Growing Corn: The Highlight of Summer

Ed Wike
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Quick Care Guide

Corn is one of the most widely used vegetables and also one of the most beloved summer time meals for many Americans. But while we love eating it, most people don’t know all that much about growing corn. And that’s a shame, because it’s fairly easy and produces a sweet and nutritious food.

Corn is one of the earlier crops to be planted in the spring. It will need to be planted just about a month after the last frost in your area. While corn can be planted in almost any temperature, it needs to be planted when the soil is at least 60 degrees to 75 degrees. If you live in a colder area and plan on planting corn, be sure to plant it in an area that will be sheltered.

Corn uses a lot of nitrogen so you’ll need to fertilize your corn with a nitrogen soil when you plant it. You also want to remove all weeds from your garden as soon as possible. As soon as your corn are planted, it needs to start getting water. Corn will need to be kept moist during the early growth so it is important to water regularly, but don’t overwater it. Most corn will take about 30 days to grow so it is best to start checking your progress after that time.

All About Sweet Corn

Most folks have grown up eating corn on the cob, but just a few know how easy it is to grow, especially if you plant sweet corn. In fact, growing corn is a great passion for many farmers, and some believe that you just can't actually call yourself a farmer if you don't grow corn. Kids love to grow corn, too, because they can eat it right away and enjoy the sweet flavor of corn. You can grow an abundance of corn in your garden, or, if you are a farmer and have your very own field, you can choose to grow it in accordance with your schedule.

Although corn can be grown practically anywhere in the world, the sweetest varieties of corn grow in areas with warm, humid summers. These areas are more commonly found in the southern parts of the United States.

Before you plant your corn seed, you need to decide what variety you want to grow. Many sweet corns are available commercially for you to choose from, and you can also save your own seed from the sweet corn you purchase in the store or from your own crop.

There are also many different varieties with various colors of kernels that you can choose from. Once you decide which type of sweet corn you want to grow, you should plant a few seeds every 5 to 7 inches in the row and then thin it down to one plant every 2 to 4 feet, depending upon the variety.

Corn Varieties

Which One Is Right For You?

When you first start planning your own corn patch, the many corn varieties can be extremely overwhelming. Your seed supplier and local extension agent are great places to start. You can also refer to numerous online guides as well. There are a host of corn varieties available that differ widely in their time schedules, adaptability, and flavor. Of course, you can save some money by doing a little research yourself.

Here are a few tips to help you with quick reference when comparing corn varieties. The first is corn cycle, which has to do with maturity range. The chart below breaks down the different corn varieties and the estimated days to maturity.

As you are looking at different corn varieties, you may see a few names that will help you to make some decisions. Pearl or flint corn sometimes accompanies the name of the variety and can be found between parentheses, for example, SSE Gourmet Prime Time (Corn, Corn, Hybrid) (98 Days). Pearl or flint corn refers to the kernel color and is a genetic yield modifier. Most often it will be the heterotic gene, also known as the "supersweet" gene, that is present.

Planting Corn

Although the seeds originate in a faraway place called Mexico, corn is an American staple. Besides being part of every American farmer’s harvest, it is also one of the most popular side dishes in the world.

But the corn that you get at your favorite diner is not likely the same variety that your great grandparents used. Thanks to researchers, through cross breeding, new varieties of corn are being developed every year. The main goal is to produce corn that is not just delicious and nutritious, but also disease resistant.

Although the field of choice for cross breeding, or -as farmers call it- “cross pollination”, is corn, every other field in the picnic area of the farmer’s market could be a viable candidate. Oats, barley, rye, wheat, alfalfa, and veggies can be crossed, and using alternative methods like wind, bees, and humans, cross breeding seeds become a viable source for future crops.

So you’re ready to plant some corn, right? The first thing you need to do is thoroughly prepare the seeds. To do so, you will likely be brewing a decoction that will eventually need to be strained. Start by filling a bowl with water that is a comfortable temperature for your hands. Dip the corn seed into the water for about 30 seconds.

Care

One of the most important things to do before planting corn seeds is to plan. Corn is unlike many other vegetable crops. It’s vulnerable to freezing temperatures, and very frost-resistant. If you live in an area where your climate can be affected by freezing temperatures, installing a heated seedbed is a good investment. This will help to protect your seedbed from freezing.

