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Corn density for pollination

 
Casie Becker
pollinator
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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We're planting a three sister's garden variation (well, three in a row) for my oldest niece this year. Her younger sister has a two year old potted pepper plant and a flower bed of her own, but every time Jazmyn tries to garden something happens to her plants. Last year we didn't figure out the cat was taking a morning nap on her cherry tomatoes until it was dead. I'm trying to make this as goof proof as possible for her. This morning I marked a poster board planting template, 27 corn plants fit in that space. We plan to space three plots this size 4 feet apart and then grow long beans up the corn and watermelon at each end. My mother thinks there won't be enough corn close enough to get good pollination. Do we need to rework our plans to give her a location where she can grow 70+ corn in one plot together?
 
John Polk
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My take on corn is "the more, the merrier".

Corn does poorly in a single row. Corn is mostly wind pollinated, so single rows don't get good pollination.
A block does better.

Twenty seven might be pretty small to get good pollination.
IMO, 70 would be much better...and, you never can have TOO MUCH good corn.

 
Casie Becker
pollinator
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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We're gonna plant all the corn, it's just deciding between the smaller blocks or reworking the gardening plans to give her one chunk of space. I think I may be able to just switch the corn and amaranth beds.

I'll talk with her about it and finalize plans when I haven't been up since 10 pm last night. Right now I think that might even free up space to plant the bonus sunflower seed from Baker Creek. I was so happy to be so prepared for this gardening season... but this is exactly why preparing so early is such a good idea. I still have time to correct my mistakes.

 
Glenn Darman
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Location: NSW Australia
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Cassie..."Last year we didn't figure out the cat was taking a morning nap on her cherry tomatoes until it was dead." It's sentence's like this that make me wish our cats could read.LOL.

Sorry I just couldn't help myself,we did good on corn this year so I've been reading anything corn related.I tried the 3 sisters bit a few times but just never managed to get results so I hope your niece has better luck with it.
 
Jamie Chevalier
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Your plan sounds ok to me, as long as those 27 plants are in a roughly circular or square pattern and not all strung out.... Many traditional three sisters gardens had the corn plants in circular clusters, each circle interplanted with climbing beans. The squash was out on the edges so it wouldn't climb up the corn. I tried that with 3' wide circles this last year and it worked fine; 6 plants per circle. I had well-filled ears, so 27 should be plenty adequate, even in an area much less windy than mine.

The situation where they won't pollinate well is a single or double line of plants. Corn pollen will travel a long ways--miles--so the difference between one foot and 4 feet isn't significant. But there have to be plants upwind or you are sunk. If your wind shifts around, (mine is from the east in the morning and west all afternoon) then a circle or block will make sure everyone gets pollinated. If your wind is always from the same direction, I would suggest hand-pollinating the upwind plants. Break off part of the tassel and from one plant and brush the silks of another with it.

It is important in a three sisters garden not to crowd the corn too close, or the beans will get shaded out. There is a variety of bean called Withner's Cornfield that is shade-adapted, but any other bean needs the corn to be at a wider spacing than usual. Actually, the corn needs it too, because that bean foliage can really start shading the other corn plants. So make your spacing half again as wide as normal. Your total productivity will still be higher than if you had just one crop in that space.

By the way, amaranth and sunflowers work well for bean scaffolds also. Or morning-glory scaffolds for that matter. You could put a little straw cat bed in there somewhere too......
 
Thomas Partridge
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I remember reading that for sustainable viability of seed saving you need something in the area of 200 plants. We are growing more than that anyway so it isn't as much of an issue, but is the question about pollination how many are necessary to produce ears or how many are necessary to save seed?
 
Casie Becker
pollinator
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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It's a question of how much to get good ear production. We bought the glass gem variety of popcorn from Baker Creek this year. I tend to hold off on even the thought of saving seed until I see if a plant does well in my conditions.

This year they're going in a small bed right in front of the house where I'll pass them going to and from work. If they need any babying I'll see to it right away (whether that's encouraging my niece to come out or taking care of it while she's out of the house) If small plots are feasible (and thank you, Jamie I think I won't change the original plans after all) then this is the best bed to be sure they get the best attention.

