Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How to Hand Pollinate Corn - Prevent Kernal Gap

The dreaded "kernel gap" on my unpollinated corn.

Guide to Easy Corn Growing

I got anxious enough to pick an ear of corn today. Not good. It appears I have unpollinated corn as indicated by the bare patches on the cob (kernel-gap.)  I've researched some hand pollination techniques. Some gardeners on GardenWeb say just to walk around and shake the stalks, allowing pollen to flow from the tassels down to the silks. They mention doing this when the plants are dry. If they are wet, the pollen may clump or the silks may stick together which might cause a problem.

Once the pollen gets on the silks, it travels down the hairs into the cob and completes the job. I won't get into all the specifics of cell biology. I will say though that you can self pollinate (tassel and silk on SAME plant) or cross-pollinate (tassel on plant A pollinates silk on plant B). Either way works but some university papers I read said that you don't want to self pollinate too much (kinda like inbreeding.)

Cross-pollinating courtesy of UofN.
One gardener named Chaman said the following: "You can hand pick tassels and gently rub on the silk.  Morning time around 10 A.M. is good for hand pollination. In half an hour or so you will see silk changing color to a brown, sign of successful pollination. You may repeat the process for a few days. Tassels remain usable for about 4 to 5 days.  In case if needed, you may pick up the tassels from any plant to use on the plant that has no tassels available.  This way corn-cobs get fully filled with kernels."

I'm not sure WHY my corn didn't self pollinate. It could be that we don't get much wind in my part of the Arizona desert. It could also be that I put a bird netting over my corn to keep critters out. I'm hypothesizing that the net keeps the stalks from swaying in whatever little wind we DO get. No swaying, no pollen sprinkling the silks.

Corn anatomy
So, what I haven't figured out yet is how long do I have to pollinate? Like the cob, I imaged above with the kernal gap. Could it have been saved if I had left it on the plant and pollinated it? Or can you only pollinate right when the silks emerge from the husk or what?

Wifey and I will be trying our skills at hand pollinating first thing in the morning. Wish us luck!

Oh, there's a chance of worm infestation. We saw a few last season. They lay their eggs on the silks and the little boogers travel down into the corn and feed there so you may not see them from outside the husk. There's a good article on using vegetable or mineral oil on the silks to rid your corn of worms. It sounds easy enough.

I keep telling myself this is a learning process. It is our second season at trying our hand at gardening. Last season we planted the corn too late and the frost got our immature corn. This season we're learning to pollinate. By 2015, we might actually be able to grow some edible corn!

Have YOU had success growing corn?


  1. success came in a brown paper bag! hehe I tried collecting the pollen in the bag, then used a powder brush (think make-up) to dab the pollen onto the silk. It worked great for me! For small backyard farmers like me, this seems to be the best option instead of relying on the wind.

  2. Thanks for the tip of shaking the stalks when the corn is dry. My uncle owns a farm and has many family members work on the farms in the summer. However, this summer, my family is going on a vacation to Paris, so we won't be here to help with the farm. We will see if there is a professional to harvest the corn while we are away.


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