Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Tales of Four Sweet Corn Varieties

Sure you can grow all the super sweet enhanced hybrids you want but I'd like to share with you four tales of some unusual sweet corns.

Multi-colored corn is associated with jack-o-lanterns and scarecrows. But I found 'Rainbow Inca' which is a strong performing sweet corn with a heck of a story. Dr. Alan Kapular was breeding sweet corn in the mecca of sweet corn breeding, Oregon (not). He started by selecting 12 ears from his commune vegetable garden -- I told you this was Oregon. The parents included flour corns, native American and heirloom sweet corns.

The next Spring he planted the offspring of the twelve. One twist of fate helped the program. Moles invaded the plot on numerous occasions, so he kept replanting which allowed both early and later maturing plants to breed together. In his breeding program he selected for sweet corn with large, crinkled and flat kernels of all colors. The kernels are larger than any other sweet corn. The genetic variability displayed by the many colors reflects the many sources in its parentage.

Inca corn tended to be over twelve feet, so he also selected for around eight foot tall so they were earlier enough to be dependable. He also selected for ears to be lower on the plants so he could reach them. Lower ears are bigger so selecting for lower ears automatically bred for higher yields. 'Rainbow Inca' makes a great young corn for roasting and wonderful as a tortilla or in soups. This variety is only available at Seeds of Change.

As the name implies, Golden Bantam sweet corn comes to harvest on plants no more that 5' tall. According to the people at Millington Seed Company, Golden Bantam was originally grown by a Massachusetts farmer named William Chambers. A friend named E.L. McCoy found two quarts of Golden Bantam upon Chambers death and sold them to Burpee declaring they now owned "the sweetest and richest corn ever grown".

According to Burpee, who introduced the variety in 1902, this corn made yellow corn popular since prior to that date people only wanted white corn which signified refinement and quality. Prior to this introduction, yellow corn was stereotyped as fit only for animal feed. So you know this variety had an impact on the market since it tore apart the white corn perception of refinement while exploding the perception of yellow corn as only a product only fit to feed animals. This variety became very popular due to its ability to sprout in cool soil which helped it claim to be one of the earliest bearing sweet corns. Golden Bantam is available at several sources. I'd spend my money with a company dedicated to saving heirlooms as opposed to the corporate driven Burpee.

Stowell's Evergreen Sweet Corn is the oldest sweet corn in production predating 1848. It was originally bred by Nathaniel Newman Stowell of Massachusetts. It was a cross between Northern Sugar Corn and Menomony Soft Corn. After years of refining he sold two ears for $4.00 to a "friend" for private use. The "friend" turned around and sold it for $20,000 and it appeared in catalogs in 1849. (I'm skeptical of the $20,000 number. Seems incredulous for that time period but I found the same number from another source). Some people consider it is still the leading white variety for home gardens and market growers.

The people at Cherry Gal Seeds say forget about all the sugar enhanced varieties. If you're a home gardener, just pick and throw it in a pot and the taste rivals the SE varieties.

Let's make a huge jump from 1902 to recent times. 'Ruby Queen' Sweet Corn is really red from the ear to the plate. The red gene is a dominant over all others and it comes from red dent corn. Dent corn is primarily used for livestock due to its high starch content.

What sets this variety apart is it can be harvested at two different stages of development. At the blush red stage you get the maximum sugar enhanced flavor (SE) . Wait for it to develop all the way so it can deliver its rich, old-fashioned corn flavor. I'd love to see the red tassels and stalks in autumn displays. Burpee suggests steaming or microwaving Ruby Queen to keep the dark red coloring. Burpee also is marketing this variety as an exclusive but I found two other companies offering it. I've seen them do this kind of thing before. I'd expect more from the industry leader.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sow Your Poppies Outside in February

Corn Poppies, Monet 1873

Yes, I am talking about the Midwest and, no I'm not pushing any envelopes here. As a kid, I remember planting my Iceland Poppies as a winter annual in my Sydney garden. The papery thin petals were of the finest texture and a very dear friend for the winter months. But unfortunately, Iceland Poppies don't perform well here in the KC area. According to Alan Branhagen, my friend and the Director of Horticulture at Powell Gardens in Kansas City, there are three poppies that are very successful in our area of the Midwest. Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), Breadseed Poppy (Papaver somniferum) and the beautiful California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica).

