Tag Archives: gardening

Harvesting the History of Corn

CBR_Logo2Midwest Maize:
How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland
by Cynthia Clampitt

As we approach Harvest Moon this weekend, it seems a fitting time to look at one of the country’s biggest crops: corn. Local author and food historian Cynthia Clampitt has done just that in her remarkable new book, Midwest Maize.

Those of us who live here—and anyone who has ever driven south of I-80—will know how prevalent corn is in Illinois and across the Midwest. But chances are that few of us have thought much about corn as we pass row after row after row, aside from, perhaps, entertaining the cliché “knee high by the 4th of July.” Clampitt, however, has delved much deeper in this thoroughly researched history of the crop that all but turned the Midwest into America’s Heartland.

midwest maize 9780252080579An exhaustive history, Midwest Maize traces the origins of the crop, the only indigenous cereal grain in North America. From its ancient uses among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to its role among early settlers in the original colonies to its role in shaping the United States, Clampitt leaves no kernel unturned as she explores corn and all its varieties, from field corn to sweet corn to popcorn and beyond. She digs into the sowing, hoeing, and harvesting of corn, shedding light into the history of husking bees that brought neighbors together and built communities. She looks into preserving and preparing corn (the book even includes recipes), and she examines the various products that come from corn, from whiskey to corn starch to myriad breakfast cereals to ethanol and biodiesel. And, she examines the inventions surrounding corn that helped build the Midwest, including John Deere’s tractors, which today are used around the world.

Clampitt demonstrates that corn and all its derivatives shaped the Midwest and the United States not only by providing a crop that today we likely could not live without but by prompting developments sparked by corn. She argues that corn has direct ties to the development of Chicago, where farmers would bring their harvests, first on roads, then via the I&M canal, then via railroads. She explains that Chicago’s Union Stockyards grew in large part to the readily available crops of feed corn that led to massive growth in the population of cattle and hogs. Although other crops might possibly have filled the void had corn not been so prevalent, one is left to wonder whether Chicago would be what it is today had not corn led to such expansive growth.

Midwest Maize is a truly remarkable history, illustrating an ongoing domino effect produced by a crop that many of us think little about. It’s a fascinating look at something that most of us rarely consider beyond whether we’ll grill or boil corn on the cob for summer cookouts or whether we’ll use canned corn or frozen corn in that Thanksgiving casserole. Corn, though, as Clampitt ably demonstrates, has tremendous reach, a crop that today has become all but indispensable.

Beyond the history of corn and how it shaped the heartland, Clampitt also touches on some of the more controversial aspects surrounding the subject, including traditional vs organic vs sustainable farming as well as the problem of food waste, concerns surrounding using feed corn to fatten up livestock, and the diminishing numbers of farmers at a time when food scarcity and food security are such important issues around the world.

Packed with interesting details, Midwest Maize is an informative read, and one that might well be of interest to fans of Mark Kurlansky’s books Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Fascinating overall, the tale at times gets bogged down in minutiae, but Clampitt’s research and reportage sustains the book, providing readers with a unique look at an adaptable plant that does so much for so many, providing not only food but myriad other resources that most of us take for granted.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, University of Illinois Press
History/Food History
$19.95, paperback, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08057-9

“And pray what more can a reasonable man desire,
in peaceful times, than a sufficient number of ears of
green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt?”
—Henry David Thoreau

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Weeds Are Flowers, Too

CBR_Logo2Weeds of North America
by Richard Dickinson and France Royer

Weeds are often ignored or despised for ruining manicured lawns, well-tended flower beds, and carefully planned vegetable patches, but many gardeners recognize weeds as plants just growing in the wrong place. Some “weeds” are beneficial, for instance, to bees or butterflies. Yet many weeds nevertheless create problems in specific situations. Richard Dickinson and France Royer have brought together more than 1,200 stunning color photographs in their encyclopedic reference Weeds of North America in order to help identify the species of most concern right now while also capturing their surprising beauty.

weeds north america ucp 9780226076447This hefty reference volume by the University of Chicago Press features “600 species from 69 plant families” chosen on the basis of current “state weed legislation.” The selection method underscores the aim of the book, which is to assist those working in agriculture, livestock farming, or horticultural industries. Nevertheless, amateur gardeners may well enjoy this book too, packed as it is with photographs, illustrations, and useful information. Plenty of the plants mentioned appear in suburban gardens. Nontechnical terms have been used “whenever possible,” and written entries are concise and accessible.

The initial section includes a basic guide to trees and shrubs, vines and climbing plants, herbaceous land plants (by far the largest segment), aquatic plants, and grasses and grasslike plants. The bulk of the book is given to striking, full-page photographs with family and species descriptions. Readers may learn, for example, that plains delphinium (larkspur) is poisonous to cattle, that the roots of lantana release toxins to kill off other plants, or that garlic mustard can give an unpleasant odor to the milk of cattle that eat it. Drawings are scattered throughout with attention given to various stages of growth. The glossary includes simple line drawings to help show the key parts of each plant, whether a bract, an auricle, a panicle, or an umbel, etc. An index to common and scientific names also is helpful.

