing things.  While his parents only ate white corn (leaving the yellow 'cow corn' for farmers to eat green), dad and his 7 brothers preferred all-yellow corn. The corn of their generation, thanks to a new variety in the 1920's called 'Golden Bantam’.

Corn seems to come in styles and follows fashion. Bi-colored corn eventually became more popular than all-yellow corn in the mid-20th century but it was never my fathers favorite. I on the other hand while young wanted white corn, simply because it seemed rare and odd. No one had yet heard of 'Silver King'. ´ Either that or old-timers confused the new Silver King with an old variety with the same name - a silver dent dry corn that was introduced under the same name in the late 1930's. 'Siver King' was just a SE or sugar enhanced strain of 'Silver Queen' (an older SU standard corn). My point is - these are still old late 20th century varieties and we might want to move on from them. With over 125 varieties commonly grown, you probably have moved on but you just don't know it yet.


When I was a kid in the late 1960s a ‘new’ variety was introduced called ‘Silver King,’ and I can remember thinking that it was cool because it was all white, and it was sweeter than 'Silver Queen'. The problem was I coudl never get my dad to buy it. Then came Bi-colored corn. "Too fancy and novel," dad said. It wasnt until bi-color corn started to be marketed under the variety namesthat was more appealing did he try it.  Names then began to be more user firendly and appealing. Thus, ‘sugar & butter’. Unfortunately, the original Sugar and Butter' is rarely grown today but most if not all bi-colored corn is simply sold under this name.

Blue corn varieties are generally heirloom types and are best for ornamental use. Still, how pretty is this Indigo variety?

WHY CARE ABOUT THE VARIETY NAME WITH CORN?
Wouldnt you want corn that had everything?
Flavor? The perfect balance of starch, sugar, and pop?
Then knowing the variety name is key.

Farm stands and market growers knwo that sweet corn is a cash crop. Even more so today. The race starts in early spring when growers try to get their corn planted earlier than their competitors. This year I noticed Remay floating fabric over an entire field near the farm where I grow veggies. The owner told me that they now plant corn as plugs very early in the spring - weeks before anyone else. Then they cover the fields with floating row covers to protect the seedlings from frost. This gives them a jump on all of the local competition.

A tip for us at home - corn plugs transplant easily and even though I've been starting my corn in cell containers for years, it does feel good to know that even the pros are doing it too. A 10 foot by 10 foot plot can hold 100 plants, and a couple of plug trays ensures 100% germination. I just pop the young plants into prepared ground with little effort even as early as mid april. May 5th is the typical sowing date for sweet corn here in Zone 5 New England.

Varieties do matter for both commercial farmers and home growers as date-to-maturity while important, isnt as critical as variety. Does it germinate in cold soil? Will the pollen affect a neighboring plot of corn? Will the stalks grow too tall and shade something else? Will all the corn come in at the same time? Some varieties grow better in early spring, others better in high summer. Some are best for the fall.

Flavor though is often the most important reason why a home grower would want to think long about the variety they are growing. Commercial farmers tend only to choose their crop varieties based on the market. Flavor doesn't factor in. Ten years ago you never knew the difference between a Brandywine tomato and a Big Girl. Today, you do. You also know the difference between the flavor of a 'Red Delicious' apple, vs a sour"GrannySmith' from the luscious sweetness of a 'Honeycrisp'. My point is that more and more of us today are informed - we know the difference. We are familiar with the names of some varieties, especially with fruit. We can tell the difference between hype and authenticity. We'll pay more for something that tastes better but with corn, we are still being told that it's just all one or two varieties. Odd when there are literally hundreds and hundreds of varieties. It's time to push farmers, farm stands, supermarkets and buyers to let us know what we are buying.

Home raised popcorn is a fun crop. Just be sure that the ears are pollinated well (by hand with tassels from another plant). This crop was raised in a double row that was hand pollinated last summer. Dry it well though if you plan to pop it.


THE HUNT FOR NEW CORN VARIETIES
Today it's almost impossible to find the true variety of sweet corn one is buying.  And don''t just tell me that it is something called 'Butter and Sugar' or 'Silver Queen'. I don't buy that.  Of course, new variety name probably need some tweaking or creativity, and few are any good or helpful. So renaming corn might be in order first. I can't imagine anyone stopping to buy a dozen ears because they saw a handpainted sign that says 'NATIVE. SS3778R F1 Corn, NEXT LEFT'. Yay!

