Amazing Grains

If you like ornamental grasses, you'll adore the brighter colors and cool textures of amaranth, millet, and wheat.

By Nancy J. Ondra


Creative Corn
Sure, corn is a classic crop for the vegetable garden, but these distinctive varieties make corn equally at home in your flower garden.

Variegated corn (Zea mays var. japonica) is a real show- stopper, with purple tassels and green leaves that are prominently striped with white and pink. It also produces ears of deep burgundy red kernels, which are superb for fall and winter decorating.

Small-eared popcorns, such as 'Strawberry' (short, red ears), 'Mini Blue' (deep blue kernels), and 'Mini Pink' (purplish pink kernels), are multipurpose options. The dried ears are ideal for accenting wreaths and other crafts, and you can shell any leftover kernels and pop them for a snack.

But that's not all they are good for. They look lovely in flower arrangements, too! Ellen Spector Platt enjoys combining edibles with flowers in fresh and dried bouquets, so these miniature corns were a natural choice for her to experiment with. "They're wonderful for adding height to an arrangement," she says. "Cut the whole plant at whatever height you need, after its ears have formed. Leave the ears on the stalk, but pull back the husks so you can see the colorful kernels." Harvested while the leaves are still green, these mini corns combine well with fresh cut flowers; picked later on, they'll also dry well for winter use.

Traditional ornamental corns, such as 'Fiesta' and 'Painted Mountain', are prized for their large ears of multicolored kernels. Suzanne Nelson, director of conservation at the Arizona-based desert seed conservation group Native Seeds/SEARCH, points out that most corn plants look pretty similar from the outside, so you'll probably want to grow these somewhere other than your flower borders. Once the plants start to dry, you can pick the ears and pull back the husks to reveal the showy kernels.

Broomcorn (Sorghum bicolor) may not be a true corn, but it looks a lot like corn while it's growing. Instead of producing ears and tassels, broomcorn stems are topped with showy sprays of seeds in a wide range of harvest colors, including gold, copper, and deep brown. Nelson is particularly partial to the red-seeded sorghums, which send up "somewhat drooping panicles that are beautiful against the crisp blue sky of a fall day." They definitely earn a place in the ornamental garden, but you might also want to plant a patch just for crafts. Mayo Underwood enjoys using broomcorn in a variety of ways for fall decorating, including cutting and binding several stems together like a corn shock, using them in arrangements, and hanging bundles of the seedheads from branches in winter. "Birds love the seeds," she says.

Growing tips: Getting both true corn and broomcorn started couldn't be easier. The key is to wait until the soil warms up to at least 60° F, then sow the seeds 1 to 2 inches deep directly in your garden. Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, thin them to stand 10 to 12 inches apart. To get good ear production, Matt Barthel, garden manager at the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, suggests planting your corn in blocks, rather than rows. "An ornamental corn patch appropriate for the home gardener would be four rows that are each 10 feet long, spaced 3 to 4 feet apart." (For tips on growing corn in smaller spaces, see "Sweet Corn" in the June/July issue of Organic Gardening.)

Special Note: Thin broomcorn seedlings to 10 to 12 inches apart. Mature plants can grow to 15 feet tall!