Rumor has it the place to grow sweet corn is in a farm field. Backyard gardens, the reasoning goes, generally are not large enough to make the harvest worth it, and pollination problems are likely with small plantings.
Well, ’tain’t necessarily so. By choosing varieties with care, providing good growing conditions and using a few special tricks, you can harvest one ear of the best-tasting corn imaginable for each square foot planted.
Variety selection is important for scrumptious sweet corn. If space is at a premium, grow varieties — Golden Midget, Earlivee and Quickie, for example — that ripen quickly and have shorter stalks.
But also choose varieties for flavor. Yellow corns generally have “cornier” flavor, white corns a purer sweetness. Varieties such as Honey & Cream and Bodacious pack both yellow and white kernels into each of their ears. My favorite? Golden Bantam.
No need for garden space to be devoted only to corn. Before the corn goes in, while temperatures were still cool, you could have planted radishes, leaf lettuce, spinach, arugula and other quick maturing vegetables that enjoy cool weather. At the other end of the season, after corn harvest, you could plant bush beans, late cabbage or broccoli, as well as the vegetables mentioned to precede corn.
Getting corn in and out of the ground fast frees space for other vegetables. Corn varieties that mature quickly are one way to do this, but avoid growing only early maturing varieties because their flavor generally is not as good as that of longer ripening varieties.
You also could get your corn in and out quicker by planting seeds in 3-inch pots, and letting plants spend three to four weeks growing in those pots rather than taking up space out in the garden.
Corn is a hungry plant that needs rich, moist soil and at least six hours per day of sunlight. Close planting without attention to soil and water results in nubbins rather than plump, well-filled ears. So add plenty of compost to the soil along with a high nitrogen fertilizer, such as 2 pounds of soybean meal per hundred square feet.
For close planting, grow corn in double rows of “hills,” a hill being a cluster of three or four plants. Hills ensure good pollination. Space each row of that double row 2 feet apart, with 2 feet between hills. You won’t be able to walk between the double row, but you can harvest from each side. If you garden in beds, just plant two or more rows of hills down the length of each of your beds.
Once up and growing, corn needs little but regular care. Keep weeds at bay with shallow hoeing or by smothering them beneath a thick mulch of some organic material such as leaves, straw or compost. Mulch also conserves water, which you should supplement during dry spells so that plants receive the equivalent of about an inch of water per week. Measure water from a sprinkler or rainfall into a straight sided container, such as a coffee can.
Avoid “worms” that sometimes burrow into the tips of the ears by cutting off the silks as soon as they start to dry, or by putting a few drops of vegetable oil on those silks. Or do nothing, and just break off the wormy tip before you eat the corn.
TAKE A BITE
Two to three months after planting comes your reward. Timely harvest is all-important for the best-tasting sweet corn. Start your countdown when silks first show at the tips of the ears; expect to eat those ears about 3 weeks later.
When ready for harvest, an ear looks and feels full, and its silks have browned but are not yet brittle. If you are inexperienced at harvesting corn, pull back the husk to check that the kernels are plump and ooze a milky juice when pressed with a fingernail.
Pull down on a ripe ear to rip it from its stalk, then take a bite right away or bring it to the kitchen for cooking. Either way, each bite will be a reminder that sweet corn is worth growing in the backyard.