Tips for Growing Sweet Corn
Learn How to Plant Corn by Hand
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Jenny Underwood – When I was a kid, it seemed like everyone in our rural community had tips for growing sweet corn as everyone grew it. I can remember that we planted a field full of it and harvest time was rather busy. Fast forward 30 years and now I don’t know another local family that plants sweet corn in their garden! What a shame, because the stuff you get from a grocery store pales in comparison to freshly picked corn on the cob. So, is sweet corn hard to grow? Not really, and here are some tips for growing sweet corn of your own. You’ll most likely never look back once you start.
First off, sweet corn needs to be planted in early spring. In our area, that means April, but check your planting zone. We break our garden with a tractor, then disc it smooth. After that, we till it until there are no large
dirt clods so the seed won’t get compacted.
Corn wind-pollinates for the most part, so multiple short rows work better than long rows. For example, our garden is 50 feet long. We planted six full rows. If you don’t need quite that much corn (we’re a family of six) then you could plant six, 20-foot rows.
We measure our row widths and mark them off. Then we use string to get our rows straight. This helps tremendously when it comes time to till the corn later. It’s also easier to water and fence if the rows are uniform (and it’s prettier!). After this, it’s time to grab a hoe and dig a gentle furrow right under your string.
Fertilizer is very beneficial to corn. Though we try to garden organically, we do use some conventional fertilizers as we’re building up our soil. This specific garden spot has been used for over 50 years, so building back the soil takes time. We fertilize twice, once with a 21-21-21 fertilizer when we plant, then side-dressed with 14-14-14 when it’s about knee-high. Organic fertilizer such as fish and seaweed emulsion are excellent additives as is tilled under cover crops. Corn does love fertilizer so whatever you use, make sure it’s enough for the corn’s needs or you’ll have a disappointing crop.
Plant three kernels every eight to 12 inches. The rule of thumb is to plant them in the moisture, so if you have lots of moisture you can plant them shallower (such as 1/2 inch deep). But if the moisture is very deep in the soil, get those kernels on it so they germinate quickly! We plant our rows three feet apart. This is partly due to using a rear tine tiller but it also allows us room to walk and hoe between the rows without damaging our corn stalks.
I highly recommend a good watering system as corn should not dry out. A good soaking at least once a week will help ensure a bountiful crop. Get creative if need be. Last year we purchased food-grade recycled barrels, filled them with water from our home (our garden is not accessible to our well), then watered our corn by the bucketful. This year we are buying a small pump to go into the barrels and a water hose will attach to that. Another option would be to access any ponds, lakes, or streams nearby with a pump and hose. If you have the availability, soaker hoses also do an excellent job of keeping your garden constantly watered.
As your corn grows, you will need to hoe, till, or pull weeds. After the corn gets about waist tall, it will generally shade out the competition.
In our part of the country, we have to know how to keep varmints out of the garden. We deal with raccoons, opossum, and deer that like a delicious supper of green or ripe sweet corn. The solution? Electric fencing! If you have these animals around, don’t skimp on the fencing, and make sure it’s strong enough to completely deter them. We put up two strands of electric fencing around our entire corn patch. These stay plugged in all the time unless we are working in the garden. In our experience, it’s only necessary to install this after the corn starts setting on ears. For keeping deer out of gardens, you will need multiple strands that go at least six feet high (because deer can jump!). A good idea is to take aluminum pans or foil and coat them in peanut butter, then attach them to the fence at intervals around the entire patch. Once the animals try this, they most likely will leave your garden alone for the rest of the season.
Another pest we deal with is earworms. Because we do try to organically garden as much as possible, we have chosen not to use chemical pesticides. A wonderful alternative is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This is a naturally occurring bacteria that attacks the earworm larvae. We had excellent success with this. Instead of having earworms in basically 100% of our crop, I would venture we only had them in 20% of it! This product is widely available and is effective on any worm (earworms, hornworms, cabbage worms, etc.). You simply mix it in a sprayer at the recommended concentration and spray at one to two-week intervals for treatment or prevention. A note: prevention is ALWAYS more effective than treating a current infestation so get on it early! You apply this to the ears when the silks have turned about 10% brown (showing it has been pollinated).
At harvest time, you will want to check your ears by gently pulling down some of the silks and husks. Don’t pick until the juice spurts out when pierced with your fingernail. Sometimes you may pick only a portion and then wait another few days for the rest to be ripe. To pick, grab an ear while supporting the rest of the stalk and snap it off. This will allow any other ears to continue to ripen.
After picking, husk very soon and place in a cool location (a refrigerator, cooler with ice, etc. work well). Many varieties keep well for a week or two in the refrigerator, but if you’re wanting to preserve it, do that as soon as possible to minimize enzyme activity which causes the corn to turn less sweet. Corn can be frozen, canned, dehydrated, pickled, or fermented.
So, remember, plant early, fertilize, water, and weed often and enjoy a bountiful harvest. Once you start growing corn, you’ll never regret it!
Do you have other tips for growing sweet corn that you would like to add? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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