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Gardening Guru

October 28, 2009
Dean Fosdick

Fall is a busy time for decorating, second only to Christmas, and the period when vegetables are valued more for their beauty than their flavor.

Back when America was largely rural, bringing in the harvest was cause for celebration. Corn stalks were bundled into "fodder shocks" - stalks, ears, tassels and all - and stacked upright around light poles and near entries, and fed to livestock.

Then came Halloween pumpkins, and Thanksgiving with its fresh fruit and colorful gourds gracing dining room tables.

"We don't just decorate for Halloween anymore but for the entire fall season," said Amanda Sears, an extension agent with the University of Kentucky's Department of Horticulture.

Many farmers and roadside retailers make financial hay selling multicolored ears of Indian corn, pumpkins, gourds, corn stalks and straw bales for home decorating.

"We have some commercial growers in Nebraska who started with gourds and have expanded into Indian corn and little straw bales - the whole package," said Dale Lindgren, a plant-breeding specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Such "ornamentals" are sold to big-box stores as well as farmers' markets.

The top three items used in fall decorating are pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn, said Brad Bergefurd, an Ohio State University horticulturist who researches ornamental corn as a niche crop for area farmers.

"Back 20 or more years ago when I was raising it on my own farm, ornamental corn was pretty blah," Bergefurd said. "But there have been a lot of advances from crossbreeding the old varieties. Ears are neater now with better sizes and shapes. More colors are available. More people are raising and selling it, so it's easier to find."

Indian corn also is called calico corn, flint corn and maize. Its colors range from red and maroon to cream and black.

"Consumers don't want just one or two colors but as many as they can get," Bergefurd said. "I'm fond of the pinks and blues. You also can get ears with kernels in red and green and white - traditional Christmas colors."

Most varieties aren't eaten, although some can be ground into flour or meal, and others, mostly miniatures, can be used as popcorn. "It's pretty starchy once it matures, and doesn't have much taste," Bergefurd said.

Indian corn usually is offered in bundles of three or more ears; figure on paying anywhere from $3 to $5 per bundle.

"In some cases, it's sold stalk and all," Bergefurd said. "Growers bundle 12 to 20 stalks, pull back the husks, and with the ears showing, it makes a pretty arrangement. More and more of the breeders are working on stalk coloration, too - mainly red - to make the displays even more colorful."

One trend is integrating Indian corn, gourds, pumpkins and squash with ornamental plants still in the ground, said Lindgren. "Don't forget to work the landscape into your fall decorating," he said. "Things like peppers and kales can be blended into flower gardens. They're absolutely gorgeous."

Lindgren said people are getting more imaginative in using ornamentals. "Ten years ago it was petunias and marigolds. Now it's sweet potatoes, peppers and leafy vegetables. The whole seasonal thing has exploded," he said.

People tend to pay more for decorative plants than for those grown simply for eating, Sears said. "They're willing to buy into the entertainment value. Pumpkins, the primary example."

Other ornamentals that can liven up landscapes and homes include:

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