Your all-inclusive guide to growing sweet corn. Read about the sweet corn varieties best suited to home gardens, when and how to plant sweet corn seed, disease and pest prevention, and harvesting and seed saving.
Everyone loves sweet corn — why not plant your own?
Illustration by Keith Ward
(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page.)
Isn’t it time to make mouthwatering sweet corn one of your hit crops this summer? Growing sweet corn requires warm soil (above 65 degrees Fahrenheit) so early summer is prime planting time. To stretch your harvest season, grow both early and midseason sweet corn varieties.
Open-pollinated sweet corn varieties offer traditional corn flavor, but rapidly convert sugar to starch, so they must be picked at just the right time. They often require less fertilizer than hybrids, and seeds can be saved from year to year.
Kernels of sugary-enhanced hybrid varieties remain sweet for a week or more, and feature tender texture combined with rich corn flavor.
Super-sweet hybrids produce exceptionally sweet, crisp kernels good for freezing. Super-sweet varieties must be planted at least 30 feet from other types of sweet corn to prevent cross pollination, which ruins their flavor.
Synergistic sweet corn varieties have a balance of sugary-enhanced and super-sweet kernels.
For more information on types of sweet corn and our recommended varieties, see our Sweet Corn at a Glance chart.
When to Plant Sweet Corn
In late spring or early summer, sow seeds in warm, fertile and well-worked soil that contains plenty of nitrogen. Sow early sweet corn varieties one to two weeks before main season varieties for a longer harvest season. Many gardeners sow their early sweet corn when apple trees are in full bloom.
Thoroughly mix in a 1-inch layer of fresh grass clippings, compost or well-rotted manure along with alfalfa meal, soybean meal or another high-nitrogen organic fertilizer (follow label directions). Sow seeds 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart, in blocks of at least three rows spaced about 24 inches apart. Thin early varieties to 8 inches apart; thin taller midseason and late varieties to 12 inches apart.
Once an ear feels plump and full when you squeeze it, pull back the shuck near the tip and pierce a kernel with your fingernail; it’s ready to harvest if the juice is milky.
Try to harvest sweet corn in the morning, when the ears are cool. Refrigerate them immediately or put the corn in a cooler and layer it with ice. Sweet corn can be canned in a pressure canner, but most people prefer the speed and convenience of freezing. Blanched corn off the cob takes up much less freezer space compared to whole ears.
Most sweet corn varieties are complex hybrids, so don’t expect good results from saving and replanting the seeds. To save seeds from open-pollinated varieties, allow perfect ears to dry on the plants until the husks turn tan. Continue to dry them indoors until a few kernels fall away when you twist the ear between your hands. Store seeds in a cool, dry place for up to two years. (To find the varieties you want, use our nifty new seed search.)
Immediately refrigerate sweet corn to preserve its flavor. You can boil, steam or grill full ears, cut off whole kernels or make creamed corn. To get kernels like those found in canned and frozen corn, blanch ears in boiling water for a few minutes, then cut off the kernels. For creamy corn kernels, cut the kernels from raw ears, and use a spoon to scrape the remaining milky juice off the cobs.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.
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