Not as high as an elephant's eye, but hey!

Posted: Monday, September 19, 2005

Mark Miller's friends said it couldn't be done in Juneau's cool, wet weather, but the 54-year-old amateur gardener has turned the front yard of his Long Run Drive home into a scene more befitting central Iowa.

His first attempt at growing sweet corn has paid off with 75 six-foot high plants, as tall as Miller himself.

"In the spring, when the seeds come out in the store, you see a lot of the exotic vegetables like watermelon and cantaloupe and corn," Miller said. "Last year was a nice year, and I had space in the garden, so I thought this year maybe I would try corn, just kind of on a lark to see what would happen. It's pretty amazing that it did so well."

Miller, a Juneau resident since 1974 and a serious gardener since 1983, likes to try something different each spring. Last year, he was heavily into beets. In previous years, he's experimented with potatoes. This year, his garden included sweet corn, beets, green beans, horseradish and two of his specialties - carrots (some weighing 10 to 12 ounces) and black raspberries (2 to 3 inches in diameter by August).

"It's easy to buy good potatoes, but it's nothing like picking fresh carrots," Miller said. "They have a smell to them. It's one of those nice, fresh things that we can do here in Juneau, and this was a wonderful year for carrots."

But who knew it would be a good year for corn?

"Corn is not a Juneau crop," Miller said. "I kind of thought about it for a while. My neighbor feeds his squirrels field corn, and the squirrels would bury it and it would turn up in my garden. It would come up on its own."

Miller grew up in Hudson, Wis., 90 miles north of LaCrosse on the Minnesota border, where he spent many years around dairy farms.

In Juneau, Miller spent a few years as a corrections officer, managed the kitchen at the state jail back in the 1970s and has mostly been a home-spouse. He's semi-retired now, and his wife, Elaine, has worked for the state for 25 years.

"I've noticed in the 31 years of time (in Juneau), that the summers in the last 5 to 10 years have been particularly nice compared to some of the summers we've had before."

Miller bought a package of 100 seeds at the store. The label promised corn in 63 days.

The first step was to prepare the soil. He used sand and topsoil, as much as he could mix, with a little bit of potting soil.

For his fertilizer, he takes spoiled lettuce and cabbage from his volunteer job at the Juneau Food Bank and lets it freeze, thaw and turn to mush in his garden.

"It's a challenge to build good soil in Juneau, but it can be done," Miller said. "The sand is real important to keep the soil loose. I used to live south of Douglas, and there I used the humus that we'd get in the muskeg ponds, the muddy black soil, and I'd mix that with sand and seaweed and that made a wonderful soil."

Miller started soaking the seeds in his home on April 24. They sprouted so quickly in four days that he moved them into the ground on April 28. During six or seven early-summer frosts, Miller covered the crop in a ground blanket.

The crop thrived in May and June, and by July 4, Miller's corn was knee-high. The rest of the month was harsh.

"When the rainy cold came in it was in suspended animation, but then as soon as the sunny weather hit again, you could see it would make a big difference every day," Miller said. "If some of that rainy period would have been sunshine, I would have done pretty well with it."

He's harvested a total of a pound of corn from the stalks of his crop's secondary ears - the tiny "baby corn" that you see in Asian dishes and cans at the supermarket. The large, primary ears are about 20 to 30 percent developed. If the kernels mature, he's thinking about having a corn feed for his neighbors.

"I'm quite convinced that if I had them over by the airport, I would have had ripe corn three or four weeks ago," Miller said. "The airport is consistently 10 degrees warmer, especially in the morning. It doesn't get as cold at night and it will warm up faster during the day. I'm shaded until about 10 in the morning. By the airport, it starts getting light by 3 in the morning, but that's part of our microclimates around Juneau."

Miller's garden is laid out in an L-shape - 35 feet long in one direction, 28 feet in another. One leg is two feet wide, the other is five feet wide. Part of the plot rests under the eaves of his home, as protection from the drizzle.

The garden is in the south side of his house, so its protected and gets some heat reflection from his home. A concrete patio in front of the garden absorbs heat during the day and retains it at night.

Root maggots have gone after Miller's horseradish, and porcupines have raided his raspberries, but his corn had no problem with invaders.

"I was warned that the squirrels would get it if they could, but I haven't seen any squirrels bothering it," Miller said. "I was also afraid that if the bears figured it out, they'd enjoy it, too. But I don't think it has much of an odor to attract bears."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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