Demise of Miss Kim, Sweet corn

Aug 30, 2012 #34
by Lee Reich
I killed Miss Kim. Sure, she was pretty enough, with lilac purple flowers late each spring. In fact, she is  . . .  I mean “was” . . . a lilac, although she was Syringa patula, a different species from the common lilac (S. vulgaris). 
The very reason that I had planted Miss Kim was because she was different. She would blossom later than the common lilac, extending the season when lilac blossoms and their fragrance could be enjoyed. Later in summer, her leaves were never to be marred by the powdery, white coating — powdery mildew disease — that mars the leaves of common lilacs. And her expected stature, no more than 6 feet high, would be fitting for the bed of perennial flowers that she would call home. 
The relationship did not work out. Her later blossoms did not extend the fragrance of lilac blossoms, at least not the heavenly aroma of the common lilac. Miss Kim’s flowers were fragrant but not pleasantly so. Her growth was my oversight: I should have predicted that the rich soil here in the Wallkill River floodplain would coax Miss Kim to new and greater proportions, proportions that overpowered other plants in the flowerbed. 
So Miss Kim had to go. After an initial effort with shovels, I, along with helpers David and Jonathan, coaxed her root ball out of the ground by adding a tractor and chain to the tool mix. Unfortunately, this is not the ideal time of year to dig up a large shrub for replanting. Miss Kim is now in some kind of lilac heaven.
Perennial bed, minus Miss Kim
The spot vacated by Miss Kim is thankfully open now to light and air. A bit too open, in fact, so a replacement shrub is waiting in the wings. My probable choice this time around: summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia), a native shrub that is adorned with fragrant, usually white bottlebrushes of blossoms in late July. 
Clethra usually grows to about 6 feet tall (uh-oh) but some varieties are more compact. I’ll be on the lookout for the variety Hummingbird (to 4 feet tall, heavy flowering, shiny leaves), Pink Spice (dwarf height unspecified, pink blossoms, dark, shiny leaves), or September Beauty (dwarf height unspecified, blossoms 2 weeks later than others). 
Clethra grows in sun or shade, in either case needing a moist, acidic soil. My site is in full sun; I’ll bank on plenty of mulch for keeping the soil moist. 
There’s time until fall to ponder which clethra to plant, or even whether to plant something else. Fall is particularly good for planting because the soil is just right for digging, warm and moist, not sodden, and because roots will grow in their new home but shoots won’t grow until after they’ve experienced sufficient cool weather between fall and spring. I like to plant on October 14th.
Not that Walmart is the go to place for good sweet corn but Walmart is, after all, the largest retailer of organic foods. Now there’s one more reason to grow your own sweet corn (in addition, of course, to at least some others of your own vegetables and fruits). Soon to be found on Walmart’s produce shelves: GMO sweet corn,”GMO” as in “genetically modified” sweet corn. 
Most corn grown in this country is, unfortunately, GMO corn. That corn is field corn, destined for animal feed, ethanol, and processed foods. Allergens, pesticide-resistant pests, adverse health effects to animals fed such crops, genetic contamination of wild plants and non-GMO crop plants, questionable economic advantages, increase pesticide use, and a host of unknowns are among the reasons that GMO crops should be banned. (For more, see GMO Myths and Truths at
Golden Bantam corn, grown here on the farmden

Most aggregious is the fact that GMO foods and feeds are not required to be labeled as such. 
I find comfort in knowing that the sweet corn I’ve been harvesting for the past few weeks, and for a few more to come, is non-GMO (the variety Golden Bantam, the standard of excellence in sweet corn 100 years ago) and has not even been sprayed with pesticides. I plant in “hills” (clumps of 3 plants), 2 rows of hills spaced 2 feet apart in the row down each bed. With good soil and water as needed, a 20 foot long bed yields 90 plus ears of scrumptious, healthful sweet corn.
I will be giving a workshop “Grow Fruit Naturally” at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY on September 9th. For more information:
Do you want to grow fruit but think you don’t have room? I’ll be giving a workshop “Fruit for Small Gardens,” covering the fruits and growing techniques needed to reap delectable rewards from spaces as small as a balcony to as “large” as a small suburban yard. The venue is Stone Barns inn Pocantico Hills, NY on September 22nd from 1-3 pm. For more information, see


A recent visit to the garden of Margaret Roach ( inspired me to makeover a flower bed. Margaret’s garden is all ornamental, a sometimes lively, sometimes subdued interplay of plant shapes with leaf textures and spots of color. My garden is mostly for eating, although I balance that functionality with rustic arbors, shrubbery (some of it edible and ornamental), and interplay of sight lines. And I do have a couple of flower beds.

