Friday, August 23, 2013

Seed-Saving for Local Corn: an Annual Schedule

FIRST DRAFT The following steps include Boulder, Utah dates. You can use precisely the same steps in any corn-growing region. All you have to do is modify the dates to fit your local growing conditions. 1. May 1 - June 1 Prepare the bed. Corn does best in compact areas, such as squares. Corn planted in long rows will not pollinate well, and yield will be very low. The bed needs to at least 1/4 mile from the nearest corn field or cross-pollination will occur and destroy our genetic stock. The minimum area for maintaining enough genetic diversity, for optimum wind-protection, and for good pollination is 50' x 50'. At our farm, with its 50'-wide beds, we should ideally plant an area 50' x 100'. The bigger the area, the faster the development of your local corn variety. Dig shallow trenches 8" wide and 30" apart. Water deeply to force weeds. Burn, hoe, or pull weeds every few days until planting. 2. June 10, after risk of frost is over Plant the seeds in the trenches 1" deep and spaced 8" apart across the trench, and 12" apart along the trench. Each trench will have two rows of seeds. Seeds should be covered with dirt. Water deeply. 3. Through June Keep watering every 2-3 days, until soil is just moist to 2" deep, until plants are 3" tall. Then water very deeply and stop watering for a week, or until plants show signs of dehydration stress. 4. Through July to the first monsoon Water deeply as needed. The idea is to stress the plants gently between waterings. This accomplishes two things: it forces the plants to put down deep roots, which helps them survive with less water later; and it will stress the least drought-tolerant plants to the point where they fail to thrive. This eliminates thirsty genes from the mix. 5. Monsoon season Avoid watering much during monsoon season, but watch the plants. Ideally, the plants will be smaller than their well-watered counterparts nearby. Plants on the edge of the bed will most likely be small and yellowish, and may barely tassel. This is fine. If the plants show real water stress, soak them. This will require tower sprinklers as the plants get taller. Jets of water can destroy the tassels, so if the plants look stressed during tasseling, you may need to flood the trenches with a hose or gate-pipe. The tassels should be shaggy and covered with pollen. If you have time, you can shake the pollen into a paper bag and dust silks with it. This can improve pollination, but is generally not necessary, and may end up pushing the gene-pool toward plants that have trouble pollinating on their own. Generally, less intervention is better. 6. Late August through September Little water required during this time, maybe once per week. The silks will turn brown, the tassels will become bare, and the leaves will begin to dry up a little. This is flour corn, so the ears can --and should- stay on the stalks as long as possible. Watch out for birds and other animals, especially raccoons. 7. Late September, or when husks are dry when the plants have little or no green left, you can begin harvesting. Ideally, the husks should be entirely tan [or dark purple for some plants] and totally dry before you pick the ears. To pick, grasp an ear and snap it downward. The stem of the ear will snap. then step on the base of the stalk to push it to the ground. Do not let the ears get wet. spread them out on Blake's deck or some equivalent place where they get plenty of air and sunlight. If they get wet, they'll get moldy and be ruined. Let them dry for several days. You can begin shucking at any time or let them stay in the husks if there's no mold. 8. When all the ears are dry, shuck them. Do not break the ears. Be thorough, not leaving chunks of cob in the husks. The husks can go back in the field. All the stalks and husks should be flat on the ground to rot over the winter. The goats like to look through this stuff for stray kernels and to eat the leaves. 9. Sort the ears. You are looking for 300-350 of the biggest healthy ears. Discard malformed, deformed, bug-infested, moldy, or otherwise undesirable ears. You need to end up with at least 300 virtually perfect ears, the biggest of the year. If you have to choose between two identically-sized ears [which is more likely if you grow a bigger field] choose the ear with darker color, as these contain more phytonutrients than the pale ears do. Set aside these precious ears, away from rodents, bugs, chickens, and restaurant customers, who will want to take them home. 10. During sorting, put all of the moldy and bug infested ears in the chicken yard. Put all of the healthy but small or malformed ears in metal trashcans for winter chicken feed. It's not necessary to remove the kernels from the cobs. 11. Shell your seed-ears. The easiest way to do this is to set up an empty, totally clean and dry trashcan, and snap in half each of the ears inside the can. Usually, a few of the kernels will pop off the cob and land in the trashcan. when you come to the true all-star ears --the biggest, darkest, most beautiful of the year-- break off a n extra palm-full of kernels. We want to favor these genes above all others. But don't take too many kernels from any one ear or you will lose genetic diversity. This next part is tedious: a 50' x 50' bed will contain 2,100 plants. You need to save TWICE AS MANY SEEDS AS YOU'LL NEED FOR NEXT YEAR'S PLANTING. So, if you want to plant a 50' x 100' area next year [you'll know because of the crop-rotation plan], you'll need to save 2x 4,200 seeds = 8,400 seeds. How do you know how many you have? You count. It sucks. If you have a very accurate digital scale you can count half and weigh them and then weigh another equal portion and call it good, but it takes lots of seeds to make an ounce, so it's best to count and be sure. Why save twice as many as you need? Because a late frost can wipe out the first planting very easily. And then, depending on date, you'll either need to re-plant or save your remaining seeds until next year. Can you imagine the stress the old-timers endured? Now take your seeds and place them in a lidded stoneware jar. A sealed mason jar or a plastic bag is much more likely to end up moldy. Stoneware breathes and is rodent- and bug-proof. Put the seeds in a cool, dry, dark place. Not a freezing place. Blake's basement is perfect. Label the jar and make sure it's not where it will get dropped. It contains a summer's work. 12. Sometime before planting, spread all the seeds out, preferably in cookie sheets, and separate them by color. I know, this sucks too. Count how many seeds of each color and record the numbers. This is how we monitor genetic drift over time. I have data from past seasons. It's only slightly interesting so far, but eventually a certain color or group of colors will become dominant, a sure sign that we have a phenotypically-distinct variety. 13. Repeat all of the above until you're too old to continue. Make sure you have an heir who understands all this.. Hope that a distinct, highly-adapted local variety emerges before the big petroleum crisis, or before the water war gets heavy, or before the apocalypse. Your greatest asset in this project is comprehension. We need to stick to the goal [a truly local corn variety, suited to Boulder's conditions]; we need to used proper methods [enumerated above, but best abbreviated by saying that we are exposing these plants to Boulder's conditions, not babying them with lots of compost and water and fertilizer, etc, so that evolution happens as quickly as possible]; and we need to keep the project going [because, of course, if we stop, we don't make progress, and if the seeds don't survive, we'll have to start all over]. For comprehension, please read my blog post "Going Native: the Boulder Corn Project". Or call me.

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