Poppies are not a good candidate for being transplanted. So sowing them directly in the garden is the only way to go. They are actually winter annuals and February is the best time to plant them to be successful in our area. You can even sow on top of melting snow and it seems to improve their chances of survival. The freeze and thaw of the snow, gently places the seed and the seeds germinate once the soil warms. Poppies grow best in the cool weather and they tolerate frost and freezes very well.

According to Branhagen, the site where you plant them must be well-drained and most importantly bare ground. He suggests the bare ground where you planted your bulbs last fall and the poppies will start to bloom after most of your spring bulbs are over with. Summer annuals should be planted around them and they will prosper to cover while the poppies are fading away. Sounds like a great plan to me. Thank you, Alan.

Corn Poppies make beautiful red flowers for the cottage flower garden. Branhagen says “I simply adore the vibrant red flowers around the light saturated, long days of the summer solstice." Plants tend to reach a height and width of about 12”.He recommends one of my all time favorite annuals, Verbena bonariensis as a companion. I can just imagine the wispy, thin branches of the verbena with little its buttons of purple against the flamboyant red blooms of the Corn Poppy.

Beyond just red flowers, Breadseed Poppies cover a wider spread in color from plum purple to pink, reds and whites. Okay let's just acknowledge it and get over it quickly, this is the opium poppy. But Branhagen says “you can also find some varieties to make your own poppy seeds to decorate and flavor your baked goods. Two selections ‘Hungarian Bread’ and ‘Heirloom Pepperbox’ are great for culinary use.” I know you can find the Hungarian variety from Renee’s Seeds. The height can be up to 3’ high.

The Californian Poppies are the state flower of California. Branhagen says "their flowers are more eloquently bell-shaped and a lovely golden orange on the wild form which is my favorite." I can personally standup for the resilience of Californian Poppies from an experience I had working downtown in Kansas City. Next to the parking garage for my building, there stood an eye sore of an auto repair business. Surrounding the sign of the business and down the sidewalk was an incredible stand of Californian Poppies. The vibrant orange played so well with the blue and white rusted sign. With that kind of recall, after 25 years later it is amazing what an impact color can have on the mind. The Californian poppies go way beyond hot orange. Try ‘Butter Cream’, ‘Dusky Rose’ or the vibrant mixes like ‘Jelly Beans’, listed as a mouthwatering mix of shades orange, salmon, rose and gold. Most varieties are from 12-18” tall.

An excellent source of all these varieties and so much more can be found at the

So when the snow begins to melt, get out your boots and sow poppies on your bare ground. Let me know how it goes and if it doesn't work don't blame me, blame Alan. But thank you very much Alan for this fantastic information. Keep up the great work out there at Powell Gardens.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My 2011 Dahlia Order

Somehow I was able to narrow down my dahlia order to just three after looking at the Swan Island Dahlias catalog of 350. I have always been a fan of flowers that are so deep red, in the right light, can almost look black. Then I like it to pair it with white to get the maximum impact out of both. So the following three are incorporating that strategy.

I have grown 'Crossfield Ebony' (top) as a kid and thought it was great so I'm ordering it again because the unusual pom-pom form adds great texture when combined with other flowers. The white 'Bride to Be' is in the SID's cutflower mix so I'm assuming it should great candidate for the vase. The waterlily flower form of Bride to Be will look great with the pom-pom and the traditional flower form of 'Voodoo' (bottom).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Best of the Specialty Catalogs 2011

B&D Lillies
'Raspberry Swirl' (above)

The premiere source for asiatic, oriental and trumpet lillies in the US and maybe the world is B&D Lillies. The company's catalog is eye candy for any gardener at this time of year. They have been a family-owned business since 1978 and I can attest to the quality of their products. For something completely different check out the new asiatic 'Yellow Hornet'.