Pollinate your corn at home by snapping off a tassel that is dripping with pollen on a dry afternoon, and shake it over the silks which are emergin on the little ears. It;s fun to do, and doesnt hurt the plant. Imagine every silk as a thread that leads to a kernel.

"Try this experiment. The next time you are buying corn, ask the seller what variety it is. (I do this all the time and only once (in Vermont) did I get an honest answer.). Most sellers will just say 'It's Butter and Sugar' or 'Silver Queen', even if they know the real name of the variety they are growing. People think those are varieties (they are, but I doubt that this is the variety they are buying), more often than not they are buying a 'type'of corn, and most growers just sell all bi-color corn as 'Butter and Sugar' and all white corn as 'Silver King or Queen'. At least on the east coast.

Old varieties of dry corn are often superior to newer ones. Here is one case where heirloom really delivers. Green Oaxcan corn makes some of the best cornmeal.

ONE HURDLE TO OVERCOME IS THAT NEW CORN VARIETIES HAVE BAD NAMES
We can't blame them. Most growers are scared shitless to admit that they actually are growing a variety named something like Mirai® 227 F1 or a brand new patented or registered augmented sugar  gene SH2 or even a new Synergistic corn variety (which may be the best for texture and flavor) because most of thee varieties sound more like insecticide than corn varieties. Names like 'Vision MXR', 'Kickoff', 'Illusion' ' Allure', or 'Trinity' isn't going to get a home chef excited. The folks who name corn really need some help, but then again, they are trying with names like 'Sugar Pearl', 'Sugar Buns' or 'Delectable' - those are names that should capture our attention, but they are so similar to 'Sugar and Butter' why confuse people?

Homemade cornmeal is easy to make. I made this last year in my Vitamix blender.

WHAT ABOUT GMO CORN?
Corn genetics concern people, but probably more than they should: at least from the standpoint of the home gardener. First, there are no GMO corn varieties that a home grower could grow or even access. Regardless, some seed catalogs will state in a burst on their cover “NO GMO’S!” which is akin to saying that fat-free is healthy for you. The truth is, corn breeding is science, and if you believe in science and all of the good that it can bring to our world, then you should be able to appreciate why new corn varieties are often better performers in the garden than most heirloom varieties. We should also consider that in one sense corn is already genetically modified—through selection over the millennia. 

If you have any concerns about GMO corn, then do try growing your own dry corn. Beleive me - nothing tastes like home-grown cornmeal. A 100 sq foot bed supplied us with 5 quarts of cornmeal.

There are a few (very few -like 9%) new GMO sweet corn varieties but you are not going to find any in a seed catalog as one would need to go through an agent and then sign a complex licensing agreement with Monsanto or another developer. You should feel safe buying seed anywhere as no GMO seed is available for home growers at all- so relax. Even though a variety may sound 'sciency' or technical, it's not GMO if you are finding it in a seed catalog. This includes Johnny's Selected Seeds or Burpee.

That said, some GMO sweet corn on-the-ear is showing up in supermarkets, but I imagine that most of this corn is raised in the south for northern markets during the winter. The corn in these cases was bred to have 'stacked genes', bundled if you will so that the variety could be resistant to a pre-emergent herbicide or immune to a fungus. While this typically doesn't bother me, I still wouldn't want my cornfield to be sprayed with glyphosate or Round-up. You see, it's not the genetic engineering that concerns me, it's what they might spray the crop with. That's where I stand with GMO's and until I see some data that proves safety one way or another, I would never buy GMO corn at a market. Yet here's the kicker - I would love to grow GMO corn in my own garden at home - but until they make GMO seed available to home gardeners, this will need to wait. I do appreciate the science of genetic engineering - So-called 'Franken foods' don't scare me at all.  I 'get' the science. Breed me a blight-free tomato with the flavor of summer, please. I want that now.

How's this: Instead of worrying about GMO's and labeling, why arent we all demanding to at least know the variety name that we are buying? Wouldnt that solve everything?

There are many varieties of dry, heirloom or ornamental corn available today. Each are so rewarding to grow in the homer garden.


