If you’ve seen my video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden, you know that I grow Bloody Butcher corn for cornmeal. I chose that variety because back in 1991 Mike McGrath made a big deal about it in Organic Gardening magazine. I liked the color and that it was an heirloom, so I grew Bloody Butcher the next year. I also put in a variety of yellow corn that year and Bloody Butcher did the best. I’ve been growing it and saving seed ever since.
Growing flour corn is similar to growing sweet corn—except you just leave it on the stalk to dry. With sweet corn you are watching for just the right moment to pick it at its best. There’s not so much bother with flour corn. Nature protects the ears from the birds with the husks. That doesn’t help against the raccoons, but in his book Small-Scale Grain Raising, Gene Logsdon suggests putting old socks over each ear to protect from four-legged predators. I haven’t tried the socks.
When it’s ready to harvest, the stalks will be mostly dry and often the ears will point downward, but not always. Choose a dry day and pull off the ears, husks and all. I pull back the husks on each ear and, using baling twine, tie the ears together in a long string, tying them where the ear meets the pulled back husks. I hang these strings in the barn out of reach of mice and birds. I usually do this in early September. The corn would have been transplanted about May 21 . The corn still needs to dry down a bit more after harvest, and I’m pretty busy anyway in September, so sometime in October I get around to shelling it.
Shelling corn is a lot of fun if you are using a hand-cranked corn sheller. If you are using your thumbs it’s not so much fun and blisters form pretty quickly. You can find a shiny new red corn sheller at Lehman’s for $239. I see there’s one on the internet at Pleasant Hill Grain for $80. I’m sure there are differences, but besides the color (red and green), the only difference I can see from the pictures is that you need to adjust a wing nut for cob size with the Pleasant Hill model. The old ones I’m familiar with have a heavy spring that adjusts automatically. My favorite place to find corn shellers is antique malls. You can also find them on E-bay. I prefer the antique malls since I can see what I’m getting. No doubt, what you find will be rusty, but that’s okay. A little wire brushing will clean it up, but it would work fine as it is. Wood missing in the handle is one thing to look out for. There are plenty of good ones out there, but if you do end up with one missing the wood, you could use a handle suited to putting on a file, as a friend of mine did. You should be able to buy an old corn sheller for under $50 if you take your time and keep your eyes open. A popular brand name is Black Hawk. You need to attach a corn sheller to something, usually a wooden box that you’ve made. The shelled corn drops right into the box and the empty cobs shoot out and away. If you are really on a tight budget, you might want to go the primitive route and make a sheller out of a board and a few nails. This 1983 article in Mother Earth News will show you how–http://www.motherearthnews.com/do-it-yourself/1983-01-01/a-primitive-but-free-corn-sheller.aspx.
I wash the corn kernels as I did the wheat and you can check that out at my blog post Grains in Your Garden. Once it’s dry, I store it in jars in my pantry, after I put it in the freezer for a few days first to insure against insect damage. When I’m shelling, I take note of my best ears and keep that seed separate for planting next year. I might keep that in the freezer all year.
Corn feeds us and the soil. Corn is an easy to grow grain that can be a staple in your diet. People who have issues with gluten can enjoy eating corn. The stalks provide carbon to feed back the soil by way of the compost pile. I chop them with a machete in lengths convenient for compost material. Corn is one of the “five crops you need to survive and thrive” that Carol Deppe wrote about in The Resilient Gardener. The other four crops are potatoes, beans, squash and eggs. Deppe is a seed breeder and has developed certain varieties for particular uses and has come up with her own recipes. Being gluten intolerant herself, she has included her recipe for corn bread that contains no wheat flour in the book. Published only a year ago, this book is a “must read” for anyone wanting to grow a major portion of their diet.
You can find out how the Hidatsa Indians traditionally grew and managed their corn by reading Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden. It also covers squash, beans, and sunflowers and is an excellent historical account. With a little research you might be able to find out which heirloom varieties have been grown in your area. Or maybe you might read an article about an interesting variety and start from there, like I did. If you don’t want to have to grind corn and make cornmeal, but you would like the experience of growing corn and harvesting it dry on the stalk, grow popcorn. You can shell out just what you need at the time and it won’t be too bad on your thumbs. You could use the stalks for your Halloween decorations, then chop them for the compost pile. Even a small amount would be fun to get started with. I hope you keep corn in mind for your 2012 garden.