Sunday, August 30, 2009

Corn Pollination

This is the time of year to really buckle-down into seed saving, which is a simple prospect for many of our garden plants. Lettuce, for example, you simply let go to form a stalk and a bunch of little flowers, which then form seeds with fuzz on them like dandelions. With tomatoes you take the mature fruit, gut it into a jar, and let it sit a few days to ferment the protective layer that coats each seed. Both of these vegetables have something glorious going for them from the gardener's perspective: they are self-pollinating. Each flower has both necessary parts, fertilizes itself, and keeps unwanted crossing to a minimum.
Not so, of course, with corn. I won't go into any depth on the biology of corn pollination, since I wrote about that in an earlier post. But I would love to share how I deal with the question that follows that understanding: How does a person get pure seed under those conditions? Especially if they live in Corn Country? Especially when, if their seed gets contaminated by genetically modified crops Monsanto comes and sues them like they've been doing to lots of small farmers.
My solution comes from Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth. It is one of the great, comprehensive seed saving books for anyone who wants to understand the ins and outs of the subject.
Because it is a time, energy, and focus-intensive process at first, I started last year saving from three Hopi Blue flour corn plants. This year we planted out the resulting successfully-saved seed, together with some of the same variety bought from a catalog. The reason for this is that, in the case of most plants, genetic diversity is important. Seed to Seed recommends, as an absolute minimum, that 100 corn plants should be saved from. You will end up with 50 ears, though, because half of those plants will be participating only by tassel.
Maybe I should explain the method now...
There are two vital elements in corn pollination: the tassel (which releases pollen), and silks (which accept pollen). One silk only accepts one pollen granule, which will become one kernel on an ear. So essentially we need to stand between the silks and ANY tassels.
The best way to do this is by bagging ears before the silks emerge. Choose the best ears right before the silks come out (the only tricky part) and clip the tip of the husk off to see the bundle of silks. They grow fast, like an inch a day, so by clipping them like this they will all be the same size in one or two days when you remove the bag to pollinate them.
The next step comes one or two days later: the collection and distribution of pollen. Get more bags, stick them over tassels and staple them close to the plant, so no pollen drops out. Do this early in the morning before they start shedding pollen. Before it gets hot that day (hot enough to destroy the pollen in the closed bag), say maybe 11am, you take the bag off, bending and shaking the tassel as you do, and then you have a little pollen. Collecting and mixing all the pollen in one bag, you have quite a bit of it.
At that point you make the rounds of your bagged ears. Take off the bag, pour some pollen on the now-emerged silks, and then put the bag back on to mark the ears you selected.
It is a simple as that. As mentioned above, the only tricky part is trying to identify which ears have almost emergent silks. I cut the tips off of many husks only to be disappointed. But, as with many other things, if you don't start and fail a lot, you'll never know what you are doing!
So to sum up the ideal situation: 1) snip tips and bag 50 ears, 2) one or two days later bag 50 tassels from plants whose ears you did not bag, 3) collect the pollen later that morning and pollinate the 50 aforementioned ears. Done! Sit back and watch them grow, and harvest them when they are mature and dry.
Corn and squash are really two of the most difficult plants to keep pure seed from, so if you are feeling adventurous some year, do your reading and jump into it! Once you have it down, you can probably make at least a little money selling the results to a seed company.


  1. Hi! I am renting a house that is on the same property as my landlord's house. He has about 100 acres of land, which includes a river going through it, as well as a wetlands. Every year he has been using Roundup ready GMO corn, planting it to attract ducks and geese. Then his friends and their friends pay him a lot of money to come out and hunt on his land. My question is, what can I tell him about the impacts that GMO corn has on the bodies of the ducks and geese, and in turn, what impacts would this have on his body, as well as the bodies of his friends and their families? He wants an easy solution, with 'No weeds'... I also have a huge garden and made the mistake of planting heirloom green dent corn last year. I'm sure that the GMO pollen has traveled to my corn. So, should I eat it? (I dried it and ground some into flour.) Any direction you can point me to is greatly appreciated! Please email me at
    Thank you!

  2. I'll be emailing you, Sherry, with the best answer I can come up with.
    In the mean time, I should update thi post by saying that at harvest time about 93% of the ears were well developed, and we got a whole bunch of seed. I look forward to next year!