IS THERE SUCH A THING AS WILD CORN?
Corn is a very old crop. One of the oldest man has ever cultivated. We know where corn originated, and it looked nothing like the crop we recognize today.  There is no longer any true wild corn ( as is the case with most vegetables that we eat today as all have been selected and cross-bred and selected again by our ancestors - genetically modified, if you will by selection), so while we know that corn is the subject of many Netflix documentaries intended to scare us, science and botanists agree that there is little data to suggest that corn is bad for us.

What gets us into trouble with corn is processed food and how much processed corn products enter our food system. We might all agree to try an avoid corn in our food as an additive, as we try to avoid it in pet food, in cattle food and even in chicken food. What the heck happened to being proud of having been corn fed? Has that gone the way that being 'Milk fed? Probably, but aside from building stong bodies twelve ways, corn can be a part of a balance diet (sic). Come on, what about bourbon or whiskey? How about Cheese doodles or Doritos? We all consume corn but we just justify it in different ways. :)

We all know that corn is botanically considered a grass, and that the corn we know today looks nothing like it's wild ancestors. Like cabbage or cauliflower it was selected from a wild species of maize found in Mexico over centuries of natural and human selection. Like most every vegetable we eat today it too has been essentially genetically modified over time by us makeing selections of our favortie traits, and these are passed on.

According to the National Science Foundation and molecular biologists, the wild ‘corn’ was a branched grass now known to botanists as Balsas teosinte.  With its hard seed coat or shell, the idea that we could revert to growing wild corn is unrealistic. Yet corn stands as one of the greatest achievement of mankind, and regardless of your political or environmental position regarding the culture of corn, we as a species probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for corn.


This is a variety isnt 'Butter and Sugar' but it is called 'Xtra-Tender 2171- F1 Hybrid grown from organic seed.
It's an SH2 or 'Augmented Shrunken Gene variety. Not GMO, even though it sounds like it. It's worth growing for both flavor and texture in the home garden, not to mention disease resistance to 'Stewart's Wilt' and Leaf Blight.

IS CORN WORTH GROWING AT HOME?
Looking at corn through a different lens, however, from the view of the home owner who might like to raise to fresh or dried corn in the home vegetable garden, does change the perspective a bit. Setting all discussion of GMO’s and high-fructose corn syrup aside, growing corn as a vegetable crop at home is a safe and worthwhile venture. In fact, sweet or dry corn from the home garden can be one of the tastiest and fruitful crops one can grow.

If you are interested is raising corn, however, there are some realities to face. First, corn requires space, and while the minimum square footage isn’t as great as you might imagine (a 10 x 10-foot bed can yield a few meals) to grow corn well and to make it worthwhile, a larger space is more practical.
Growing dry corn for use in corn meal can be a worthwhile pursuit, but It is with sweet corn where the freshness and variety really set aside home-raised corn apart. Before there were super-sweet varieties bred to hold their sugar content longer, sweet corn varieties simply had to be grown at home and brought into the kitchen immediately and cooked. As most gardeners know, old gardening texts often wax on about “having a pot of water boiling before one runs out to the garden to pick the sweet corn’ to maximize its sweetness.

Of course, you still do that, and even the super-sweet varieties will seem sweeter, but then, any vegetable will seem sweeter if picked and prepared immediately. Fresh summer sweet corn is more like a religion, however, especially in North America where some families may eat a few dozen for an evening meal.

HOW TO GROW THE BEST CORN 
Corn success begins with the variety you chooses. I am fond of both heirloom heritage corn varieties and new hybrids, but I tend to grow heritage varieties as dried corn as it is supremely delectable compared to any new dried corn. But when it comes to sweet corn, I believe that the newer the variety is, the better it is. 

Johnny's Selected Seeds carrys many good varieties of corn for the home grower, but again, the variety names may not attract you to them.

CORN VARIETIES - Naming is everything.

Like fashion, great corn names will never be on the tip of the consumer’s tongue again as there are just too many to choose from. And as such, the names become diluted in a sea of sameness. No one would get excited about growing a crop of ‘Amaize’ or ‘Everprime’. 'SUGAR AND BUTTER' is a great name, it has Madison Avenue written all over it. I mean who wouldnt want something that tasted that good and sweet? Plus, it was pretty.

