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What growing corn in an East LA median strip taught me about the cycle of birth, growth, and death.
Back in May I planted corn in the median between the sidewalk and the street in front of our Los Angeles duplex. I actually planted three plants — a variation of three sisters: corn, beans, and mini-watermelon1. The corn grows up first, providing vertical support for the beans to grab on to. The beans, in turn, anchor the corn to the ground and provide essential nitrates to the soil. The broad watermelon leaves show up last and shade the ground, locking in soil moisture for all the plants as the summer heats up.
I tucked the seeds into the ground, whispered words of gratitude, and promised I would do my best to look after them. But I could make no guarantees. It’s the side of an East LA street, after all. There’s only so much a person can do.
I assured them no matter what happened, this would be the wildest ride of their little seed lives.
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The previous few weeks I had been preparing.
I pulled up the bed of weeds and dug up the rock-solid crust that had once been soil, turning it, adding compost, taking out rocks, and spraying it with water. It wasn’t the ideal garden bed, but after ten days of care it was a major improvement from the weeds.
A few days in, and the first sign of trouble emerged. The neighborhood squirrels started digging up the corn. Seed by seed, they threatened to dig up all twelve plants.
I wasn’t surprised, per se. I’d had a few altercations with squirrels harassing plants in my time living here, but I was surprised by the wave of emotion I experienced when I found the first corn seed dug up and strewn onto the sidewalk.
There was something devastating about the thin, pale root exploding out of the endosperm, already anchoring the small seed to the ground after only a few days. The incredible transformation that had already taken place, the fragility of new growth, and the potential of life cut short. It all made me unexpectedly sad. In a matter of hours, life had begun and ended.
Fortunately, I’d anticipated squirrel problems and already had another dozen corn seedlings growing in a small plastic greenhouse. I replaced the four or five seeds the squirrels had gotten with my backup supply and crafted chicken wire cages to keep them off of the new plants.
Slowly but surely, all twelve corn seedlings broke ground and streaked toward the sky, sometimes growing at more than an inch per day. It was exhilarating. I planted more seedlings between the existing groups and in a few short weeks ended up with seventeen plants crowding the tops of the cages. It was time for the cages to come off, and I held my breath for the impending attack.
A day passed with no squirrels. Maybe now that the plants were taller the squirrels weren’t interested in digging them up? Several more days went by, and my shoulders relaxed a little. It seemed the squirrels were done causing mischief. I transplanted three watermelon plants along with ten or so bean seedlings and watched sunlight, water, and earth work their magic.
Several weeks went by, and all the plants began their expansion in earnest.
We returned home from a weekend out of town to another round of trouble. Three or four of the corn plants had been chewed through and were lying toppled over on the sidewalk. I tried to stand them upright again, lashing them to vertical supports, but it was too late. The damage was too deep and the tops of the plants began wilting, unable to draw water up their stalks.
The second wave of casualties.
The next weekend, another three toppled over, then another two as I got home from work the following week. Over the span of a month, squirrels destroyed over a third of the corn plants and dug up most of the bean sprouts. One of the watermelon plants died when its tender leaves began to unfurl as a heat wave struck — the most untimely of cosmic coincidences.
Even so, ten corn plants remained and encountered a second growth spurt, rocketing from chest high to well over my head in a matter of days. A full-fledged wall of corn now divided the sidewalk and the street. The two remaining watermelon vines sprouted dozens of yellow flowers, several of which turned into swelling dark green ovals.
Then, the corn began to tassel, which felt something like hearing your child speak their first words (or so I imagine). Perhaps I exaggerate, but if my level of investment in corn growing in the sidewalk median is any indication of the powerful emotions to come in parenthood, I am both thrilled and terrified.
Caring is dangerous.
I tried to approach the corn experiment with all the non-attachment I could muster. “It’s unlikely the plants will even be able to grow in the street-side conditions,” I told myself. "And even if they do sprout, they’ll probably die from gophers, or aphids, or disease. And even if they do survive the corn probably won’t pollinate2, and even if it did manage to..." and on and on.
But then the seeds did sprout, and the corn rocketed to six, seven, eight feet. The cobs fattened with kernels, and staying unattached became difficult. As much as I tried to remain dispassionate, something deep within me grew invested in the wellbeing of these plants. Something I hadn’t asked for and couldn’t get away from.
I should have seen it coming, but I’d let myself believe the worst was behind. I’d let my guard down, and ultimately it turned out I wasn’t the only one watching the corn fattening and sweetening. The squirrels had their eyes on it too, and their patience broke before mine.
Shy of setting up a continuous day and night watch, there was nothing I could do but watch.
Over the course of 72 hours, they wiped out the remaining plants, shredding the husks open, devouring the young cobs, and snapping the stems. Day after day, more destruction—the most violent slaughters reserved for the ones who had endured the most hardship. Every last stalk was broken to the ground.
When I gathered up the tattered remains, sliced them up, and laid them to rest in the waste bin, I was numb. Something in me wanted to cry, but I shut it down and cleaned up the mess. This is the eventual destiny of all such seasonal plants, I suppose. Returning to the earth. But it is so much more sorrowful when it happens prematurely.
What’s the point of all this growing? Why let myself get swept up in the story of birth, growth, and death when this is how it inevitably and always ends? How is one human to judge the success or failure of a plant?
I guess that all depends on your point of view. From the squirrels point of view, the corn was a massive success.
I can’t help thinking these questions point toward something much larger than growing corn. What does planting teach us about the pace and direction of growth? How might it help us recognize the limitations of the soil we ourselves are planted in? What does facilitating new life and participating in death—even the life and death of a corn plant—teach us about what it means to be alive ourselves?
I don’t have any answers. Growing corn simply gave me a few of the questions. Watching corn in my front yard gave me a snapshot of life itself.
As is the case in life, however, there is always hope.
From the last corn plants to fall, I managed to salvage one half-eaten ear. My proverbial phoenix from the ashes. It’s currently drying in our kitchen and, if the lady on YouTube explained it to me correctly, I’ll be able to replant the kernels next season. In that context, growing corn in the median wasn’t a failure at all. The reality is that I watched water, sunlight, air, and earth magically turn twenty kernels of corn into one hundred and fifty kernels of corn.
I tend to miss the simple truth while getting caught up in imagined futures of what could have or should have been. What a bizarre and unsatisfying illusion to voluntarily live under—and yet an all too familiar one, I fear. I’d almost forgotten the true ending of the cycle: birth, growth, death, and rebirth.
In April, I had twenty seeds—twenty opportunities to take part in the story of corn. Today, I have a hundred fifty potential stories sitting in my kitchen waiting to be told. The last remaining legacy of a bunch of corn stalks that didn’t overcome the squirrels.
I have to hope they might next time.
Three Sisters is traditionally grown as corn, beans, and squash. I prefer eating watermelon to squash and, although the leaves aren’t quite as big as squash leaves, they accomplish the same thing.
Corn is a very finicky pollinator. It requires pollen from the male tassel at the top of the plant to land on the silks coming out of the corn flowers. Each individual silk is a potential kernel of corn, so if a silk doesn't receive a grain of pollen no kernel will form in that space on the ear, creating an irregularly shaped ear of corn. To make matters more complicated, a single corn plant won’t pollinate itself (unlike tomatoes, for example, which have both male and female portions built into the same flower). This is why corn must be grown in stands together; it relies on the wind (or a human shaking the plants) to pollinate its neighbors.