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Growing Sweet Corn

Anne K Moore
Photographs Anne K Moore

Sweet corn is a sun worshiper.  It prefers to grow in the heat of summer, so don’t plant it too early.  The seed should go in the ground after the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost has passed.  Sweet corn rows should be three feet apart and the seed two to three feet apart in the rows.

You should also plant just one type of sweet corn in your garden.  Old fashioned rush-to-the-pot corn, sugar enhanced corn (SE), super sweet corn (SS), and the newest super sweet called Mirai (ME ray) can all make a good backyard vegetable crop.  You ought to choose only one type although you can choose several cultivars of the same type. 

For instance, it is all right to plant super sweets and Mirai together.  It is also OK to plant different named cultivars of sugar enhanced corn.  However, you should not plant sugar enhanced corn and super sweet corn together.  The reason is pollination. 

Corn is wind pollinated.  If you plant different breeds of corn in your garden, the resulting crop will be undesirable.  Sweet corn, popcorn, field corn, and the new super and sugar enhanced varieties all will cross pollinate.  If you plant them too close, you will end up with starchy, very un-sweet corn. 

To keep your corn separate and sweet as advertised, you must have at least 50 feet between blocks of corn.  It is safer, and you are more likely to harvest what you expected, by following the spacing suggestions.  Another way is to plant them at least two weeks apart.  This can still be risky if they decide to tassel all at the same time.

One of the biggest problems backyard gardeners have with growing sweet corn is getting the cobs to fill with kernels.  Since sweet corn is pollinated by the wind, it cannot be planted in a single row.  Even two rows of corn will not pollinate correctly.  A plot 4 feet long by four rows wide is the minimum to getting good full ears of sweet corn.  Sometimes you can get by with three rows.  The photo shows what happens when only two rows of corn are planted side by side.

Grow corn in good fertile well draining soil.  The pH should be between 5.5 and 6.5.  Keep the stalks watered throughout the growing season.  The stalks need an inch of water a week so if the rains are sparse, you will have to irrigate.  Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer every two weeks.  If you are growing organically, use fish emulsion diluted according to package directions.  If not, you can work in a 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 granular fertilizer around the rows.

One of the common problems of corn ears are earworms and/or armyworms.  Both look very much alike:  Brown caterpillars with a dark stripe along each side.  These caterpillars eat the corn kernels, usually starting at the silk end.  You can cut out the damage they cause and dispose of the worms themselves.  The undamaged part of the ear is OK to eat. 

To keep these pests out of your corn ears, try using one of these old remedies:  When the silks on the ears have drooped and before they turn brown, pour about a tablespoon of mineral oil on the silks.  On the other hand, you can sprinkle the same amount of sand on the silks of each ear of corn.  This discourages the female moths from laying her eggs on the ears, where they hatch and begin to feed on the corn.  The larvae can also feed on the leaves and stems of the corn stalk.  Get rid of any you find so that they don’t mature into moths to start the cycle over again.

Raccoons love to raid sweet corn patches.  To keep them and other marauding wildlife out, encircle your corn with two strands of electric fence.  The bottom strand should be about five inches from the ground and the upper strand about seven inches above the lower.  Follow all safety directions that come with the transformer.

Sweet corn straight from the garden is delicious.  I think it is worth the little bit of trouble to grow it.  My favorite is the old fashioned Silver Queen.  If I want to eat it, I have to grow it. 

With the advent of the sugar enhanced and super sweets, farmers don’t grow the old timers any more.  The newbies hold on to their sugar.  They don’t turn to starch for days, and in some cases weeks, making them perfect for markets and shipping.  The only travel my Queen does is from the backyard to the boiling pot.  Although, I do admit that the new sugar enhanced Silver King is pretty good, as far as SE corn is concerned.

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