The days of name recognition the likes of Silver Queen should be gone but they arent. Good names for veggies stick ( and for Fruit, for that matter - don't get me started about the lies that exist with 'Honeycrisp' apples today. "Wait...what?" Briefly - Honeycrisp the variey is loseing it's patent protection so theorhetically any sweet apple could be sold under this name, but I digress) When it comes to corn, few if any of us truly knows the name of any corn variety that we are buying at a farmstand. Even though a few variety names today sound delicious - (‘Kandy Korn’ sounds not all that bad), all corn will probably be marketed simply as ‘Sugar & Butter  or 'Butter and Sugar' Corn until a really good descriptive name comes along. That said, this will probably not happen as new corn varieties are being developed every year and honestly, they all rather look the same to the consumer. 

So unlike apples or tomatoes where certain variety names can turn virtually overnight into brand names when it comes to sweet corn, we may be stuck with descriptive types with names from the mid-20th century like 'Silver Queen' "Silver King' or 'Butter and Sugar'. My dream of having a farm stand that sells 6 or 8 varieties of corn with the actual name will never become a reality, which is probably a good thing as the business model has flaws, beginning with advertising. No one is ever going to stop the car if they see a sign that says “NATIVE ‘FLAGSHIP II’ CORN, NEXT LEFT,” and they certainly are never going to buy a dozen and a half of the most flavorful corn “HMX5346e”.

The fact is we live in a world which is divided both politically and unfortunately intellectually. If a farm stand offered one table with heirloom 'Silver Queen' ears of corn, and another table stacked high with a Synergistic corn variety like 'Illusion F1 hybrid' or an Augmented Shrunken SH2 variety like or 'Xtra TENDER NUMBER 227'or even 'Mirai'® which is trademarked, you might assume that these are scaryGMO varieties. (In case you are wondering - all of these new varieties which are far superior to old varieties are each available as organic seed and are not GMO). But their names do present a huge marketing challenge for anyone marketing sweet corn to a public that has their antennae up high.



This leaves us, the home grower, to just make the corn choices ourselves as no farm stand, supermarket or even canned or frozen food will list a corn variety on their signage or label unless it was one they are familar with. With so many varieties to choose from, it’s best to try a couple of different varieties and types each year. Even in the small garden, if grown tightly and pollinated properly, a crop of popcorn or heirloom dried corn can be grown with little effort. With the diversity available given the selections in most any seed catalog, why not grow corn? Why limit your corn intake to what the local monoculture farm decides is best to grow?

Now- there are some antique corn varieties from the nineteenth century or even much older that are very superior to new ones, but these are dried corn varieties such as the types known as Dents (the kernels dry with a little dent in them). If you prefer what many describe as ‘a real corny flavor’ in fresh corn, then the old Bantam varieties are for you, at least as a fresh sweet corn. They offer a rich, corn flavor with sugar content that is significantly lower which some foodies prefer when corn is used in a recipe. As fresh eating though (off-the-cob), newer varieties are the best hands down. And iot's not all about sugar or sweetness. Many corn geeks prefer corn that sacrafices super-sweetness for texture - i.e. kernels that pop in the mouth when you bite on the cob.

NAVIGATING SWEET CORN CLASSIFICATIONS
Fair warning, corn classification is very confusing. Dont' beleive me? Go to a Harris Seeds or Johnny's site and see for yourself. These are good sites where you can test your corn savvyness. With sweet corn, the relevant distinctions are about the sugar content and how long the corn holds up on the ear after picking. Then of course, is texture and color.




EMBRACE BOTH NEW AND OLD VARIETIES OF CORN
As I said earlier few realize that most sweet corn varieties had all-white kernels until 1902, when ‘Golden Bantam’ was introduced.  It's funny today to hear some people assume that a vegetable is either genetically engineers or a frankenveggie just because it seems odd or different. It's not unusual at all to hear one insist that all-white or red corn, purple or golden cauliflower or even maroon and white carrots are the result of living in a genetically modified world. Actually, it's more like the other way around. Before the 1840's all carrots were purple, red or white with orange being selected by the Dutch in the mid-1800s's. Yellow corn was considered fit only for animals and white corn was preferred for human consumption.

Choosing the best sweet corn for your tastes today isn't easy though. Corn classification is so damn confusing!

