March 12, 2010

Sweet corn that's worth the wait

— Sweet corn is a lot more complicated than I thought. All I really know about it is that I can't keep the raccoons away from it in our garden, so I buy it from our local farm stands.

David Handley of the University of Maine extension's Highmoor Farm in Monmouth recently reported on test trials for corn conducted last summer at the Maine Agriculture Show.

Almost all of the varieties tested are bicolor, and were either supersweet varieties or SE synergistic varieties, which have about 25 percent supersweet kernels.

Handley said the synergistic varieties usually have a better texture and mouth feel than the supersweet varieties. And buyers have shown that they prefer bicolor.

The Highmoor growers keep track of items in three test plots that I never would have thought of. For basics, the corn was planted in 40-foot rows (six rows per variety) 36 inches apart with corn stands about 10 inches apart in the rows. They test only the center rows because the rows on the edge of a plot do not grow the same as rows in the middle.

Measurements include how many stands come up per row, the number of days to harvest, the height of the plants, the height of the lowest ears on the stalk, ease of picking, tip cover, ear length and average number of rows per ear.

Some of these records are easy to understand. Farmers need to know what days to harvest so they can make sure some corn is coming ripe throughout the summer. Ear length is important because buyers prefer longer ears. Stand plants per row measures how well the plant germinates.

I did not know, however, that most buyers prefer smaller kernels on their corn. And the rows per ear is a good measure of kernel size. The tested varieties range from a low of 13 for Renaissance, and a high of 20 for Montauk. Handley said that 14 rows is acceptable.

But the height of the lowest ears from the ground is important for ease of picking. The ideal height is about two feet off the ground, but with some varieties, it can go as low as 11 inches, which would be hard on the backs of pickers. Picking ease is a different rating, and tells how easy it is to remove the ears from the stalk.

Tip cover measures how much of the husk covers the kernels at the end of an ear. More husk reduces the damage from birds eating the kernels and, perhaps, reduces damage from insects.

Handley didn't really rate the varieties from top to bottom. In the synergistic varieties, he said Sparkler, at 90 days a mid-late variety, is one he might give a try. He said Monomoy, at 85 days, was good eating, as was Reflection, at 84 days. For early varieties, he liked Vitality, which has a classic, blunt shape.

For the supersweet varieties, Handley likes a Mirai variety called Mr. Mini, which could be grown as a specialty corn. It is only six inches long and is yellow rather than bicolor, but it is good to eat and not as crunchy as a lot of the supersweets. He also liked two other Mirai varieties: Mirai 356 and Mirai 350.

Mark Hutton, also at Highmoor Farm, gave a report on pumpkins. As with corn, there is a lot more to pumpkins than I would have thought.

They rate the length and strength of the handles, the color, the weight and the number of fruits per plant. None of the plants that produce large pumpkins produce, on average, more than two fruits per plant, and may produce less than an average of one. (Which could explain why I am disappointed when I put in one or two plants and get almost no pumpkins.)

Varieties that Hutton liked include King Midas, Camaro, Gladiator and Charisma.

But two smaller varieties, Knucklehead and Goosebumps, are proving fairly popular for the unusual protrusions on the fruits. Maverick and Sarah's Choice remained as top melons, but Goddess also rated pretty high.

Handley updated last year's reports on strawberries, and the results stayed about the same. The only marked change was that Itasca, which had rated well the first year, did very poorly in 2008. The Mesabi that I planted last spring still rated well, but was not as productive in the second year as in the first.

If that holds true in our plot, Nancy and I should be eating an awful lot of Mesabi strawberries in just about six months. I can almost feel the warmth.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

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