Squanto in the hydro-condo

Growing up, most of us were taught pleasant myths about the European invasion of North America, like the one about the Pilgrims coming here in search of religious freedom (which they already enjoyed in Amsterdam — and which they immediately denied to all comers in Massachusetts).

It might seem puzzling that this myth would depict the founders as inept farmers — except that by crediting the indigenous population with altruism, we can more easily believe that the trespassers were welcomed with open arms. So we tell our kids about how Squanto taught the half-starved invaders that corn can be a high-yield crop, while warning them that it’s a heavy feeder.

“Your average vegetable does well on a balanced N-P-K nutrient source,” he told the baffled Christian soldiers. “But corn needs more nitrogen. Experienced organicists use blood meal or fish emulsion, but for beginners, it’s simpler to just plant each corn seed with a fish.”

Reductionist science soon took its toll, however, stripping soil chemistry to the core, and these days we fertilize our corn crops with nitrogen derived from natural gas … but I digress.

As reported last month (Feb. 4 Xpress) I, too, am growing corn. And my hydroponic popcorn crop is flourishing, though I recently found myself in need of a hydro-Squanto’s help.

* Feb. 4: As noted in my first attempt at condo corn culture (which was foiled by my cats), my plants seem pale. I contact David Hitch at Asheville Agricultural Systems, a local vendor with wide experience in hydroponics.

Hitch says he would start by checking the pH. “In hydroponic units, [pH] should be 6.0-6.5, 6.3 being ideal MOST of the time. Yellowing starts to occur under 6.0 and over 6.5 in many species of plants.”

Sure enough, my system pH is acid: 5.5. I adjust it upward with baking soda (not the first choice for serious hydroponists, but it’s what’s handy).

* Feb. 15: The crop is looking a little better and growing fast. The smaller plants are catching up with the big ones. I replace the nutrient solution with a slightly stronger mix. (Hitch recommends biweekly replacement. My original mentor, Julia Brooke Childs of the New Age Garden Center, recommended a three-week cycle. I find that by aiming for every two weeks, I seem to manage to get around to it by the third.)

* Feb. 23: Although the plants are sturdy, they’re still streaked with yellow. Hitch reports that his corn crop, which is a few weeks younger than mine, is also streaked with yellow. (Like me, he’s a first-time hydro-corn grower.) Hitch agrees with Squanto that nitrogen may be the problem.

* Feb. 24: Two months after planting, my five surviving plants range from 28-36 inches tall. The stems are sturdy, the cats seem to have lost interest, and I’m beginning to consider what movie to watch while I enjoy the fruits of my mechanized labor. Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee is a strong contender.

To some Native American farmers, corn, beans and squash were known as the “three sisters.” Today we would call them “ideal companion crops.” Corn is a heavy feeder that hates weedy competition and comes with a sturdy stalk; beans are legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil and require a sturdy support for climbing vines; squash plants are lighter feeders with broad leaves that overshadow weeds and ripen late in the season — after the cornstalks have died and dried. I can’t quite picture squash vines in my living room, but today I planted organic sugar peas. Soon my vines will twine through ripening corn.

* Feb. 25: I dose the corn with fish emulsion (5-1-1 in the NPK rating system) to see if it will green my corn. (This is entirely my idea; don’t blame Hitch if it doesn’t work.)

Just call me Squanto.


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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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