Variety names are either organized by genotype or by 'type' and without a chart to follow, few if any of us know the difference between an SE, SH2 or SU let alone an Augmented Shrunken SH2. I mean - who would buy that?

Examples include SU (sugar) and SE (Sugar Enhanced) and SH2 (Augmented Shrunken). Augmented Shrunken, by the way, is just a bad name for a gene that simply shrivels away—clearly, scientists weren’t focused on marketing at that time. The only downside to the SH2 and some SE varieties is that the pollen drift can and will affect the quality of the other - in the same season (unlike squash). All varieties must be separated or the kernels will vary in quality. In the home, garden be sure to space corn crops at leave 60 feet away from each other—remember, corn is wind pollinated.




STILL CONFUSED? TRY GROUPING GENOTYPES TOGETHER

NORMAL CORN
Normal corn means heirloom, or just old-fashioned. ‘Silver Queen’ is a good example. It has one sugar gene (su-1), which will convert to starch quickly after picking. It has a very short shelf life.

SUGAR ENHANCED CORN
Sugar Enhanced (SE) corn was bred from corn varieties with various sugar genes that work along with the su-1 gene above. While these varieties are sweeter (often 25 percent to 100 percent sweeter than normal corn) they also have sugars that will convert to starch over time. Refrigeration near 34 °F will slow down this conversion, but unless the corn was picked on the same day that you picked it, it will begin to decline in sweetness. 

SUPERSWEET CORN
Supersweet corn is indeed super-sweet, and has a slower conversion to starch than Sugar Enhanced corn. It’s often crunchier too, which many people prefer. The high-sugar content can last as long as 2 weeks if refrigerated. The downside is that Supersweet varieties are not cold-soil tolerant at all. You must wait until the soil has warmed to above 60°F in summer to plant, as they can be difficult to establish in cool spring weather. As such, supersweet corn is planted in cold climates as a second crop to follow a fast-maturing, early season crop.

SYNERGISTIC CORN
As if Sugar Enhanced and Supersweet weren’t confusing enough, enter Synergistic corn. These varieties are probably what you will find for sale at will find at a roadside farm stand. They are hybrids bred to have a blend of sugar genes. Something like two copies of se genes and one copy of sh2 genes, for example. Just know that Synergistic corn varieties often have tender kernels and high sugar content, but this too alternates from variety to variety. Some feel that the texture of some Synergistic corn varieties are not as crunchy as some Supersweet types, depending again on the variety. Good seed companies that carry many corn varieties will list what classification a corn variety falls under.

MIRAI® CORN
Mirai is a class of super-sweet corn that has been is showing up in many catalogs. You’ll see varieties listed as a Mirai-type, or something like ‘Mirai 315bc’ or ‘Mirai bicolor’. Mirai corn is not genetically modified. It was created by selection. Most gardeners and growers agree that it seems to have the best of all worlds. The flavor of old-fashioned corn (as it shares some genetics with them) and a blend of the various sugar genes listed above all created by careful cross breeding and selection in the field. 

As a home gardener, I would choose Mirai and SH2 varieties over all others. NOTE: Mirai corn and some Synergistic corn must be isolated when planted as pollen from SE sugar enhanced and other enhanced sweet corn varieties will affect its sweetness. Plant crops at least 60 feet or more away.

AUGMENTED SHRUNKEN CORN (SH2)
Often you will see Augmented Shrunken Corn represented in varieties like ‘Xtra-Tender 227A’ and in some AAS winners, like ‘American Dream’. The term only refers to how the genetics function and are not anything unsavory. The reason these types are good for home growers is that their flavor and texture is exceptional, but their kernels are too tender for machinery to pick them for shipping, so they are best for home growers. All are highly resistant to blight as well.


ISOLATION REQUIREMENTS
Since many new corn varieties must be isolated to take advantage of their special qualities, there are two groups to know which should be isolated from each other. SU and SE GOUP, which includes Normal sugary corn (SU), Sugar enhanced (SE) and Syntergistic/Mirai. These must be isolated from SH2 Group, which includes Shrunken (SH2) and Augmented Shrunken varieties. Check the seed catalog descriptions and always space these varieties at least 60 feet from each other.