Caladium World

Caladium World is the granddaddy of them all when it comes to caladiums. I have not used the company but I'm impressed by the fact they sell, on most varieties, three different grades of bulbs. So you get what you pay for. The only downside I see is the minimum order is ten bulbs of each variety. But what's interesting is they suggest planting three of one variety of a lower grade close together to get the impact of a jumbo or top grade bulb. So with that strategy you're only getting three "plants" which makes ten a more manageable number for the smaller garden.

One big tip from my experience, DO NOT PLANT caladiums corms "(bulbs) until the soil is very warm even in containers. Growing from corms will always outperform plants. Around here don't think of it before May 15 or even later. That reason is why you don't see as much of them as their beauty deserves. The best I've seen around here were out front on Tommy Bahamas on the Country Club Plaza. The containers were warmed by direct sun but the plants were protected by a canopy. We all will never have the same situation but we can learn from the example.

Another lesson learned, you don't need to go to Florida for corms. The variety used outside of Tommys' was the good old white and green standby 'Candidum' which is readily available at garden centers. That's what I'll be using in my north facing windowbox and I'm not starting them until June 1. But if you're looking for something extra special, go to Caladium World.

The people at Powell Gardens reported last year that White Wing is incredibly sun tolerant. Let me know if you find the same thing.

King's Mums

When most Americans think about mums the vision in their head is of this obligatory mound of button size blooms. But almost everybody else in the world thinks about an elegant cutflower that comes in many different colors and forms. I developed great respect for chrysanthemums as an Australian school kid. In the same suburb of Sydney that I went to middle school, there was a man who would send over his exhibition blooms via air to the greatest flower show on earth, the Chelsea Flower Show in England. It captured my imagination to think of a man who strove for excellence halfway around the world. So you can see how my respect for mums came at a very early age.

Some Americans are familiar with Football Mums. The tradition of using softball-sized varieties started in Texas at homecoming games when they were used as a corsage. (I did mention this was Texas, didn't I?). This tradition spread through the South and you can still find Football Mums in use today. My bold assumption is this tradition remained in the South where the growing season was long enough to create these whopping sized mums.

I used King's Mums as a teenager when I was exhibiting in shows. The only issue I had was I was selecting some varieties that matured too late in the season for this area. You'll see in the King's Mums catalog today, the days to maturity for each variety are clearly noted. The people at King's told me they have many loyal mid-western customers.

Pleasant Valley Glads
Miniature Glads Source

One of the biggest miscarriages of justice in gardening is the association of glads with funerals in this country. Gary Adams with Pleasant Valley shared with me that up until the 60's, glads were the #1 selling wholesale flower even above roses. Gary thinks the market bottomed out and the glads were so cheap that florists made a lot of money using them and they looked great in big arrangements. But perception often becomes reality in no short order. So I'm not going to slay the funeral flower dragon.

But I'm going to make a pitch for miniature glads. Imagine 1 1/2" florets with for an example 7 open buds and 22 total buds and everyone will flower if kept in water. They look great in summer bouquets. Plant some every 10 days to get flowers through the summer.

Swan Island Dahlias

Dahlias have always been one of my favorite cutflowers along with zinnias. Roses are out of the picture since I surrendered to blackspot. (I miss you Double Delight). SID is the largest dahlia supplier in this county. The color catalog is of the highest order dramatically showing each of its 350 varieties. It's been a family-owned business for over 75 years. I ordered from Swan Island Dahlias when I was a teenager and loved the final product.

Ordering new dahlias is a pricey proposition. So this year, due to the space limitations, somehow I'm limiting myself to only two tried and true varieties that also make excellent cutflowers. 'Bride to Be' is a 4" sized waterlily flower type on compact plants with a height of 3 1/2'. And with the beguiling name of 'Voodoo', this almost black/dark red sports 5" flowers on a 4 1/2' bush.

One big tip for successful dahlia growing from SID : DO NOT WATER dahlias after planting until the first shoot breaks the soil. Biggest way to rot your tubers, I presume.