Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Corn of Many Colors (page 2 of 3)

by Kris Wetherbee

Growing Popcorn

Particular varieties do play a role in quality, taste, and popping ability, but the ultimate secrets to success with this gourmet treat lie with the basics: growing, harvesting, and drying.

New hybrids take 10 to 15 years to be developed, but fortunately, many seed catalogs already offer a great selection. Personal preference and your climate play a part in choosing which ones to grow. If your growing season is short, opt for varieties that mature in less than 100 days; these include 'Early Pink', 'Robust', and 'White Snow Puff'.

Growing popcorn is similar to growing sweet corn. To get full, well-filled ears, plant blocks of four to six rows rather than individual long rows. Space plants tightly, too--about 6 inches apart. The more plants you have, the more pollen you'll create, which in turn will make more kernels. Each stalk is likely to produce at least an ear or two, with three on smaller and miniature varieties. Six to eight 8-inch ears will yield about 1 pound of popcorn.

Sow seed 1 inch deep after the last spring frost and when the soil has warmed. Before planting, give the soil a dose of extra nitrogen from composted manure, blood meal, feather meal, or fish meal.

In my Oregon climate (zone 8), spring can be wet and cool, and seeds may rot in wet soil. Seedlings won't, so we start seeds in 2-inch pots and grow them in the greenhouse until seedlings reach about 3 inches high. At transplanting time, we fertilize with 2 to 3 inches of aged rabbit manure and don't have to fertilize again. To prevent root or stalk rot, make sure your soil drains well. However, if your soil is particularly sandy, you may have to hill soil around the plants so they don't fall over as they mature.

If you grow sweet corn, separate the two kinds by distance (200 feet), time (sow four weeks apart), or maturity date (90-day variety versus 120-day variety). If the popcorn's pollen crosses with sweet corn, the sweet corn kernels will be tough and chewy.

Harvesting and Drying

For quality popcorn, harvest the ears after the husks have dried and turned an even tan color. The kernels should be glossy and hard, showing no dent marks if you try to pierce them with your thumbnail.

Be patient: the corn isn't ready to pop yet. Allow the kernels to dry on the ear. In freshly harvested corn, the moisture content in the ends is different from that of the center. Tom Elsen of the American Pop Corn Company notes, "If you shell the cob at that point and throw all the kernels together, you won't reach popping perfection." If the kernels are too moist, they will be tough and chewy when popped; too dry, and they may not pop at all.

Instead, store harvested cobs in a cool, dry area with good air circulation and out of reach of rodents. The cob can act as a natural wick, distributing moisture more evenly throughout the ear. Drying time can vary from several weeks to several months--a lot faster in dry Arizona, for example, than in humid Florida.

When the moisture content is around 14 percent, kernels are ready to pop. Commercial growers have sophisticated equipment to tell them when their corn is ready, but home gardeners can rely on the old-fashioned way: when the kernels come easily off the cob, they're ready. The final test, though, is to shell some corn, pop it, and see for yourself.

Once the kernels pass the pop test, it's time to shell the corn. You can roll the kernels from the cob by hand, pushing firmly with your thumb, but to prevent sore thumbs, wear a glove, buy a popcorn sheller, or make it a family affair--kids love this step.

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