Succulent Sweet Corn

Learn how to grow and preserve your sweet corn so you can continue to enjoy it through the winter months.

| June/July 2005

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    Hairy vetch, an adaptable nitrogen-fixing legume, is king of the cover crops.
    Scott Vlaun
  • Sweet Corn
    The corny sweetness of the 1891 heirloom ‘Country Gentleman’ has stood the test of time.
    Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro
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    Harvesting ears as soon as they are ripe is the best way to enjoy their natural sweetness.
    Rick Wetherbee
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    Lynn Karlin
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    Rosalind Creasy
  • Harvest Sweet Corn
    Eating fresh corn — blanched ears of ‘Golden Bantam’ corn, ready for freezing, share the table with a dinner of creamed corn soup.
    Photo courtesy David Cavagnaro

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  • Sweet Corn
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  • Harvest Sweet Corn

Fresh sweet corn is one of summer’s culinary treats, whether it’s sautéed, souffléed or boiled on the cob. It’s not difficult to grow, provided you have a block of fertile soil at least 10 feet long and 6 feet wide. Or you can buy fresh-picked ears from small growers at your local farmer’s markets.

Zea mays var. rugosa, which is what we call “sweet corn,” was enjoyed by many Native American tribes as “green corn.” The earliest versions were immature grain corns, picked before the sugars in the kernels converted to starch. Newer varieties were selected for sweetness, and by the beginning of the 20th century, sweet corn had become a distinct and beloved vegetable. You can still grow trail-blazing heirloom varieties such as ‘Country Gentleman’ (1891), and ‘Golden Bantam’ (1902), or you can opt for modern hybrids that hold their sugars for weeks instead of days.

Sweet corn varies in color less than grain corn, and though there are a few brightly colored exceptions — ‘Ruby Queen’ is red! — most sweet corn varieties have white or yellow kernels, or a combination of both. And, if you have the space, you can enjoy fresh corn on the cob for more than a month by growing early, midseason and late-maturing varieties.

Growing terrific sweet corn requires a little advance planning. For starters, corn produces best when it is planted in rectangular blocks rather than straight rows, because the best pollination occurs when the wind blows pollen from the tassels at the tops of the plants over the silks that emerge from the tips of the ears. You can hand-pollinate corn by sprinkling pinches of pollen onto the silks, but letting nature handle this task is far simpler, and it’s easily accomplished by planting at least three closely spaced rows. Five rows or more is even better.

Then there is the challenge of providing sufficient fertilizer. “The plants are heavy feeders. They take a lot out of the soil, so you need the means to put that fertility back,” says Henry Brockman, who grows 10 acres of organic vegetables in Congerville, Ill. He prepares soil for sweet corn with a cover crop of hairy vetch, but you can use any nitrogen- fixing legume. You also can amend the soil with manure, or use compost (for micronutrients) and an organic fertilizer such as Sustane 4-6-4, Harmony 5-5-3 or a similar locally available product.

Years ago, a gardener told me how he grew “no work” sweet corn by cultivating the soil in the fall and then covering it with a 3-inch layer of chicken manure. By spring, the manure had weathered into a weed-deterring crust, and the soil was rich with nitrogen. All he had to do was poke corn kernels into it and stand back. I tried his method and found that it worked, though I suggest planning a short fall vacation to escape the manure smell.

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