Corn is one of the most popular vegetables to grow and eat—all the more delicious when freshly harvested—and it's surprisingly easy to grow your own. Corn grows from straight, tall stalks that produce husked ears of tender kernels tufted with silks. Most corn varieties look alike on the outside, but under the husks, sweet corn can be white, yellow, bicolor, and even red. Many modern sweet corn varieties have been bred to mature early in the season, but later maturing types tend to be sweeter.
- Botanical Name: Zea mays
- Common Name: Sweet corn
- Plant Type: Annual
- Mature Size: 6 to 8 feet tall
- Sun Exposure: Full sun
- Soil Type: Loamy
- Soil pH: Neutral to slightly acidic
- Harvest Time: Late summer. early fall
- Color: Yellow, white, bicolor, or red
- Hardiness Zones: 2-11
- Native Area: Mexico
How to Grow Sweet Corn Plants
The size of your corn plants will vary with the type of corn you are growing and the growing conditions, but most corn plants average between six and eight feet tall. There are shorter varieties for gardens with limited space.
Although it is easy enough to grow corn in any warm, sunny garden, it is often difficult to successfully bring to harvest because of the competition from crows, raccoons, squirrels, and assorted other pests who find corn as delicious as you do. It can take between 60 and 90 days for corn plants to be ready to harvest. Traditional wisdom says harvest your corn the day before the raccoons do.
To grow well and have the ears fill out, your corn will need a spot that gets full sun.
The soil should be loose and loamy, with a neutral pH (6.0 to 7.0). Heavy soils inhibit corn's long tap roots. The shallow roots you will see on the soil surface are predominantly there to anchor the tall plants.
Water regularly, especially if you notice the leaves curling and when the cobs begin to swell. It is better to water deeply once a week, rather than providing a little water daily. Keep the area free of weeds that will compete for food and water.
Temperature and Humidity
Soil temperature should range between 60 and 65 F. Otherwise, corn seeds will not germinate properly. In colder climates, you can cover the soil with black plastic beforehand to help warm the soil more quickly.
Corn is a heavy feeder, requiring rich soil. Nitrogen is especially important since corn is basically a grass. An inch or two of compost or rotted manure will also work, as will feeding with fish emulsion. Apply nitrogen fertilizer once the plants are about 8 inches tall and again when they start producing tassels.
Propagating Sweet Corn Plants
Sweet corn does not transplant well from seedlings unless you are using a biodegradable pot. The best way to propagate sweet corn is direct seeded after any danger of frost has passed. Because corn is pollinated by the wind, it does best when planted in blocks rather than rows. Pollen from the male tassels needs to make contact with the female silks and close planting means more contact. Wind pollination also results in easy cross-pollination, so keep different types of corn separated by at least 25 feet or plant varieties that mature at different times.
Varieties of Sweet Corn
There are hundreds of corn varieties today, virtually all falling under six major categories: sweet corn, popcorn, corn for animal feed, dwarf corn, decorative corn, and multicolored Indian corn. Some of the most popular cultivars for growing sweet corn include:
- Early Sunglow: Early and sweet; good for shorter seasons and small gardens
- Silver Queen: Another early producer with pale white kernels; very disease resistant
- Golden Bantam: An open pollinated heirloom variety, often called the original sweet corn
- Tuxedo: A "supersweet" variety with extra long ears
Common Pests and Diseases
Animals will be the biggest pest problem. Corn borers can be kept in check with an organic pesticide such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), and by destroying the stalks at the end of the season. Flea beetles spread bacterial wilt. Combat that by planting resistant varieties.
Be on the lookout for a grayish black fungus called smut. Although some cultures find it a delicious treat, it can kill your corn harvest. Remove and destroy the fungus while young, before the mass bursts and sends the spores everywhere.
Each stalk of sweet corn should produce at least one ear of corn. Pick corn when you see fat, dark green ears with brown tassels. Squeeze to test for firmness and a rounded, not pointed tip. Finally, pierce a kernel with a fingernail. If it spurts milky liquid, it is ready. Pull the ears downward and twist to take the cob off the stalk. Be prepared to eat or preserve sweet corn immediately after picking—sweetness fades soon after harvesting. Sweet corn freezes well, though, whether you remove the kernels from the husks before freezing or not.