Success with Planting Sweet Corn

Success with Planting Sweet Corn

Sweet corn at sunrise.
Photo by Wren Vile

Very fresh home grown organic sweet corn is so delicious! There’s no denying that sweet corn takes up a lot of space, so if you are really short of land, you may decide to forego corn. On the other hand, corn doesn’t take a lot of work, so if you have the space, but are short of help, corn is a good choice. This information comes from my book, Sustainable Market Farming.

This post about sweet corn include an overview of our corn-growing, dealing with weeds, and my slideshow on Succession Planting

This one Growing Sweet Corn for the Whole Summer – Organic Gardening … is one I wrote for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening .

Don’t Set Yourself up for Failure – Understand Sweet Corn Genotypes

 You can skip this section if you are only growing one variety of sweet corn, no other kind of corn, and it is at least 250’ (76 m) from anybody else’s corn. Otherwise, before you plant (hopefully before you buy seeds), read this.

With most crops, cross-pollination with other varieties or types is only a problem for those growing seed. With sweet corn, the seed is the food crop. Failure to isolate genotypes can lead to starchy unpleasant-flavored corn. Hybrids are made by crossing OPs. Making hybrids does not involve genetic engineering!

Our late corn beside sweet potatoes.
Photo Ezra Freeman

Nearly all genotypes of hybrid sweet corn include one of two recessive genes, su or sh2. Cross-pollination with other corn groups will produce the dominant genetics of field corn (that starchy stuff!)

  1. Normal Sugary (su or ns) types of sweet corn have old-fashioned corn flavor but are sweeter than OPs, although the sweetness disappears fairly rapidly after harvest. Most can germinate well in cool soil.
  2. Sugary-enhanced (se) and Sugary Enhanced Homozygous (se+ or se-se) types are more tender than (su), and slower to become starchy after harvest. Most, especially the (se+) types, are sweeter than (su) types.
  3. TripleSweet Sugary Enhanced (se-se-se) corn was created to be sweeter than se-se.
  4. Super Sweet (sh2) (also known as Shrunken) varieties are very sweet and slow to become starchy. If not isolated from all other types of corn, they will be very starchy and disappointing. They have very poor cold soil germination. The kernels are smaller than other corns, giving this type its name. The seed needs careful handling, to prevent mashing between a seeder plate and the hopper.
  5. Synergistic (se-se-se-sh2) types are combinations of genetics from the 3 previous genotypes. Each ear has 75% (se) kernels and 25% (sh2) kernels. They are flavorful, tender and sweet, but only when they are ripe. If picked too soon, they are a watery disappointment.
  6. Augmented Shrunken: these newer types contain the sh2 gene and some of the tenderness from the se types.

Isolate these three categories by at least 250’ (76 m) from each other:

  1. Super Sweet/Shrunken sweet corn varieties (sh2);
  2. all other types of sweet corn;
  3. all other types of corn (eg popcorn, dent corn, field corn)

Instead, you can isolate by time, sowing on dates to achieve at least a 12-14 day gap between maturity of the different plantings.

Your neighbor’s GMO sweet corn will cross with your corn, if it’s close enough for the wind to bring the pollen in. “Bt corn” has been genetically modified by incorporating Bt genes (Bacillus thuringiensis) so the corn includes its own insecticide. There are many reasons not to grow GMOs, including the spread of random bits of genetic material by cross-pollination with previously non-GMO crops, and the likely consequence of Bt-resistant insects, so I won’t give them more space here.

Sweet Corn Varieties

Our first sweet corn of the season. Bodacious
Photo Pam Dawling

Most Open Pollinated (OP) sweet corns are noticeably less sweet than modern sweet corn, so consider hybrids. OP varieties also deteriorate faster after harvest than hybrids, becoming starchier. Luther Hill is said to be the sweetest OP variety.

Some catalogs  indicate which varieties are suitable for certain latitudes. (Corn flowering is day-length sensitive.) Johnnys has a “Dynamic Comparison Chart” for the sweet corn varieties they sell. Many companies run cold-germination testing, and can tell you which varieties that year have good potential for early sowings. Others can rot in cold wet soil.

We plant corn six times through the season, often with three varieties in each sowing, as shown here in our late corn.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

For our location, we rely on the first three genotypes, supplemented with some of the others for variety.

