January 26, 2016
Garden Review 2015: Popcorn, Fiber Flax, Wheat
We grew a little popcorn, which gave a higher yield of easy to process grain than any other grain I've tried, even though by the standards of corn it didn't do great. A small patch of fiber flax, which did nicely and looked great while growing. Tried a bit of Red Fife wheat, which was an utter fail.
Pennsylvania Dutch Butter popcorn was seeded at the end of May, running along the center of the beds along the west edge of the grain maze area in back. Peas were still in at the edges of these beds when the corn went in. We put down some more compost and some bloodmeal in the corn strip. I tried putting a 2 wide, 3 long pattern of corn in each running meter of bed, which turned out a reasonable spacing. The corn was up and maybe 15cm tall when I pulled out the peas and mulched the edges of the bed to discourage weeds. At the same time, we planted pole beans next to every corn.
Becky had a bag of frozen herring or smelt which she decided was surplus, so we tried putting a frozen fish or two beneath each set of corn seeds. For control, we left out the fish on the outside corner bed set of plants. The corn growth was a pretty good indicator of the amount of sun experienced by each bed; the fish didn't have much impact. Maybe if the plants had more sun they would have been limited by nitrogen and nutrients instead and the fish would have shown some effect. Good way to get rid of extra fish though!
Violet also put in 6 corn plants in her bed up in the terrace area, all with fish. These did the best of all the corn plants, growing to expected height and most stalks making two ears. This bed gets more sun than the ones down in the grain maze.
Even though the corn plants didn't do great in the grain maze, they made a bunch of ears. When the silks were showing and the tassels were dropping pollen I made a concerted effort to ensure pollination.
Previously when we have done corn we had spotty pollination, and thus lots of missing kernels, despite numerous shakings. This time I shook the corn vigorously almost every day for weeks, and on a few occasions cut a tassel off and went around beating the silks with it. The effort paid off, as evidenced by very few missing kernels in the ears.
We let the corn dry down until September, then picked them and let them dry some more inside. A couple morning glories planted in the corn were looking good at this point.
The kids enjoyed picking kernels from the ears; pretty easy and fast to do compared to processing other grains.
Popping performance was not great. However the unpopped or barely popped kernels were still edible and tasty, unlike commercial popcorn where the unpopped kernels might as well be rocks.
I read Lee Reich's blog post about adjusting moisture content in popcorn for optimal popping, which inspired Buster and I to make a saturated salt solution to seal into a big Fido jar with most of the popcorn.
We kept the salt and water present for about 5 days, whereupon I noticed a little mold taking root in the corn. It was pulled out and stored in the freezer. Net result is even worse popping than before, though still usable as a crunchy toasted corn snack. Hrrmm.
After enjoying the dry corn stalks standing in the garden during the fall,
I pulled them up and lay them down right on the bed they were in as winter mulch (supplemented with some other pulled plants, weeds, and a bit of hay). I'll pull off this mulch and spread more compost on in the spring to prepare for next season.
I'm planning on planting flour and parching corn bought from Carol Deppe next season, either in the terrace bed or in a new front bed if I get around to building it.
So despite lackluster performance as corn goes, dry corn turned out a stellar result compared to other grains. It yielded probably twice as much per meter of space as the best grain from last year (white sorghum). And it is easy to process.
I thought it would be fun to try growing some fiber flax, and if it grew well over a period of some years making it into linen. Seeds were purchased from Woolgatherers for a variety called "Marilyn", optimized for fiber production, and sown in about two square meters of grain maze bed in early spring. I put down the seed densely, certainly higher than the recommended rate. They came up kind of sparse however; might have been a germination issue but I think it is more likely the birds ate it. Flax is in the lower front here:
Flax is a neat plant. It is not grassy, but instead has little leaves coming off the stalk. The stalks shoot up high and straight, and tend to lodge with gusty wind, especially around the edges of the bed (flax is to the left front in below picture):
Toward the end of June, the plants put out beautiful, tiny blue flowers.
I'm sure the flax bred for flower use makes more and better flowers, but these were quite nice all the same. One interesting thing was the wide range of time over which flowering occurred. Fiber is best if the plants are harvested after flowering but before the seeds have a chance to grow much. It was not clear when I should harvest though, because some plants had yet to flower while early flowering plants had already made fully formed seeds.
Buster and I pulled them up and shook the dirt off, which was very easy to do.
We laid our bundle to the side while we worked on the bed.
Millie and I pulled all the weeds, added some compost, then returned the weeds.
Plus some hay as mulch.
Our bundle of flax was bound up and left on the front porch to dry out for a few weeks.
Then I spread it on the grass in back to dew ret.
It diminished in volume significantly in this time. I've read that you need a 6x6 meter field of flax to make enough linen for a shirt. So I only need to grow for about 10 years like this to get enough for a shirt. Maybe after another year I could have enough for a pair of undies though! I bet my flax did not grow as well as commercial flax however, so my homegrown underwear might take a few more years. Meanwhile the bundle is in the basement awaiting further stockpiling before fiber processing.
Last year I grew a little bit of Black Eagle spring wheat, from Fedco. It grew surprisingly well even in a suboptimal location, and the birds didn't bother it either when seeded or as the grain matured. Black Eagle had giant black awns coming off the kernels of wheat, which looked amazing and probably helped keep the birds from getting too interested.
They also made the grain harder to process. So this year I tried planting one square meter with Red Fife spring wheat. This is a heritage variety which was widely grown in the 19th century in America and has an enthusiastic following of bread bakers in the modern day. It started out ok, seen here in June next to lavender and strawberries.
Sadly, the birds decimated it while it was still unripe and on the stalks. They ate almost every kernel out of the heads, breaking them down to the ground in the process.
I sowed some buckwheat on the remains of the Red Fife plants for the remainder of the season.