Once your seedbed has been hardened off and is ready to plant, prepare your soil and add fertilizer. Be sure that the area is well-tilled to increase germination rates.

Plant your seeds approximately an inch and a half deep to help the seeds germinate quickly. Though it can take a few weeks for the corn seeds to germinate, you should see sprouts within one to two weeks. Once the sprouts are about an inch and a half to two inches tall, thin your plants to stand approximately two inches apart.

Corn plants need large amounts of water, so be sure to water them often as they get taller.

When the time comes to harvest the corn, be sure to harvest it before the stalks turn brown. Otherwise, it will have a burnt taste.

Sun and Temperature

Corn is a warm season crop, beginning germination at temperatures between 45° and 85° F. Corn planted in the fall and winter should be planted as early as the soil can be worked.

Good soil preparation is the key to successful corn production, with at least eight to 10 hours of direct sunlight per day. Hand planting seed in rows, about three feet apart, and one and one-half feet from the fence is recommended. The amount of row space and distances between plants varies with varieties.

Placement of the seed is critical. It is best not to broadcast the seed, but gently squeeze rows along the fence. If seed is too shallow, the germination rate will decline dramatically. With quality seed, a good seed to soil contact should be maintained until germination.

Corn seed should obtain moisture one to two days after planting. Seedlings will begin emerging, with three to four days between the two rows of young plants. Full emergence can take between 14 and 21 days. After the corn plants have two or three true leaves, thinning is recommended.

Watering and Humidity

Growing corn requires some basic attention to its needs. Like other plants it has certain parameters of nutrient and pH balance that it needs to thrive. More than 30 percent of its nutritional needs come from the soil – and you need to make sure that the plant has enough of what it needs to grow. The decisions you make in planting, fertilizing, and harvesting will determine the size of your corn crop. By planting in a way that conserves water, you can grow a healthy crop even with water rationing.

Corn is native to the Americas and has been used by humans for thousands of years. It is the basis for life for the people of Mesoamerica. Most types of corn are tall, tropical plants, and you can control the size of the plant by limiting available water. Lowering water use makes the plant sacrifice size in favor of fruit production.

It takes 3055 grains of water to produce one kernel of sweet corn. The best sweet corn has 8 to 10 rows of kernels and can produce over 200 seeds from each ear. If you want a corn cob that tastes amazing, you must water and fertilize your plants properly.

Soil

In order to grow corn, you'll first want to establish your gardening area. In the northern areas, it should be in place by the middle of March while in southern areas it can go into the ground in February.

Before you go out and purchase your corn seeds, make sure you check the location you plan on planting the seeds in and assess any restrictions that have already been placed on the growing season in your area (such as frost dates).

The best and healthiest way to grow corn is by planting in hills. This may result in slightly higher labor costs but it will allow you to grow the corn at a greater distance apart which allows for more yield and healthier plants.

If you are planting seeds in rows, make sure you're keeping the rows spaced about a foot to a foot and a half apart.

The last item of preparation you should do before transplanting the corn is to amend your soil. The reason for this is that most corn seeds will not germinate if the soil pH is below 5.5pH. This is because of the way the seeds germinate.

When the seeds germinate, they need a high amount of acidity to aid in the sprouting process. If the soil is not properly amended and can reach the proper level of acidity, it would essentially be killing the plant before it's even truly begun!

There are a couple different ways to amend the soil.

Fertilizing

This is a subject with more controversies than most, partly because corn is a grass, and partly because we are talking about a crop that produces food. Since food is involved, there is a lot of room for debate.

What we are going to do here is go over the most common ways to fertilize corn and then explain the pros and cons for each method.

Most organic growers will agree that organic non-animal fertilizers (mainly compost and manure) are the best way to fertilize corn. The slow release of nutrients, the way the nutrients are broken down, and the balance of plant nutrients, is what makes them produce so well and stay productive all season long.

With organic fertilizers, you can also be more flexible with your fertilizing. You can fertilize more if you need to, or cut back if you can get away with it. With synthetics, your is usually locked in at the rate stated on the package, with no going back or speeding up the schedule.

Episodic fertilizing are also possible with natural fertilizers. You can fertilize hard on a certain occasion, and then go two or three weeks or a month and do little if anything. This is not possible with synthetic fertilizers, and that is one reason they are usually kept out of the garden. Synthetics are considered a "once and done" deal.

