Category Archives: Companion Planting

Popcorn: A Really Fun Crop

I love growing a little bit of everything; and popcorn is one of my favorite toys in the vegetable world. Only problem is: I don’t really have enough space to grow a lot of popcorn; but because it’s so much fun I’ve been hooked on raising it these past several years. Before popcorn I grew some sweet corn, but here in Beautiful West Michigan sweet corn is very plentiful and inexpensive come harvest time.

My garden is about 50 long and about 20 feet wide. As I said, I like to grow a little bit of everything; most of which is in beds rather than rows. Through companion planting and crop rotation, this method has given me pretty good yields over the years.

To save space in the garden, I only grow one row of corn. Often I’ll interplant beans and cucumbers with the corn to make maximum use of the space. Beans will make nitrogen with their roots, which of course benefits the corn. Cucumbers will shade the corn roots and help keep weeds out and conserve moisture. In turn, the corn provides some shade for both the beans and cukes; as well as some wind protection.

However, with only one row of corn; pollination can be uncertain. That means I have to help the corn pollinate if I want the cobs to be full of kernels. With multiple rows of corn this is usually unnecessary, because the pollen density is high enough to pollinate the corn.

The tassels make the pollen which falls onto the silk to make corn babies. As soon as the silk pokes out of the ears, I skim some of the flowers off the tassel and rub it on the silk. Then I repeat this every couple days or so until a) the tassels quit making pollen or 12) the silk starts to turn brown at the end. This process can be used if you have even less space than I do. In other words, even if you only have enough room for one plant, pollinating the corn by hand will ensure you get cobs full of kernels. If pollination doesn’t happen effectively, you’ll still get a cob but very few kernels.

Here’s a video I made awhile ago that shows how I help the corn pollinate:

Once pollination is finished it’s just a matter of waiting for fall to arrive. I wait for the ears to turn brown; and then I make sure I pick them when the weather is dry to prevent molding. Then I pull the husks back (but not off) so the corn will dry.

After the husks are pulled back, I’ll lay a length of bailing twine (string works fine too) down on a flat surface; and place 6 to 8 cobs down with the husks positioned so they all lay on top of the twine. Then I pull the twine up and tie the husks together tightly so they can be hung up. I make sure the twine is a bit longer than needed so hanging is easier.  Each year I hang the bundles on a coat rack that stands near our pantry.  Click the image below for a better look.

A coat rack with lots of hangers has been commandeered and renamed "The Popcorn Tree."

A coat rack with lots of hangers has been commandeered and renamed “The Popcorn Tree.”

I keep the ears in the house to prevent mice from chowing down on my popcorn. After about a month or so the popcorn is dry enough to cook. Before Santa Claus brought me a corn sheller, we’d leave the cobs hanging until we wanted some. Then I’d just pull one cob at a time from its husk (and off the bundle). To remove the kernels, I’d get a deep pan or plastic storage container; then hold the cob toward the bottom of the container and rub my thumb forcefully over the kernels to get them off the cob. Doing it this way prevents kernels from flying all over the place; as they tend to shoot off the cob when they’re dislodged. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to wear work gloves while doing this!  Otherwise, you’ll get ouchy hands.

Now that I’m blessed with a corn sheller I can process lots of cobs much more quickly. We get about 10 pounds a year, and believe me, you don’t want to shell that much corn with your hands alone.

One good sized ear of popcorn yields enough to make a pretty good sized bowl of deliciousness when popped. We use an air popper, but everyone has their favorite cooking method.

After all that, it’s time to melt about a tablespoon of butter and drizzle it on top; followed by some garlic powder, salt, pepper, maybe even some cumin. Depends on our mood. Then I put a bowl of equal size on the top as a cap and shake until the seasonings are mixed with the popcorn thoroughly.

And you know what?? HOLY MOLY IT’S GOOD!!

Makes you want to settle in and watch a movie or something, doesn’t it??

Tomatoes: Up To Their Necks In Dirt

Finally got the tomatoes in today.  I buy plants from Weesie’s in Montague, Michigan.  They do a great job with starting my tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants for me so I don’t have to worry about it.

One neat trick I’ve learned about tomatoes is to plant them up to their necks in the dirt.  I use a similar method with eggplant and pepper transplants; but the entire stem of the tomato plant will grow roots if given the opportunity.  Because of that, I’ve learned that planting them that way makes a much stronger plant.  I put some pictures for examples below, you can click on each to get a better view.

I always start with a hole that I fill with compost.  Usually go down about a foot, and the hole is a bit over a foot wide.hole for compost - compressed

Next I take my plant and trim all but the very top set of leaves off.  I use my fingernails, but if I don’t have nails I use the scissors that come with my Swiss army knife.  Depending on how long the stem is, I either dig straight down into the compost and place the root ball in the bottom; or else I lay the plant at a slant with the root ball below the surface of the soil a few inches.    The example below shows a small stick i used to lean the tip of the plant on so it will grow straight up.

after trim3 - compressed

After setting the plant where I want it, I cover all but the top set of leaves with soil.  I let the leaves protrude from the surface a bit to allow room for the next and last step, the cutworm collar.   I also water thoroughly at this point… and I’ll water again after the cutworm collar is in place.after trim5 - compressed

If you’ve ever transplanted something in the garden only to find it lying on the ground next to its stem a day or two later; you’ve been the victim of a cutworm’s naughty deed.  These little buggers hide just beneath the soil, and if you find a plant that’s been whacked, it’s likely you can unearth the culprit very near the stem of the plant if you notice the damage quickly enough.  I’ve had this happen once, and since then I’ve always protected tomato, pepper, and eggplant transplants with cutworm collars.

