When the leaves of the dogwood are the size of
a squirrel’s ear, it is time to plant. So say instructions from the Ahkwesahsne Mohawk Board of Education on a Six Nations website
. Corn, of course, a delicious culinary treat for us, a vital and nutritious staple for the first peoples of the Americas, is the plant under consideration.
You should plant three days before the full moon (there’s one tonight), they say. It’s too cold still, and there are no squirrels’ ears on the dogwood, so wait until the next full moon on May 29. Which would make corn planting day May 26, a time by which there’s little danger of frost. The important point is that the soil should have warmed up. Seed that’s sitting in cold wet soil is likely to rot. How warm? The time-honoured method is the bare-bottom test. You can also use your hand. If it feels comfortable, it’s time.
Meanwhile, it’s good to prepare a bed soon and let it sit, so the first flush of weeds can germinate and be hoed out before planting. Deep digging has gone out of style (read my post on soil
) unless you are dealing with very poor compacted ground. Just lightly fork it over, remove the weeds and smooth it out, raking in a top layer of finished homemade compost (infinitely superior to anything you can buy). After that, don’t walk on your bed. Make it of a size that you can reach in to seed, plant and weed without treading on it. Add mulch through the season to promote soil organism activity.
Corn gets planted in squares, because it is wind-pollinated – the pollen rains down from the tassels to the silks and the ears develop. The traditional way is to plant in hills. First Nations would add a fish at the base of the hill for fertilizer. You can dig a hole and add some compost. As the corn germinates, the soil gets hilled up. A little while later, beans get interplanted. They fix nitrogen in the soil, and use the corn stalks for support. Between the rows, squash or pumpkins are interspersed. The sprawling plants offer cooling shade for the corn’s shallow roots and weed control as a side benefit. These plants were called the Three Sisters, and the traditional intercropping method has been found to yield more energy and more protein than the same crops grown in monocultures. (Food Yields and Nutrient Analysis of the Three Sisters: A Haudenosaunee Cropping System
by Jane Mt. Pleasant, Ethnobiology Letters
I have shrunk the amount of my veggie production and don’t grow corn any more. If I was doing so, I would look for traditional open-pollinated seed – and that, I see from looking at a few of the major companies’ catalogues, is hard to find. I have bought other types of seed from Gelert Garden Farm
of Minden, Ontario, which specializes in open-pollinated, heirloom varieties, so I would probably try the variety they have on offer. For more choice, go to the Seeds of Diversity website
and be prepared to do some homework. Very pleasant homework, I should add.
I do grow beans, and I do grow pumpkins or squash. There is no comparison between store-bought beans and those fresh off the plant. Pumpkin is an important component of my dog’s diet and I love growing it anyhow, it’s so easy, and so dramatic when the gourds are suddenly discovered under a leaf, having managed to grow to a decent size in secret while the busy gardener was focused on other matters.
I also always grow a few tomato plants – I like the Stupice tomato, described as a Czechoslovakian, but of course all tomatoes originate in America. It’s instantly recognizable among my volunteer seedlings (weeds) for its potato-like leaf. It has early fruit that don’t grow to a great size, which I prefer as they’re less likely to split. I’m going to start the seed in a warm place today.
This year, I will grow another American staple – the potato. It takes a bit of space, some well-rotted manure or compost to make a rich loamy bed, and some extra work, but the new potato just out of the ground is another taste experience that can’t be replicated by store-bought produce. I have a small bag of River John Blue potatoes from Gelert’s (who had the table opposite me at the recent Seedy Saturday in Innisfil, so it was easy to check out their wares). The spuds are producing sprouts and can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked. In my area, it still looks a bit wet, I shall probably stay off it for another week or so.
Potatoes originate from the Andean highlands near Lake Titicaca. It is thought they were first domesticated 8,000 years ago. Over 4,000 varieties exist in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. “Diversity is conserved on farms and in communities for subsistence use and as a highly valued heritage,” says the website of the International Potato Center,
heaquartered in Lima, Peru. “Most of these varieties never see a market; they are traded among highland and lowland communities and given as gifts for weddings and other occasions. The varieties differ from community to community.”
Corn was developed almost 9,000 years ago in central Mexico, from a wild grass called teosinte. Indigenous peoples worked to domesticate the grass and transform it into a high-yielding food crop. Mexico now has 59 varieties of native corn and Peru has 55, while the United States grow only 10 varieties, according to Panoramas,
a platform hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies.
All this variety is being threatened by Monsanto’s desire to introduce genetically modified seed to these countries – something that is being resisted, with mixed results, by Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. Other countries in Latin America plant millions of acres of GMO crops. In the US, an estimated 90 per cent of corn is genetically modified. In Canada, the figure is probably similar – no statistics are collected, so we don’t know.
It’s hard to imagine the effort 9,000 years ago, in developing different varieties of a plant that is highly prone to cross-pollinating, by indigenous people who lived in small groups and moved frequently. It’s a process that probably took several hundred years, or even a few thousand. In Plants, Man and Life
(1952), the American botanist Edgar Anderson writes of his surprise, in working with Indians in Guatemala who had retained their language and their culture, to find that their cornfields were more rigidly selected for type than those of their Latin-speaking neigbours.
“This fact was amazing, considering the great variability of Guatemalan maize as a whole, and the fact that corn crosses so easily. A little pollen blown from one field to another will introduce mongrel germ plasm. Only the most finicky selection of seed ears and the pulling out of plants that are off-type could keep a variety pure under such conditions. Yet for Mexico and Guatemala and our own Southwest the evidence is clear: wherever the old Indian cultures have survived most completely the corn is least variable within the variety.”
Anderson was writing almost 70 years ago, when the old cultures were being persecuted and swept aside. Now, there is the beginning of an indigenous resurgence in the Americas - although the persecution has intensified in countries like Honduras and elsewhere. Is there a beginning of a realization by our modern world of how much knowledge, how many skills, how much variety of plants have disappeared, perhaps forever? Now is the time to rediscover and relearn. Everything is late
Everything is late this year. I have no idea how much of my inventory will be ready for sale on May 11, so keep an eye on the plant list, I will update and indicate what's not yet available. Some plants just don't wake up until the end of May. I have just posted some new items on my plant list and indicated they are in short supply. If you want to be sure of securing some, email me with an order. Nature walk Sunday May 6, 1:30 pm
With my friend Anne McArthur, I led a nature walk through the Lalonde sugar bush on Saturday - in conjunction with the Elmvale Maple Syrup Festival. It was a cool day, the birds were lying low and the spring ephemerals that should have been in bloom, weren't. We're looking for better luck on Sunday May 6, where we are leading a walk in the Freele Tract for the Friends of the Simcoe Forests. We'll look at native, non-native and invasive plants in the county forest. Park on Rainbow Valley Road, the trail entrance is on the south side, approximately 500 metres east of the Apto gas station.