Part of the reason for doing the three sister's garden is to give alternative successes if the corn isn't as good as we hope. I let her select one of the watermelon varieties. If the corn doesn't do well then I'll try to focus her on watermelon successes. Between me tending the beans and her tending the corn there should be no shortage of tending to the whole garden. I'd be amazed if at least one thing doesn't thrive.
 
Jamie Chevalier
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Yes, 100 is the minimum for seed saving but if you are going to do it seriously long-term, at least 200 is what you'd want. The book Beautiful Corn is a really engaging look at corn's unusual pollination and just everything about this wonderful plant, including an alternate interplanting scheme for cooler areas, using greens instead of beans and squash.

I never thought of it before, but your mentiion of alternative crops for success prompted me to notice that the three sisters each have a different pollination mechanism, which does help to make sure that they don't all fail at once... Corn is wind-pollinated, beans self-pollinating, and squash or melons are insect-pollinated. So it really helps with melon production to have some flowers blooming before the melons do, so your pollinators are already there. Flowering shrubs are good, and kitchen herbs are very good. Bees love poppies, which are quick. Cilantro is one of the best attractors, like most of the umbelifers. Alyssum is quick and easy and attracts tons of beneficial insects besides bees. (Is there a beneficial insect thread anywhere here? That's a pretty interesting and cutting-edge topic. Bountiful Gardens has a collection of different seeds for attracting them. Bees too.)

I found out recently that squash have a native bee that evolved with squash in Mexico, and migrated to North America with the squash as different Native groups planted it. They live in little solitary burrows in the ground, and are killed by tillage. They like a bit of bare ground near the squash vines. Once I learned about them, I realized that was what made the mystery holes in my garden on bare soil. The holes look like they were made by a 1/4 inch spike, just a round clean hole with no pile of dirt around it. Your niece might want to look for them and know that they are polllination friends.
 
Jamie Chevalier
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A couple of final thoughts on the corn:
Watch for cucumber beetles or other grazers eating the corn silks. My late corn in a different (not 3 sisters) bed got terrible pollination because the beetles gnawed off the silks before pollination occured (the silk is actually the tube that pollen travels down to fertilize the pistil so that a kernel develops. Each kernel has a silk attached.) So watch for them. You can get cuke beetle traps that have a pheromone or something on a sticky card.

If the silks get gnawed off, you can still manually pollinate the corn (I found out too late to do this). Peel back the husk so that you see live (not brown dry) silks and brush them with either a piece of the tassel itself or some pollen you have gathered from the tassel onto a paintbrush. This is in any case a nice way to insure well-filled ears, brushing the green silks with pollen. You wouldn't have to peel back the husk normally of course. It is a cool way to show kids how the whole pollination thing works, as it is so large-scale and easy to see....

BTW, if you want to save seed and are growing other kinds of corn, or live where other corn is within 1/2 mile (more if no trees) you can bag the ears with paper bags and hand-pollinate. If I lived in the midwest where there is so much GMO corn grown commercially, I would do this even if I weren't saving seed, since the kernels manifest the genetics of both parents.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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Jamie Chevalier wrote:They live in little solitary burrows in the ground, and are killed by tillage.


They are killed by tillage to the depth of the tillage. Insect species are adaptable. So in fields that are tilled, the bees tend to build their nests below the maximum depth of the tillage.

 
Jamie Chevalier
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Well that's good to know. I always figured that even if their burrows were deeper, they might be trapped down there and its not a pretty thought. Thanks.
 
Jamie Chevalier
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Looking at 3 sisters threads from the past, I see a lot of confusion about when to plant what. I have read in a bunch of different sources that you plant the beans when the corn is 8" tall, and that is what I've done with excellent results. Also, be sure to keep the squash from climbing the corn. It was tradiditonall at the corners of the squarish beds, and would carpet the ground betwee the clusters of corn/beans. One end of my bed was on the site of an old compost pile last year, and those squash, in their attempt to take over the world, took down some corn.

For the real scoop on how it was done by the Hidatsa Nation, there is a terrific book, a reprint of a 1917 memoir by Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa gardener who lived from 1839 to 1932. It is available as a new book, or for reading online: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html
 
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