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Seedling of an idea dies on the vine; good!
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Seedling of an idea dies on the vine; good!

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Yesterday in the garden center I saw something I didn't even know existed.

I've always known that many gardeners plant seedlings. Even the peppers and tomatoes in my back yard moved into the neighborhood as leafy sprouts.

But sitting in the garden center was a tray of sweet corn seedlings. I'd never heard of such a thing; I thought you had to start corn from seeds.

In a way, I was right. Somebody, indeed, has to grow corn from seeds, but -- and this was a major revelation--that somebody doesn't have to be me.

Every year, out of a desire to experience a bit of honest agriculture, I toy with growing my own sweet corn. But as spring planting time draws near, I change my mind. Growing corn sounds like work and I'm a Mullen. When there's work to be done, a Mullen is as miserable as a vampire when the garlic is blooming.

Oh, the toil! I'd have to till a plot, dump fertilizer in it, plant the seeds, thin them out as they sprout, feed them with water and prayer for weeks in the hopes that some of them survive. It all adds up to unrelenting labor and uncertain results. This, I reason, is why we have farmers.

Ah, but there in the gardening center I'd encountered the perfect division of labor. Somebody else, some stranger who actually knows how to make seeds grow, had already done exactly that. With all the hard work done, I'd merely have to toss a few seedlings into some dirt in my back yard. OK, there'd be a bit of maintenance along the way but I wouldn't mind yanking out an occasional weed or two and sprinkling a few drops of water on the plants every week or two.

And as spring passed I'd watch goggle-eyed as darlings grew from seedlings to bushy plants to towering cornstalks that loomed over my house like Godzilla looking for a shortcut through Tokyo. Nobody in my neighborhood would be able to sleep due to the thunder of my cornstalks ripping the earth asunder.

It seemed easy. Too easy. I decided to get some advice from my horticultural expert. A few minutes with Uncle Internet set me straight.

It turns out that starting sweet corn from seedlings means only that your plants have survived the birthing process. You still have to do the childrearing.

And corn has special requirements. You can't just plant a row of corn, wash your hands and go shoot pool. You have to design a certain pattern of rows so the pollen will blow from one plant to the next.

This makes no sense. Every plant has its own pollen, right? Why pass it around like strep throat or Christmas fruitcake?

And this is Illinois. Once the corn gets a couple of feet high, the only thing in the air will be corn pollen. By June, people will be donning scuba tanks so they can breathe while they walk out to the mailbox. Why do I have to add to the problem?

Uncle Internet set me straight. Cornstalks that don't get pollinated correctly will grow, all right, but the results will be unpleasant. I've seen the online photos; an ear of unpollinated corn looks like a neighborhood that the decent folks have fled, leaving behind only lowlifes and squatters.

So, once again, I've given up. Still, I feel like a great success. After all, I planned on growing corn but decided not to. Real farmers don’t get criticized for doing this.

They get subsidies.

Frank Mullen III is a former New Yorker who now lives with his wife in her Aledo hometown.

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