Although the book will prove invaluable to many, some readers may find themselves wishing for more commentary. Weed management strategies are not discussed here. No remarks are made on conflicts between human industries and wildlife. For instance, milkweed is described as a host for viruses detrimental to cucumbers, strawberries, and tobacco; its “silky hairs” are “reported to plug intakes on farm machinery.” But no mention is made of milkweed’s importance to Monarch butterflies, whose population has declined dangerously low levels. Likewise, Johnny Jump Ups are listed as a cause for concern, but their presence at nurseries is not at issue. This is not a flaw in the book, but merely a sign of its focus. Readers are taught to identify particular species of current interest and to understand the basic elements of their biology. This is an ambitious identification guide laid out in the clearest possible terms.

One last group of potential readers who might enjoy Weeds of North America should perhaps be mentioned—namely, artists and designers. The book’s gorgeous color photographs of often overlooked plants make it a valuable resource for anyone wishing to incorporate unusual floral motifs into their work.

Four-Star Review

September 2014, University of Chicago Press
Science & Nature/Gardening
$35, paperback, 656 pages
ISBN: 978-0226076447

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
—A. A. Milne

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A Model Garden in Millennium Park

CBR_Logo2Gardening with Perennials:
Lessons from Chicago’s Lurie Garden
by Noel Kingsbury

The beautiful five-acre Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park has been steadily coming into its own since July 2004. Ten years on, Noel Kingsbury has set out to explain the aesthetic and ecological thinking behind its inspired design in Gardening with Perennials from the University of Chicago Press. Gardeners are encouraged to make use of this design in their own private spaces. Throughout, emphasis is on reliability and sustainability while keeping an eye on the challenging Midwestern climate and modern design.

perennials cover 9780226437453Kingsbury, who is British, might seem an unlikely commentator on Chicago’s public garden. But he notes the global nature of the garden business these days. The Lurie Garden is largely the creation of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and Americans Kathryn Gustafson and Robert Israel. Collaboration is a recurring theme. It is even mirrored in arguments for using both native and non-native plants together. Although “more than half” of the Lurie’s plants are natives, Kingsbury advises gardeners to attend more to the overall health of the soil and birds and insects. He also explains how “companion plants” of different sizes and shapes can be ecologically helpful.

As for the Midwestern climate, Kingsbury warns against tailoring gardens solely to the bloom cycle. Gardens can and should provide visual interest and food for wildlife even in the off season—just as the Lurie Garden does. He discusses key plants whose dried stalks and seed heads can enliven a vast, snowy expanse while also providing sustenance for birds.

For nearly 150 years, horticulturalists have promoted the advantages of using hardy perennials and discouraging vast expanses of lawn. The fact that Kingsbury is still lamenting the use of fragile imports and the stubborn cult of lawn care only underscores the need for continued public education. As Kingsbury explains, fussy, showy exotic plants need extra water, special soil, and often yearly replanting, while short-changing wildlife. The Lurie Garden offers an alternative to the hundreds of people walking through it each day: an immersive experience in the subtle beauty of a sustainable landscape. Visitors also will be struck by the Lurie’s spectacular design—a marriage of wild prairie lands and Chicago’s heritage of industrial technology. Responsible gardening leaves plenty of room for artistic flare.

The structure of this 206-page book is well laid out. After an overview of the garden’s history, chapters cover practical issues including Midwestern climate; guidelines on soil, fertilizer, irrigation, and pest control; perennials; grouping plants for the greatest visual and ecological impact; seasonal maintenance tips; and a thoughtful discussion of native plants. The second half comprises a detailed plant directory ranging from the striking Dodacatheon meadia “Aphrodite” (shooting star) to humble “joe-pye weeds.” Terminology and concepts are clearly defined for beginning and amateur gardeners. Rare insight into cutting-edge landscape design will inspire more advanced gardeners too. Superb photographs grace nearly every other page, and at 6” x 7.5” it makes for a handy, portable reference guide.

Kingsbury rightly praises the striking juxtaposition of the garden against its impressive cityscape backdrop. But this raises one curious issue, though it may have more to do with the garden than the book: Given the garden’s urban setting, one might have wished for a chapter on container gardening for balconies or landscaping miniature townhome plots in an ecologically progressive way. Is it possible to use the Lurie’s perennials in extremely small spaces? Should one even bother? Perhaps the issue is complicated enough to merit its own volume.

On the whole, Gardening with Perennials will be of most practical use to those with larger spaces to cultivate. Kingsbury elegantly explores the concepts informing the Lurie Garden and makes an exceptional case for transforming typical gardens into something far more interesting and sustainable.

Four-Star Review

April 2014, University of Chicago Press
Gardening/Regional Interest
$22.50, paperback, 206 pages
ISBN: 978-0-2264-3745-3

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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