Open-Pollinated Corn Roots

The Editorial Director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS connects with his open-pollinated corn roots, and with cultivars given to him by family and friends.

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by Hank Will

I come from generations of corn growers. Not corn in the modern commercial sense, but corn in the smaller, regionally adapted and cultural sense. For decades, I grew open-pollinated corns that my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father grew for study and for the development of cultivars they sold. My corn patches also grew the ancestors of those corns, gifted to my family through the generosity of the indigenous people who developed them. I grew corn because it fed me, grounded me, and connected me to my ancestors.

In 2015, I stopped growing corn because a person I loved died. She died at home, with me and her family at her side. Feeling despair, I walked away from my corn patches that year and didn’t plant the following four years. My corn seed stocks fell to ruin.

On my desk sits a partial ear of corn that a friend sent in 2015. It’s a special ear, one that I’m not sure I should even have in my possession. This ear’s history is steeped in the indigenous cultures of northern New Mexico. It’s a white flour ear with many kernels missing. It also has five lavender kernels and a single mauve grain.  I feel compelled to handle the ear most days, and when it’s in my hand, I feel a desire to plant its kernels. So I place it back into its MOTHER EARTH NEWS branded glass, where it lives.

Late last September, Joanna was gleaning the last of the potatoes when she discovered four beautiful flint ears on four mature stalks in the overgrown patch. As an act of catharsis, I had randomly scattered my weevil-infested seed corn into the potato patch the previous spring. The flint ears were all ‘Carl’s Glass Gems,’ from seed that was sent to me by a friend, who had procured it from Carl Barnes. I was stupefied. Emotions I had buried welled up within. I knew then that I would plant the ‘Carl’s Glass Gems’ and the special New Mexico ears this year.

I don’t expect to grow corn the way I once grew it. I also no longer need “family” corn to feel connected to the people I love, past or present. But I’m curious to see where these two corns will lead me. I’m eager to begin the journey.

If gardening or growing family varieties have kept you connected to your roots, I’d love to hear the story of them. If other growing adventures have had a profound effect on your life, I’d love to hear those stories too. Please send me an email at if you have any wisdom you’d like to share.

See you in April,



Sweet corn is a gardener’s vegetable, one of the most eagerly awaited summer crops. By growing your own, you can have it at its best: sweet, tender, juicy kernels, five minutes from the patch. Corn is a vigorous plant that responds to generous fertilizing, so it’s satisfying to grow.

This e-handbook describes the different varieties of corn, how to plant, water, fertilize and cultivate your corn crop as well as what measures to take against pests. Also, included is information on how to store, freeze and can fresh corn. 
Order from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store or by calling 800-234-3368.