Archive for October, 2011

Bloody Butcher corn drying in the barn

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.

corn ready for harvest

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.

corn sheller in action

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.   

Bloody Butcher corn ready for the pantry

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.

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sweet potatoes from one plant

If you planted sweet potatoes this year it’s about time to get them out of the ground, if you haven’t already.  That said, most of mine are still there, I hope.  The only pest I have with sweet potatoes are the voles and they may have gotten more than their share this year.  Voles are one of the biggest challenges in the garden.  One of these days I’ll have them in balance. 

According to the Rodale book How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method (1961), my favorite reference book, sweet potatoes need 175 frost-free days with warm nights.  When the soil temperature dips to 60 degrees the vines stop growing.  The vines die at a soil temperature of 50.  I want to dig my sweet potatoes before the frost so that I can have as much biomass for the compost pile from the vines as I can.  If you do that you don’t have to worry about soil temperature.  Sweet potatoes grow as a bunch from the base of each plant, not willy nilly under the ground.  You can see the harvest from one plant in the photo along with the garden fork used to dig them.  Garden forks have strong, flat tines as opposed to pitch forks which have round tines for forking hay and such.  Pitch forks are not suitable for digging in the soil.  You can see me digging sweet  potatoes in my video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.

Once the sweet potatoes are out of the ground the books generally say to cure them at about 80 degrees for a week or two.  They sweeten up during that time so you may want to hold off eating them.  Unless the house is 80 degrees, which it’s not in early October, my sweet  potatoes don’t get the heat treatment.  I bring them in, usually unwashed, and store them in the sunroom in a bushel basket or cardboard box, maybe covered with a newspaper, for at least two weeks before further handling.  We often just use them out of that basket.  Late in October I’ll sort them and put the ones I want to save for starts next year in a plastic 10-gallon tote with a lid, first making sure they are dry enough.  That plastic box has air holes drilled in it and goes into the crawl space under the house.  If I have extra Irish potatoes, they are stored the same way. When I retrieve any potatoes from a bin in the crawl space I peek at all the boxes to make sure none are rotting.  You could store sweet potatoes under your bed in a cardboard box.  Irish potatoes, however, need a little cooler temperature and higher humidity, so under the house in the ventilated plastic tote is best for them.  I store a good quantity of sweet and Irish potatoes in a lower kitchen cabinet for immediate use.  We don’t have a dishwasher, leaving plenty of space for things like that. 

sweet potato leaves

You can actually begin your harvest from the sweet potato plants much earlier by harvesting the leaves for your table.  We began cutting the tips of the plants this summer to add to a stir-fry vegetable medley.  I would go into the garden and get a little of this, a little of that, and some sweet potato leaves, add some onions and/or garlic and toss it all around in a pan with a little olive oil or bacon grease.  I would take the newest leaves on the end of each vine.  As you can see in the photo, they are brighter and slightly red veined.  I plan on doing more of that in the future.  Of course, you don’t harvest too much.  You would have to experiment to determine how much you can cut.  If small livestock are part of your food production circle you could harvest the green vines for them.  You’ll get the benefit back when the manure goes into the compost.  Sweet potatoes were part of the diet in the Biosphere II experiment, with the vines going to their goats.  I have heard that cutting the vines during the growing season would result in bigger potatoes, but I haven’t thoroughly explored that yet.

Sweet potatoes have the highest beta-carotene content of all the vegetables, even carrots.  Studies indicate that beta-carotene can help protect you from cancer, particularly cancer of the lungs, stomach, or mouth, which should be of particular interest to smokers.  In order for your body to make the best use of  beta-carotene, add a little fat to your sweet potato dish.  A pat of butter will do.  Sweet potatoes are healthy for you, taste great, and are easy to store.  All good reasons for you to have them in your garden plan.

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