“Lodging” is the technical term used when the tall, unsupported stems of grain crops fall and break. If you are a home gardener and the grain is your precious sweet corn, it’s a great disappointment. There are a number of reasons it happens.
Pests and pathogens are sometimes involved, so crop rotation to avoid the persistence of both is always a good idea. Disease-resistant varieties can also be tried. But because so many of these ills originate with some kind of physical or nutritional stress, the best prevention is to keep the plants stress-free.
Give them a sunny spot and fertile soil in which there’s plenty of nitrogen but also enough potassium and phosphorus to balance it. (Potassium is essential for good, strong stalks.) Amending the soil with organic matter in the form of well-made compost will provide that. It will also give the soil a structure that enables it to drain well in wet weather and retain moisture in drought, thereby avoiding stresses that are moisture-related.
Corn is inherently upright, unlike a tomato plant, which is a prostrate vine that must be engineered to climb. Corn even has little prop roots at the base of the stalk to buttress it. But sometimes it is simply toppled by outside forces, such as porcupines and raccoons.
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Both can make a total mess of your corn patch, and both can climb fences; so you might have to electrify yours at night. Or have a good watchdog on patrol.
You might get a few good corn feasts before the critters find your crop, but violent weather can flatten it before you’ve had a single bite. Strong wind is the biggest danger, especially with pounding rain or large hailstones, and for gardeners it appears to be the most common cause of lodging. But a plant weakened by other stresses will be easily blown down.
Still, if you live in an especially windy place, it’s wise to grow corn in a sheltered spot or behind a windbreak. Bushy trees that absorb the wind or slatted fences are better than solid walls that reroute the wind over their tops.
In our garden, we grow corn in clusters of three, with 18 inches between the clusters. They run down the center of 30-inch-wide beds. This arrangement has so far enabled our corn to withstand the very strong winds we experience and also has assured successful pollination.
In an unusually wind-tormented garden, you might also try sowing in parallel rows with the plants 12 inches apart, using a stake-and-weave technique. We once did this with the heavy vines of heirloom tomatoes. We drove in one of those heavy, green metal T-posts at the end of each row and put four-foot wooden stakes at four-foot intervals in between. (T-posts all the way might have been even better.) We wove heavy jute twine around an end post, then around each stake in the row, around the other end post and then back again, pulling the twine taut. I’ve done this with tall sunflowers, too, which are normally self-supporting, but those with large, heavy heads can sometimes lean.
You can also lash corn to a fence, but if you do, plant a row on each side for good pollination.
Once, years ago, I tried to grow a “three sisters” garden. This is an ancient Native American technique in which a cornstalk acts as a trellis for a climbing bean plant, while a squash vine wanders beneath them, shading the soil with its big leaves and thereby conserving moisture. The best way to do this is to sow the corn and beans in the same cluster, sowing just squash at every sixth cluster. Together, the three provide a balanced diet containing protein, carbohydrates and fat.
Alas, my Sister Bean brought down Sister Corn. I could have used Sister T-post back then.
But my husband had also, years ago, grown such a garden. Maybe it was the resilience of the heirloom flint corn he grew. Perhaps the traditional cornfield pole bean he planted was easier on the stalks. Or he made better compost. But his corn stood tall, all the way to harvest.
Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.