I make cutworm collars from toilet paper tubes.  That’s right, toilet paper tubes!  I start saving them in the fall until I have enough for what I think I’ll need.  To make the collars, I cut slits into one half of the tube.  Then I slide it over the plant so the leaves are just barely sitting over the top of the tube.  To be effective against cutworms, I make sure the tube sits above the soil an inch (2.54 cm) or so.   Then I anchor the tube by brushing soil over the  flaps.  Finally I take some soil and sprinkle it into the tube until it is at soil level (NOT all the way up).  Anchoring the tube with soil is especially important to prevent the tube from being removed on windy days.

OK, done!  Now to repeat the process for the remaining plants.  These days I get fewer tomato plants and space them a little farther apart.  I’m down to 6 plants now, and I space them about 2 “giant steps” apart.  I grow a few different varieties for the fun of it.  This year it’s Cherokee purple (one of my all time favorites), red cherry, red grape, Roma, and an heirloom variety called Stupice.

I’ve also been planting marigolds near tomatoes for some time.  Marigolds help the tomatoes stay strong and the flowers are good for attracting bees.

Fun tip:  I’ve been planting a few onion sets at the base of each tomato plants for several years now.  Since I’ve been doing that, I have had very little disease and absolutely NO tomato worms.

Nothing beats a garden fresh tomato.  Can hardly wait!!

Beans Think Onions Stink

If bean plants could talk, they’d ask the onions to leave the premises immediately. This is for real, people! They’d pinch their noses and shout thusly: “Hey! You wid da face! You’re pudding a big hurt od by doze! Gid oudda here awreddy! Can’t lib here wid dis stinking!!”

This of course makes the onions cry. After all, they can’t help the fact that they were born with a natural fragrance that bean plants find offensive. Not to worry, the cabbage family and several other vegetables are happy to have onions in the neighborhood.

Forgive me while I indulge in this good stink / bad stink talk. I can’t help but think about it because in these parts, garden planting time is very near and I get to thinking out loud about what goes where in the dirt. Companion planting, or the practice of putting plants that benefit each other, is a cool thing for us organic-type gardeners. If plants can be happy together, they are much healthier. Having healthy plants means better yields and fewer problems with bugs and diseases.

Onions exude chemicals that prevent beans, peas, and other legumes from making nitrogen in the soil with their toes. If you’ve ever yanked a bean plant out of the dirt, you might have noticed the rhizomes (little round bumps) on the roots. Well, the beans do NOT have tumors. The rhizomes are where the action is: bean-friendly bacteria live there and make nitrogen for the bean plants and anyone else who happens to be nearby. That is, unless the onions are in town. Then they will be stunted and just sit there twiddling their toes.

However, cabbage and its relatives (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc.) love those onions, because they help keep the cabbage butterflies away, and also keep the aphid population down. Both of those bugs love their cabbage, but, like beans, most bugs also hate onion breath. For an experiment, I’ve been planting onion sets near my tomato plants over the last few years. The result: I haven’t seen any tomato worms!! And when other gardeners are complaining of their tomatoes getting wilt, mine are pretty happy.

Other examples of companion planting: corn says thank you to the beans and peas for being there and doing the cool nitrogen toe jam thing. Corn likes the nitrogen produced by the legumes. In return, the beans and peas give the corn a high five for wind protection and shade. Corn plants also make nice poles upon which peas and runner beans can climb. Between the corn rows, squash, pumpkins, and even cucumbers get the shade they like, and they in turn shade the corn’s roots and keep them cool. Everybody happy.

On the other hand, you have marigolds. OK, maybe you don’t. Those can go near anything. All the vegetable clans love marigolds; they attract bees and they even stimulate plant growth. My kinda friends!

Grandmas and Grandpas used to know lots of this stuff, and Native Peoples were (probably still are) very much in tune with companion planting. Unfortunately, however, farm and garden chemical companies would love for you to forget all about that. Those fancy commercials showing folks winning cool prizes for big veggies do tend to get one’s attention. These same chemical companies are conveniently quiet about the nasty stuff flowing into our lakes and streams when herbicides and pesticides are washed out of our dirt during a good rain. And of course God only knows what effects these chemicals have on our health.

But fear not, organically grown produce is finally becoming more mainstream. People are “discovering” accounts of when early European settlers found Native People growing pumpkins with their corn. It was no accident.

It takes some research, along with some trial and error, to learn which plants grow well together. Now that we have the interwebs, going to a place like Google and doing a search on companion planting will give you plenty of stuff to read.