Folk wisdom says that corn should be "knee-high by the Fourth of July" to produce a timely harvest.

Short-season varieties of corn have outdated the saying somewhat -- in fact, there is still time to plant a crop of Early Sunglow or Trucker's Favorite White. Both take 65 days to mature. But for corn-lovers, the national holiday still signals a time to anticipate the first fresh ear of corn, as well as participate in patriotic celebrations. In spite of the dry weather, HowardCounty corn patches look like they are on schedule.

National Gardening Association statistics rank corn seventh on the list of home gardeners' most popular crops.

Devotees know that there is no other way to experience the incomparable taste of really fresh garden-to-table corn. There are many old sayings concerning the speed with which picked corn must be cooked to experience the best taste.

"Have the water boiling" and "run like the devil," are the prevailing themes. Modern experts have reinforced the adages by discovering that it takes only 20 minutes after picking for the taste of corn to start changing.

Toni and Warren Welsh have been growing corn at their home in North Laurel for more than 30 years. Neat rows of waving corn -- yes, it's a foot high -- stretch down the side of the house adjacent to lofty high-tension wires.

Interspersed with the corn are patches of tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, beans and black-eyed peas. The garden started as a hobby, says Toni Welsh, and slowly has expanded into a small, seasonal business. Much of her produceis sold at the farmers' market in Silver Spring.

Once the corn starts coming, she says, neighbors start arriving at the house, buying out most of each day's picking before supper time.

She often slipsinto the corn patch to get them the freshest ears. In less than two weeks, their corn season is over.

The Welshes' only variety is thehybrid Silver Queen, a large-eared, long-season (90 days), white-kernel type that has instant name recognition with corn aficionados everywhere. It's also good and so popular that there is no reason to change, she reasons.

Their large crop is hand-seeded around May 1 in freshly plowed and fertilized ground. This one early planting will mature before bugs and diseases become a problem later in the season, notes Toni Welsh, and pesticide sprays are avoided.

The location of the corn in the garden is rotated each year also with disease prevention in mind.

Tractor cultivation of the corn rows during June and July is the main summer chore. Crows may feast on a few newly sprouted plants, pulling seedlings up here and there. And they sometimes return at harvest time to skillfully peel back the husks for a tasty meal.

Scarecrows will intimidate most of them. There is no irrigationsystem, and watering with city water is impractical for so much corn. But, "God usually provides," Toni Welsh says.

Corn is traditionally planted in blocks of at least four rows because of the unique waycorn pollinates itself.

Wind showers the pollen from the tassels to the fresh silks below. Unlikely as it sounds, a microscopic pollengrain travels down each strand of silk where it fertilizes an individual, unseen flower, within the husk. Fertilization results in full kernels. Unpollinated silks produce nubs or empty spots on the ear.

Three months after sowing, the corn silks in the Welsh corn patch start to wither and brown, signaling the onset of harvest. When the ears feel full and firm out to the tip and the silks are brown and dry, but not brittle, the corn has reached its peak flavor. Juice from thekernels will appear white and milky. Immature corn has clear liquid.Overly ripe corn turns starchy and useless.

Corn is truly an American phenomenon, not only in origin, but in what ingenious plant breeders, cooks and entrepreneurs have done with it. The United States now produces more than 8 billion bushels of corn annually. Half is for animal feed, a quarter is exported -- largest customer, Japan -- and most of the remainder is consumed or used by us in some form or another.

Besides fresh, canned and frozen corn, there is corn syrup, corn meal, cereals like corn flakes, hominy and grits, corn oil, corn starch, etc. How we came to eat each of these products is a story untoitself.

Corn is also an ingredient in such products as aspirin, gum, shoe polish and soap.

Botanists have determined that at least 300 varieties of corn, a member of the grass family, had been bred and grown in the Americas by the time Columbus arrived. These varietiesincluded the five different types of corn -- flint corn, popcorn, dent corn, sweet corn and flour corn -- that are grown today.

Columbus returned home with the correct native West Indian word for corn, mahiz (maize), along with corn seed. Back in Europe, where the new crop became an instant success, the generic name for each country's major grain was corn. In England, corn is wheat. And maize became corn inthe United States.

In 1737, Linneaus gave it the Latin name Zea mays.

Recently, there have been amazing additions to our selection of corn varieties. They fall under two general labels, "super sweet" and "sugar enhanced." Super-sweet corn became available in the mid-70s after the discovery that a special gene (shrunken 2) affected the sugar to starch conversion in the kernels. Not only did the corn tastesweeter -- twice as sweet in some cases -- but the sweetness was retained longer after picking.

For instance, Illini Xtra Sweet contains 45 percent sugar at picking, and 40 percent 48 hours after picking.

However, super-sweet varieties do not germinate reliably and need ideal soil conditions. They also need to be isolated to prevent cross pollination from other sweet corns for good results. Many county gardeners claim that super sweets like Illini and Florida Staysweet are well worth the trouble.

Our Howard County climate permits a longseason of this all-American vegetable. By planting a selection of varieties with different ripening times -- the range goes from 65 to 95days -- or planting at intervals through early July, one can enjoy corn until October.

Make sure that the July planted variety is a short season one and allow it two weeks extra to ripen because of shortening days.

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