Pruning

Corn is a warm-weather plant. This makes it optimal for areas in which growing seasons are short. Just about anyone can grow corn, especially as it is one of the staple crops on which many families depend for food. It grows easily, is resilient, and is relatively inexpensive. Although growing corn is simple, there is a little work involved for the best results.

Pruning involves cutting back the stalk so the corn ears grow higher off the ground and the stalks are strong enough to withstand the weight of the ears and prevent the tassels (mature pollen-produced parts of the tassel) from being spread onto the leaves.

As the corn emerges from the ground, the corn needs pruning to remove leaves and stalks so that light can reach the cob (or ear) as it grows.

You should work in an area about six inches around the base of the stalk. Once the stalk emerges from the ground, remove the lowest leaves and branches.

Next, remove leaves that hang down so an ear will form.

Each time you prune, remove the "suckers" and "sucker branches." These are extra growth, which are located off the main stalk and have no ear. The purpose of pruning is to remove the excess growth which can shade the ears, causing them to be small and misshapen.

Propagation

When the time comes to plant corn, you will have purchased corn seeds. Before doing so, you need to know what type of corn you have purchased. There are three types of corn seeds: sweet, flour, and field. Each type can be used differently. For example, if you have a field corn, which is the largest grown in the U.S., then you need to make sure you have enough space to grow it. You will need a corn patch of at least four feet by four feet. Field corn is used to feed animals.

Sweet corn is used for eating, and flour corn is used for bread. You can purchase each type of corn separately.

Planting the corn is different than growing other vegetables. Corn needs a wider row than most plants. Of course, you don’t want to put the seeds too close together, and making a mistake can cause you to waste your time and money. So you need to make sure that your row is correctly spaced and that you are seeding in rows, not in the middle of an area. Another difference with corn is that it requires a lot of water. In fact, you will need to water it every day while it is growing.

Harvesting and Storing

Corn gives you a chance to be creative in the kitchen because any nut, seed, or grain can be added to it. Not many people know it can be eaten plain. Another real treat is to eat popcorn fresh from the ear as a snack. There are tons of ways to add corn to your diet for the summer up to, and after, the harvest.

Corn is healthy vegetable for the whole family.

It is a nutrient packed powerhouse loaded with important vitamins and nutrients, and it tastes good, too.

It has important carotenoids such as lutein that are necessary for healthy vision.

It is also a very good source of zinc that helps build the immune system.

Corn is a good source of folate, iron, fiber, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and niacin.

Corn has a unique taste that differs from sweet corn to corn on the cob, found only in the summertime.

Corn is also a popular movie theater favorite, not just in the summer anymore, but with the combination of high demand and the higher prices at the theaters, popcorn and soda is much cheaper at home. It is a great treat to have during a movie night at home.

Corn is easy to grow in cool climates, so it is good for first time vegetable gardeners, and it is fun!

Harvesting

Once your stalks of corn begin to crowd each other, it is time to harvest the delicacy.

Harvesting the corn can be done either by hand or from a combine.

When harvesting corn by hand, late July to September is the time to do it.

Use a sharp knife to remove the ears from the stalks.

Place the ears into a cart and wheel them into the house.

Remove the leaves and silk from each ear.

Soak them in a container of water so they don’t dry out.

Wrap the ears in newspaper and place them into a plastic grocery bag or layered with newspaper in a cardboard box. Keep them in a dry, cool place like the garage or attic.

Harvesting Corn from a Combine Is a Good Option when the Amount of Corn Being

Produced is larger.

Depending on the type of combine, the corn head is equipped with different slicing options and ejectors.

The corn head can be attached directly to the combine’s header, or the entire corn plant can be cut off and raked into the combine.

The corn is then transported via conveyor belt to the grain tank.

Large combines can operate faster than harvesting by hand, but a large amount of silks, leaves, and trash are mixed in with the corn when stems are included.

Storing

Sweet corn is one of summer's greatest treats. It usually comes with a short shelf life and with a variety of uses. Although most of us want to eat our fresh sweet corn as soon as it's picked, it's not a bad idea to store some for later use – by canning it, freezing it, or by drying it.

Canning Your Sweet Corn

Canning is the most convenient and easiest way to store your corn. It allows you to enjoy your summer harvest all year long.

Canning corn is actually quite easy. You follow the same steps as canning anything else and simply substitute your whole, uncut corn on the cob, for the fruit or vegetable that you usually do.

