My wife, Duan, heard rustling outside the window. It was 11:30 on a Saturday night in August. She grabbed a flashlight and tiptoed toward the corn patch for a better look. Three pairs of eyes peered back at her.
Summer isn’t summer without sweet corn. Every August, at county fairs across the land, you find steaming cauldrons of yellow ears, ready to be slathered with butter and flavored with salt. Varieties like Silver Queen and Kandy Korn have their market share. But none compare for taste to our Illini Xtra Sweet, which, unlike market corn, holds its super sweetness for up to a week—if it manages the trip from garden to plate.
For years we have debated which critter has been stealing our signature corn as we refined our security tactics. The 65-foot-long patch is shrouded with tough nylon netting, anchored to the ground. A radio blares through the night and Christmas lights flash to the beat of rock music. On the patch’s perimeter, lethal Conibear 220 traps, doused with acrid repellents, challenge trespassers. Still, every year, we lose dozens of plump yellow ears, just as they were destined for the waiting pot.
There is the big-bird intrusion theory and the little-bird theory. “The Gardener’s Hint Book” adds a raccoon hypothesis. But the heavy netting is almost never breached, and the lumber securing it remains unmoved. Plus, how would raccoons—boarding hundreds of feet away in the woods—know to visit our patch precisely when the corn becomes ripe for eating? Wide-winged grackles, heavy enough to weigh down the netting, hover over the garden. A trail camera, posted just outside the patch, captured two of them, strengthening the big-bird theory. But are they deft enough to strip the kernels surgically from outside the netting? Little birds sometimes penetrate the enclosure, but how much can little birds eat?
My wife’s late-night sighting confirmed the raccoon theory. The next day, we surveyed the damage and found 40 of 200 ears still intact. We placed paper lunch bags over each of them and fastened the bags with electric tape. A day later, shredded bags were strewn over the ground, destroying what remained of the first sowing.
We turned off the radio and the flashing lights.
Wounded but undeterred, our hopes turned to the second sowing, about 125 untouched ears, still 10 days away from the table. We doubled over the netting, providing an extra barrier, reinforced the anchors, placed traps between the rows, and went on vacation, our mouths still watering for summer sweet corn. “Pray for the corn,” I texted my brother—on corn watch at the homestead—from Cape Cod. “No evidence of raccoons,” he replied. Just another few days and they would be ready for picking.
I checked back a few days later: “Is the corn safe?”
“No. The [expletive] got them.”
The trail camera caught two ring-tailed raccoons crawling 5 feet up the netting. Likely, there were more. The entire patch looked as if a tornado had rumbled through. The raccoons left seven mangled ears for us. How considerate.
What about next year? We may rent a barking dog.
Mr. Kolatch writes on China and Japan and is author of “At the Corner of Fact & Fancy.”
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Appeared in the September 9, 2020, print edition.
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