My flower bed 10 years ago.
Looking at photos of one of my beds from years past highlighted for me just how much in need it was for a makeover.

The attack began on ‘Miss Kim’ lilac. She was supposed to be a dwarf lilac (a different species, Syringa patula, than the common lilac, S. vulgaris), and I suppose she is a dwarf, comparatively speaking. But she’d grown too big and too dense for the flower bed so I did an extensive renovation, cutting to the ground a few of the oldest stems, thinning out some of the youngest ones so that those that remain would have room to develop, and then shortening or removing any other stem that was creating congestion or was in my way. The new ‘Miss Kim’ took some getting used to, like a new haircut, but now I’m pleased and other plants in the bed have more light and space.

I was more brutal with the butterfly bush. Butterfly bush is one of my favorite shrubs but this one takes over the bed each summer. And I’d just received a sample plant of a new series  — the Flutterby series — of butterfly bushes, notable for their small stature and long bloom period. The humongous root system of the old butterfly bush was no match for a chain and the Kubota tractor. Into the waiting hole went a Flutterby.

Next, I took a shovel to the Siberian irises, wonderful plants with pleasant, blue blossoms and spiky, green foliage — until the plants become overcrowded, at which point they become mostly just foliage. The plants need dividing every 3 years or so to prevent overcrowding. Dividing them was actually the hardest job because of the tough root systems. I probably removed about half the plants.

Finally, more herbaceous interlopers — which included a lot of garlic, jewelweed, and errant irises and daffodils — got cleaned up. What’s left is a clean palette, some patches of bare soil ready for some new plants. Thus far: an orange osteospermum off to one side, and deep pink rose campion with purple-pink coneflower on the other side.

Digging in the flower bed unearthed some golfball-sized tubers connected together like a chain of beads. I immediately recognized them as tubers of Apios americana, sometimes called Indian potato or groundnut (not to be confused with that other groundnut, the peanut). How did I recognize them so quickly? Because I planted groundnuts about 25 years ago!

Groundnuts should be more famous; they are the unsung heroes of Thanksgiving. The Wampanoaga Indians introduced the Pilgrims to this plant, and the Pilgrims’ diet during one of those first winters was supplemented by an Indian cache of groundnuts and corn discovered by Miles Standish. The Pilgrims soon coveted this food for themselves, to the extent of issuing an edict in 1654 ordering that: “if an Indian dug Groundnuts on English land, he was to be set in stocks, and for a second offense, be whipped.”

Native Americans didn’t really cultivate groundnuts, but merely coaxed them along where they grew naturally. Modern Americans became interested in domesticating groundnuts a few decades ago. Hence my groundnuts, sent to me by one of those modern Americans.

Groundnut can be weedy, spreading all over the place via those tuberous chains. I’ve been half-heartedly weeding groundnuts out of my flower bed for 23 years, looking in vain for tubers each time I weeded. Evidently, I didn’t dig deeply enough — until this flower bed makeover.

Clematis ‘Piilu’
The flower bed is also home to a couple of clematis vines that climb up 5-foot-high wire towers, and beyond. No clematis vines will be touched by a shovel for the makeover, especially since this has been such a spectacular year for those two and other clematis vines I grow. Why this year? Who knows? Clematis are generally winter hardy and not particularly at the beck and call of the weather.

My favorite clematis, named Piilu, arrived here a couple of years ago from Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery ( Piilu grows only about 5 feet high to make a very densely flowering column (with support) of flowers. The flowers have pale lavender petals whose intensity deepens towards their bases, at which also sits a dense bottlebrush of creamy white stamens. The plant blooms all season, with later flowers, borne on new stems, having double rows of petals.