I have often admired decorative corn in catalogues and at some garden markets in the fall but I had only attempted to grow it once a number of years ago. It requires a long growing season and a hot summer to enable it to mature before fall frost strikes. My experiment was unsuccessful as the cobs were not even fully filled when hard fall frost put an end to it. This spring, however, while I was ordering seeds I saw listed in a couple of seed catalogues an extra-early variety of ornamental corn called “Painted Mountain” which is listed to mature in 85 days. Since this “time to mature” is similar to several of the main crop corn varieties that are grown in our area, I decided to give “Painted Mountain” a try.
Painted Mountain is not just decorative – it is touted as “a Native Indian decorative flour corn,” the kernels of which contain soft starch that produces corn flour and hominy. It was bred for the cold soil areas of Montana so I thought it would be a good experiment. I was not interested in using it as food, but rather I wanted to get the brightly coloured cobs to use in fall decorations.
I planted the corn seeds in our garden at my brother-in-law’s farm about the third week in May. It was slow to emerge because of our cold, rainy May, but eventually it came up and grew vigorously during the summer even though our temperatures rarely got into the high 20s. I was afraid that not enough heat units were available to bring it through to maturity, but it developed cobs about the same time as did our food corn, and by the end of the first week in September the kernels in the cobs were hard to the touch.
I harvested the cobs even though the husks were still green and I was a bit uneasy because the research says to leave the cobs on the plants until the husks are brown, and in a perfect world I would have done that, but for a variety of reasons I needed to pick it when I did. Knowing mould could be a problem and drying needed to occur quickly, I peeled the husks back off the cobs and removed the silk – being careful to leave the husk attached at the base of each cob as I wanted the dried husks as part of the decoration. I tied the cobs in bundles, three to a bundle, by simply tying a piece of binder twine (yes, I still have a ball) around the ends of the husks thus allowing the cobs to hang down. I strung the bundles on a twine line in the garage and set up a fan to blow air on the cobs and for the first few days I turned on the electric heat in the garage as well.
I was amazed at how quickly the cobs and husks dried and although I was afraid that the kernels might shrink because I had picked them prematurely, they did not, so I guess they were mature enough at picking time. After a couple of weeks of undergoing this drying process, the cobs were ready to be used in autumn displays. I put some of the cobs in baskets on beds of raffia while others were combined in baskets with mini-pumpkins and decorative gourds; each basket was finished off with a bow in autumn colours. Another idea that I haven’t tried yet is to create an autumn wreath using some of the cobs – although I think I will have to grow a miniature variety for this – but the earliest miniature variety that I can find is a 90-day one – perhaps requiring too long a growing season for my Zone 2 area. I may have to be satisfied with the cobs of Painted Mountain which I grew successfully this year and which I will definitely grow again next year. If it will mature for me in a summer like 2010, think what it will do if we get a normally hot, drier summer next year!
– Albert Parsons writes from Minnedosa, Manitoba