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Flagstaff, AZ: Southside Community Garden Growing Blue Corn

  • Subject: [cg] Flagstaff, AZ: Southside Community Garden Growing Blue Corn
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Sat, 27 Nov 2004 20:21:29 EST

Blue grama, blue corn growing at Arboretum
Patrick Pynes
Master Gardener

Season's greetings from The Arboretum at Flagstaff. We hope that you had a 
fine Thanksgiving, with plenty of good things to eat, and plenty to be thankful 
for in 2004. We hope to see you here at The ARB next Saturday, Dec. 4, for our 
annual Holiday Sale and Celebration. Admission and refreshments are free. A 
wide variety of handcrafted gifts, scented geraniums, and seeds will be for 
With snow piling up on the peaks (many thanks!), and with the winter solstice 
only a month away, a gardener's thoughts turn to the lessons learned from 
last year's growing season, and to dreams and plans for 2005. Learning lessons 
from the land and using this knowledge to plan for next year is vital to being a 
gardener. Learning by doing keeps us going; in some ways it's the heart of 
the gardening process. Gardens teach us, thus supplying constant inspiration and 
refreshment. Sometimes they even give us the food and energy we need. 

This was certainly how it worked for us at The Arboretum in 2004. We learned 
a lot by growing many different native plants, especially grasses, and even 
managed to harvest some good local food, perfect for celebrating Thanksgiving. 

At The ARB we steward many of the Colorado Plateau's native grasses, wild and 
domesticated, perennial and annual. When the summer monsoon began this year, 
we restored four native grass demonstration plots by planting new native 
grass/wildflower mixes. 

Two plots were planted with a custom "High Altitude" mix donated to us by 
High Country Gardens in Santa Fe. This mix includes 25 different grasses and 
wildflowers of the Intermountain West, including Arizona fescue, Idaho fescue, 
mountain muhly, prairie junegrass and small-flowered penstemon. 

Two other beds were planted with custom mixes donated to us by our friends at 
Flagstaff Native Plant and See "East of the Peaks" bed includes sideoats 
grama and Indian ricegrass. To reflect local and regional differences, each bed 
contains a distinct kind of soil. All four beds are growing at least some blue 
grama, a "keystone" Southwestern grass species. 

These mixes all germinated strongly and are doing great. We're looking 
forward to watching and learning as they grow and flower in 2005. 


Last summer we also planted maize or corn, a domesticated annual grass. Maize 
belongs to the grass family that includes our native muhlies, fescues, and 
gramas. Indigenous American horticulturists created corn several thousands of 
years ago by selectively breeding a wild perennial grass. 

Like blue grama, corn is also an important native plant of the Colorado 
Plateau. Hopi gardeners have grown locally adapted maize varieties for thousands of 
years. From Apache to Zuni, maize is central to the Colorado Plateau's 
indigenous cultures. 

Because it enjoys the Plateau's warmer middle elevations, and because I'd had 
success growing this delicious, drought-tolerant variety during my years of 
gardening in Albuquerque's South Valley, we decided to try growing Hopi blue 
corn at Southside Community Garden. Surrounded by concrete and asphalt, 
Southside is located in an especially warm urban microclimate. Our friend Michael 
Kotutwa Johnson, a citizen of the Hopi Nation, gave the seeds to us. 

Hoping to avoid a hard late freeze, we waited patiently and planted three 
different experimental plots in early June. All three grew well, but the 
bushiest, healthiest corn plants were located in a raised bed. The other two plots 
were located in basins. In the Southwest's hottest, driest elevations, indigenous 
farmers use basins for conserving water and concentrating soil nutrients. 

Based on our experience at Southside, and other observations, we've come to 
believe that raised beds are better than basins for growing warm-season plants 
like corn, at least in the Southwest's higher elevations. Colder air sinks 
into basins, even small, shallow ones, slowing plant growth. Plants growing in 
elevated beds or on berms, especially if south-facing, soak up and hold slightly 
more heat, invigorating growth. We've observed this effect here at The ARB, 
where warm-season buffalograss grows vigorously only on the top edge of the 
Turf Demonstration Garden's south-facing berm. (Watch where the snow melts first 
after a storm; these spots are usually east- or south-facing microclimates.) 

Unfortunately, we didn't harvest as many ears of Hopi blue corn as we had 
hoped. A relatively cool summer diminished the urban microclimate effect, slowing 
the plants' growth, and then a mid-September hard freeze stopped many plants 
from fertilizing or maturing their ears. During August, we also admired the 
green lushness of our bushy plants so much that we forgot to thin our plots 
sufficiently. Along with the relatively cool summer, not thinning more 
aggressively also slowed the plants' growth. 

Even so, we are thankful to have harvested several beautiful ears of blue 
corn, and we are seriously thinking of planting this variety again next growing 
season, but only in raised beds. We'll try planting our seeds a week or two 
earlier, in late May, giving the plants more time to produce fertilized ears 
before the first frost. We'll also force ourselves to do some thinning! 

Although our urban "milpa" (cornfield) was not superabundant in terms of 
yield, it was very successful because we learned so much. 

Patrick Pynes is the Gardens Manager at The Arboretum at Flagstaff, has a 
Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico, and has been 
gardening in the Southwest since 1989. 

The American Community Gardening Association listserve is only one of ACGA's services to community gardeners. To learn more about the ACGA and to find out how to join, please go to http://www.communitygarden.org

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