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Saving Seed of Open Pollinated Sweet Corn Varieties

by Garrett Pittenger

 

Most of the sweet corn varieties grown today are hybrids. The original strains that formed the basis of the hybrids are now only a memory to most growers. My favorite of these remains ‘Luther Hill’, a "high sugar normal" small-eared white sweet corn that originated in 1902 in Sussex County, New Jersey. The older hybrid ‘Silver Queen’ has ‘Luther Hill’ as one of its parents.

In order to continue to grow this favorite, I am forced to save my own seed because it is no longer commercially available. While saving corn seed is exacting, it is by no means really difficult. The rewards in eating quality and the sense of independence from the whims and fancies of the commercial seed producers outweigh the bother. The instructions I’ve included here are equally applicable to varieties of pop, flint or flour corn.

SEEDING: Wait until the soil has warmed before planting. Sowing sweet corn in cold ground will result in failure from seed rot and seed maggot attack. Seed can be soaked overnight before sowing to encourage faster sprouting. Do not allow soaked seed to dry out before planting. Plant out the seeds when the root sprouts just begin to appear, watering in the seeds before covering them with an inch of loose earth. Plant 2-3 seeds for each desired mature plant, cutting out to one plant per location when plants are 2-4 inches high.

SOIL AND FEEDING: Use rich, well-manured soil with good drainage and a reliable supply of moisture available nearby. Manure can be applied as a side dressing when the plants are about 8 inches high. Water is critical when tassels (the male flowers) begin to show amongst the emerging leaves at the top of the plant and when the silks (pistils) begin to emerge from the incipient ears along the sides of the stalks.

PLANT SPACING: Space plants 9-12 inches apart in rows 30 inches apart for the smaller varieties, those growing to about 6 feet in height. Allow 12-15 inches between plants and 36 inches between rows for taller varieties. Varieties that produce suckers (shoots from the base of the plants) need greater spacing between plants to allow full plant development. Plant rows in a block of 4-6 rows rather than in one long single row to ensure good pollination.

POPULATIONS: Grow at least 100 plants (all seeded at the same time) in one block planting to get good pollination amongst all the plants. Save seed from ALL the plants in the population to maintain the genetic diversity. If the variety you are growing produces more than one ear per plant, you can keep one for seed and harvest the other(s) for eating. A seed crop can be grown out every four to five years. It is not necessary to save seed every year, but saving seed from many plants is critical to long-term variety maintenance.

KEEPING THE STRAIN PURE: More extensive guidelines are given in Susanne Ashworth’s Seed To Seed and in How to Save Your Own Vegetable Seeds by Seeds of Diversity Canada. Keep in mind two basic points:

1. Genetic diversity within a variety is important; grow and save seed from as many plants as possible.

2. Isolation from other varieties is important; grow corn saved for seed as far away as possible from other corn varieties and the plantings of your neighbors or isolate by timing, growing the seed crop to come into tassel and silk when other varieties are not yet in flower or are two weeks past flowering. Hand pollinate if isolation is not possible. With many country gardens in areas where field corn is not grown and city gardens not planting sweet corn, such isolation is not as difficult as it once was. Look over your growing plants and rogue out any off-type plants, usually taller and coarser in foliage, or pull out their emerging tassels to eliminate them as a source of pollen and eat the ears rather than saving them.

SEED KEEPING: Harvest seed corn ears on a dry day before frost after the ear husks have begun to dry down. Most seed corn will require further drying under cover. Prevent mould on drying ears by pulling back the husks to expose the kernels to dry air, bunching or braiding the ears and hanging them in a dry but not excessively hot area. After ears have dried for 2-3 months, the kernels may be shelled from the cobs and kept in a mouse-proof glass jar or metal canister. Sweet corn seed is very wrinkled on account of the high percentage of sugar to starch in the grain. Before shelling, check the dried ears for any kernels with a smooth surface or an off color (for example, yellow if you are growing white corn) and remove these strays before shelling and storing the seed.

 

Garrett Pittenger is President of Seeds of Diversity Canada. For more information about this organization, write: Box 36, Station Q, Toronto ON M4T 2L7 or call voice mail (905)623-0353.

 

Copyright 1997. Garrett Pittenger.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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