Hydroponists: Don’t try ‘this’ at home

No, no, no, no, no.

If you’ve been following my adventures with hydroponic gardening over the past few months, you know my condo corn crop has been growing like mad since I fenced the cats out of it — but the plants are disappointingly yellow.

This is wrong.

“Yellow is the color of my true love’s hair,” sang Donovan, but “Green is the color of the sparkling corn, in the morning, when we rise.”

His corn, maybe. Or, more likely, his neighbor’s corn, since he was spending most of his time lying under a tree playing his guitar, washing his lovely peasant shirt in a stream, and ingesting questionable quantities of saffron. (Come to think of it, saffron is a high-dollar crop that’s supposed to be yellow. Maybe I should have … nah, hindsight gets you nowhere.) In any case, my corn is yellow.

The gardener in me, the one with 35 years experience (not counting the popcorn I grew in my sandbox as a child), said “Nitrogen! My babies need nitrogen!” So I dosed them with fish emulsion.

Now a hydroponic growing unit works its magic by perpetually bathing the roots of plants in a fine mist. This ensures that a constant supply of essential nutrients reaches every little root hair, thus optimizing uptake and permitting maximum growth.

Most of you are probably familiar with another misting gizmo, the strange and wholly misguided invention called a Glade(r) aerosol freshener. These babies pack a potentially lethal dose of one or another artificial chemical odorant that’s meant to mask unwanted smells while reminding one of multiflora roses or springtime amongst the pine boughs. Right. And leave your mouth tasting like East Texas refinery run-off while you veer toward multiple-chemical sensitivity.

Well, a hydro unit is like an aerosol freshener on steroids. And the copywriter who composed the phrase “all-purpose deodorized fish emulsion” had a vivid imagination. Very vivid.

By the second day, the nauseating smell had permeated every corner of my condo and was leaking into the hall. On the third day, I rose early and emptied the unit completely, rinsed it and drained it again.

On the plus side, the corn had greened noticeably. (Alas, it has subsequently yellowed once again.)

But yellow or not, the first ear has tassled and pollen is raining down from the male flowers atop that stalk, while the other plants are close behind.

* Feb. 28: Drain fish-emulsion-laced water from unit; rinse. Refill with fresh nutrient solution.

* March 2: Sugar peas (planted Feb. 24) sprout.

* March 5: First corn flower spikes up, first tassles appear on fledgling cob.

* March 10: Flowers dropping steady flow of pollen. The plants range from 32 to 40 inches tall.

* March 11: Corn is normally a wind-pollinated crop — in other words, pollen is conveyed from male flower to female flower primarily by air movement rather than by pollinator species such as bees, moths or hummingbirds. Cornsilk is the adaptive mechanism that enables the female flower to harvest wind-borne pollen. Each silk that snares a pollen grain completes fertilization, creating a kernel of corn. (Spotty pollination spawns the gap-toothed ears so common in home gardens, whose scanty plots preclude adequate inundation by male gametes.)

This scenario explains why genetically modified corn crops so easily interbreed with their unmodified neighbors — to the point where even wild corn in the Mexican wilderness has been genetically polluted by commercial U.S. GMOs.

For better or worse, there is no wind in my condo, and a fan would only blow the pollen away from the waiting silk — so this morning I played honeybee, dabbing a cotton swab in the piles of pollen collected on the leaves and dusting all that lascivious silk.

Meanwhile the peas are up to 8 inches tall now, reaching tendrils toward the cornstalks that will soon become bean poles in the curious hydro-symbiosis I have conjured overlooking an alley in downtown Asheville.

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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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