Of course, you will need to leave an inch of space at the top of the jar, before placing the lid on, but that is all there is to it.

You will then need to boil the jars for 10 minutes, turn off the heat, and wait for a minimum of 12 hours. This is called a water bath and is done in order for the lids to seal properly.

Troubleshooting

If corn is planted too broadly, the plant can actually burn the roots from receiving too much water. Corn needs to have well-aerated soil, so it is important to make sure that the vegetation and leaves are firm against the soil. As the plants begin to leaf-out, it is important to make sure that they are not packed tightly against one another.

Frost Falling on Corn

It is important to plant your corn seed after the last frost of the spring. This will ensure that the seeds will be able to grow. If you do not have enough time to plant your corn before the frost falls, you can either cover the seed with a layer of mulch or wait a couple of weeks until the frost is gone.

Corn Damaged by Bugs

The main issue you will probably face will be bugs. Corn borers can ruin your harvest quickly, since they target the tender shoot of the plant. The good news is, these corn borer nests are quite easy to spot.

You can then take your shovel and take out the nest.

Corn Damaged by Disease

Some of the most common diseases that you will face are southern leaf blight and smut. If you spot a plant that is affected by the disease, you will want to remove it promptly so it doesn’t spread.

Growing Problems

Corn is the most popular crop grown in the United States; the five top producing states account for more than half of the national production. Growing corn means producing a lot of corn and many ears of corn. This is a lot of produce and can mean a lot of produce ripening at once. Corn can become ripe decently quickly and so crops of corn can be "ready" at the same time. Corn ripens at varying rates and so it is not the easiest crop to harvest, however.

Corn, like other crops, needs the right amount of light, heat, water, food, and shelter to grow successfully. Take one out of the picture and the other elements may not work as well. If you apply for a home loan and are qualified but the lender is not offering the best rate you can get, you'll need to look for a better lender for your mortgage someone out there is willing to pay for your mortgage with so much more to offer.

Pests

The corn plant is susceptible to several diseases and pests. Always look for healthy plant when choosing your corn. Do not purchase if it is not growing straight and tall.

Mice love to feast on corn plants. Mice are a huge problem when seeds are planted outdoors, so be prepared to see if there are other plants or brush that mice can hide in. You can deter mice and other pests by setting traps, spraying with water, or even setting trap crops which will attract the pests away from your main crop.

To control cutworm, spray Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies kurstaki, commonly named Btk around the stalk of the corn plants. Btk works by making the larvae unable to digest nutrients, causing them to die within days. If you have a problem with cutworm, it is best if you go to your local coop store and ask them for the best way to eliminate the worms in your area.

Corn earworms are little greenish brown worms that damage the ear of the corn plant. They can be controlled with Btk and early detection.

Scale insects cause deformations of the plant by sucking plant juices from the leaves. They can also eliminate sunlight to the plant, causing the leaves to wilt. If you have a problem with scale, rose chafers are usually sold for eliminating the bugs.

Diseases

Even the most dedicated gardener can end up with a corn pest, disease, or weed. It is up to you to scout your fields and stay vigilant. Here are some of the most common diseases found in corn and ways to treat them.

Early Blight:

This fungal disease is easily diagnosed by its early leaf drooping and dark, leathery spots. Early blight does not cause the leaves to fall but instead makes the foliage more susceptible to drying out. But the damage from the disease is not limited to individual leaves. By the time you see those tiny spots, the disease has already weakened most of the plants in your field.

Early blight affects every part of the corn plant. The infection starts on the leaves, and then moves into the stalk. The major factors that create an environment for this disease are: wet weather and temperatures between 54 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

The most effective treatment against early blight is applying Bt also known as Bacillus thuringiensis. This naturally occurring bacteria causes the plant to create genetic resistance against certain insects.

When your corn is young, spray your plants with an organic Bt product. Follow the dosage instructions printed on the label of the product you use. As your plants grow, you will need to reapply this product every 2-3 days until you see the disease disappear.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. When is the best time to plant corn?

A. Corn is best planted when the weather is warm. The best time is usually around April or May, once the soil has warmed.

Q. How do I know when the corn is ready to harvest?

A. One way to tell is the milk is a creamy color. Another is to rub off a kernel. If the color underneath is a creamy tan, it’s ready to harvest. Another way to tell is to look at a few ears rather than the whole crop. An even simpler way to tell if it’s ready is the outer husks have browned.