POPCORN, INDIAN CORN and DRIED FIELD CORN
The methods for raising sweet corn are basically the same for dried corn, aside from the obvious fact that the corn must be allowed to dry on the stalk. Most field corn varieties are taller than modern sweetcorn, so be prepared for corn stalks that could reach over 12 feet tall. Popcorn and many ornamental corn varieties such as Indian corn can be short, often with surprisingly small ears. 
Pick drying corn once the corn stalks begin to dry and turn light brown. The ears of most varieties can be pulled off in their entirety, and the husks pulled back to reveal the gorgeous kernels underneath. Hang corn ears to dry further, especially if you are planning to crush it for corn flour or use it for popping corn. 

HOW TO GROW CORN
Corn crops can be beautiful in the garden, so think about the site, being brave and even sowing corn in the front yard or planting a tidy block of rows near the driveway—I’ve seen incredibly attractive blocks of corn planted in front of posh contemporary homes that look better than hip landscaping.
The site should have rich soil, as corn is a heavy feeder. Aged manure should be turned in or, if you keep chickens, cast the shavings or straw over the bed through the winter and turn that in. If manure cannot be found either in a bag at the nursery or hardware store, commercial fertilizer will do. A 20-20-20 or other high-nitrogen feed is essential. Not just at planting, but also side-dressed through the summer.

Corn can usually be sown in cool soil, but use seed treated with a fungicide if soils are lower than 60°F. Since corn maturity varies by variety, look at the days to maturity and base your plant timing off that. There are many varieties that can be planted in early to mid-summer and still have time to mature even in cold growing climates. Height is a number worth noting as well when ordering corn seed, as some sugar-enhanced (SE) or Supersweet varieties can be very short (3 feet) while some heirlooms can tower over 12 feet. Think about the shade the stalks will cast on other vegetable crops as well.

Corn must be grown on a grid system, as it is wind pollinated. A 1-foot matrix works well in small gardens, with two seeds sown every 1 foot evenly across a bed. The deeper the bed, the better. If raising in rows, make sure that there are at least four rows or more to ensure that pollen can fall until the silks which will appear on the young ears of corn. 

More than any soil problem or water, it is poor pollination that causes the most angst among home growers. If you are forced to raise a single row of corn (it can be done), pay attention to the pollen that forms on the tassels at the top of the stalk. You’ll know when it is ready as it will begin to fall off onto the foliage if the stalk is tapped. You will need to pollinate by hand in some cases. Cut off a tassel or two, and use them as a brush or wand, shaking them around and over each ear of corn which will be showing a tassel of green threads. Picture in your head that every strand of silk must find a pollen grain for every kernel of corn to form. 


SOME VARIETIES TO CONSIDER

SWEET CORN
‘Illusion’ F1 hyrbid (72 days)—An early synergistic corn with tolerance to cool soils and stromg disease resistance. 

‘Mirai®301bc hybrid—The premiere corn in the new class Mirai of sweet corn. Corn that is an SH2-type of corn must not be closer than 60 feet to other varieties especially thsoe that are SU sugary or SE Sugar Enhanced corn as the pollen will affect sweetness.

‘American Dream’ hybrid SH2 2018 AAS winner—fine, sweet bicolor for home gardeners.

‘Honey ‘N Pearl’—hybrid SH2 1988 AAS winner—the original SH2 bicolor that took the corn world by storm.

‘Xtra-Tender 2171’ F1 hybrid (71 days)—A bicolored super sweet varity which is also available as organic seed.

This black pop corn was just beutiful enough to use as table decor last Thanksgiving. I only grew a few long rows but never bothered to dry it properly to pop it well. 

DRY CORN
‘Robust 997’ F1 hybrid (112 days)—A large-eared golden popcorn with 8-inch ears.

‘Glass Gem’ open-pollinated (120 days)—Rainbow-colored translucent kernals that look like jewels. 

‘Jerry Petersen ‘Blue’ open-pollionated (105 days)—Most black popcorn varieties are small-eared but this one has 8-inch ears. Ornamental as well.

‘Nothstine Dent’ open-pollinated (100 days)—The dent corns are all considered to be the best for cornmeal.

‘Oaxacan Green’ open-pollinated (95 days)—A beautiful green kernel ancient heirloom that makes an incredible cornmeal, Tall stalks to 8 feet.