University City

Grassroots lessons from tall corn

When a friend from Central America gave her a handful of seed for "maiz blanco," Julia Zamora wondered whether it would grow here in Charlotte.

"Maiz blanco is the traditional corn from El Salvador," Zamora said. "They use it for everything - eating, making tortillas and as food for their cattle."

She decided to give it a try, and on a bright morning in early May, with her dogs Lucy and Pepito looking on curiously, Zamora sowed a few dozen experimental kernels in a corner of her plot at Reedy Creek Park Community Garden.

By midsummer, she had her answer.

Sí, it grows here, amigos! ¡Ay, caramba!

Zamora's maiz blanco is now the hit of the garden, towering regally above late-summer tomatoes, peppers and sunflowers. The stalks have massive trunks close to 20 feet tall, with roots coming out the sides, like tropical banyan trees.

If the megafauna of Jurassic Park threw a barbecue, this would be the kind of corn they'd grow.

"High as an elephant's eye?" Forget it! This corn is at T-Rex levels.

What's Zamora's secret? Besides the good genes in this old-fashioned, non-GMO corn, she cared for her crop with conscientious watering and weeding. It's completely organic, too. To enrich the soil, she used Mecklenburg County's leaf compost.

The crop got off to a very good start and quickly dwarfed everything else in the garden. "Red Hybrid," a sweet corn Zamora planted beside the Salvadoran variety, was soon left in the dust. When storm winds flattened other types of corn in the garden, the maiz blanco stood its ground, straight and strong, and grew even taller.

Though the Red Hybrid sweet corn produced well, maiz blanco has not given a spectacular harvest, Zamora admitted. She thinks the large corn may need a longer growing season. She's also lost a few ears, possibly to raccoons or two-legged pests, so it is hard to judge.

No matter. This experiment is a grand success, and maiz blanco wins this year's award for the most astonishing crop in the garden. As Zamora stood proudly by her plot, Lucy, a dignified and venerable dog, plunked her long body down in the cool shade beneath the tall corn, while tiny Pepito stared up and up to where the tassels seemed to touch the sun.

Looking up at the corn reawakens unexpected memories. Without really wanting to, I can't help but think of the World Trade Center and Reedy Creek Park Community Garden's sister garden in New York City, the Clinton Street Garden. Clinton Street is right in downtown Manhattan, only blocks from where the twin towers fell.

Ten years ago today, in the midst of the ash and the terror, Clinton Community Garden leader Adam Honigman and his fellow gardeners set up an improvised support area in their garden for emergency workers and people injured or displaced.

Honigman's tough but eloquent dispatches via email gave community gardeners and others across the country a grassroots view of the horrifying realities, and the incredible bravery, ingenuity and community spirit of New Yorkers in the face of the unthinkable.

When Reedy Creek Park Community Garden was just getting started in Charlotte, in 2004-05, Honigman generously shared wise suggestions and invaluable support. Though he died in 2007 before he could visit Reedy Creek, Honigman knew this garden was succeeding and growing on its own, another of the countless community gardens he inspired.

Honigman always made a point of reminding everyone that community gardening is 50 percent gardening and 100 percent community building.

You could see that this morning beneath the maiz blanco. Gail Fox, Zamora's fellow Reedy Creek gardener, came over to share a laugh and admire the corn, while a gaggle of other gardeners gathered around a picnic table to share brunch and debate plans for dealing with the compost pile. After giving her dogs a pat, Zamora fired up an old lawnmower and pitched in to help mow the paths.

Sure, community gardens are about tall corn and fresh tomatoes. But even more important, Honigman, Zamora and their fellow community gardeners show us how small, seemingly insignificant grassroots efforts can cultivate the kind of community strength and resilience that no act of terror can destroy.

It's a welcome lesson, symbolized in the towering maiz blanco, on this day when all Americans hunger for a message of hope.