  • Bodacious, 77 day (se) yellow, great flavor for one this early;
  • Kandy Korn, 89 day (se) delicious yellow workhorse;
  • Silver Queen, 96 day (su) white long-time favorite with some drought-tolerance and insect resistance;
  • Luscious, 77 day (se-se-se) bicolor (organically grown, good cold soil emergence);
  • Tuxedo, 80 day (se) yellow (tightly-wrapped, earworm resistant);
  • Sugar Pearl, 72 day (se+) white (very early, on short plants);
  • Argent, 86 day (se) white (tasty with tight earworm-defeating husks);
  • Spring Treat, 66 day (se+) yellow, one of the earliest yellow sweet corns with good cold soil tolerance.
Silver Queen white corn when mature (with bug).
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Sweet Corn Crop Requirements

A pH of 6.0-6.5 is ideal. Very fertile soil is needed, including high phosphorus. P deficiency shows up as purple leaf tips and margins; N deficiency as pale spindly stalks, yellow leaf tips and shriveled kernel tips; Mg deficiency as white-yellow striping between veins, with older leaves reddish-purple, perhaps with dead tips. Corn is sensitive to deficiencies of zinc or copper, but less so to low levels of boron. When looking for deficiencies, it helps to know what is normal for that variety, and to also consider water shortage.

If you used legumes in the winter cover crop preceding your later sowings of corn, a good stand can provide all the nitrogen the corn needs (100-125 lbs/acre; 112-142kg/ha). When the legume reaches its flowering point, the nitrogen nodules on the roots contain the maximum nitrogen.

The number of rows of kernels on the cob is set five weeks after emergence (although each variety has a number that is usual, under good conditions). Ear length and number of plants with double ears is established nine weeks after emergence. There’s the feedback on your farm’s fertility plan.

Sweet corn needs warm soil. Catalogs usually indicate the soil temperature (measured at 9am) recommended for each variety. 50°F (10°C) is the absolute minimum, and applies to treated seed and OP or (su) varieties only. 60°F (15.5°C) is better for most, and 65°F (18°C) or higher is required by some varieties. Common phenology signs for the season being advanced enough to sow corn are that white oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears and that ragweed is germinating. For us the first corn sowing date is usually around April 26, which is also our average last frost date.

Corn has no tolerance of frost, but escape from a late spring frost is possible if the seedlings are less than two weeks old and not yet very tall, as the growing point may still be underground. Thus, in a spring that promises to be warm and dry, it is possible to risk an early planting as much as 2-3 weeks before the last frost date. Having some transplant plugs for a back-up helps reduce the risk level.

Emergence takes 22 days at 50°F (10°C), 12 days at 59°F (15°C), 7 days at 68°F (20°C), and 4 days at 77°F (25°C).       

Our third planting of sweet corn on the left, fourth in the middle, 5th (barely emerging) on the right.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sowing Sweet Corn

2oz/50’ (55gm/15m) or 1lb/400’ (370gm/100m) are generally required. The (sh2) types have more seeds for the weight, because the shrunken seeds are lighter than other types – 200/oz (7/gm), 2500-5500/lb (5600-12300/kg); 1lb/1250’ (118gm/100m).

Corn is usually grown in rows 36” (0.9m) apart. We sow fresh seed 6” (15cm) apart, and if using seed from the year before, we sow at 4” (10cm) apart.  Depth of sowing can vary with the soil temperature, being a very shallow 0.5” (1cm) in spring, to 1” (2.5cm) in summer when soils are warmer lower down and seeds benefit from the extra moisture.

Seedlings are thinned to 8-12” (20-30cm) apart. 8” (20cm) spacing is usually optimal in terms of using available light and maximum yield for the area.. Upper leaves get 7-9 times the light of lower leaves, therefore it is important that the upper leaves are in good condition, to photosynthesize well. The lower ones get much less light, so may be broken off for easier harvesting.

Young sweet corn plants after imperfect hoeing.
Photo Pam Dawling

Corn is wind pollinated (though you will find plenty of bees collecting pollen, regardless). For best pollination, plant in patches at least 4 rows wide. Inadequate pollination leads to ears with flat undeveloped patches among the kernels.

One of our sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli patch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Corn seed must have moisture to germinate. If you use a push seeder, irrigate after sowing. Because we sow small areas of many different varieties, and because people love to plant corn, we sow by hand. Our method has the advantage of delivering water right where the seed needs it. We measure and flag the rows, put out ropes on stakes along the rows, and make furrows (drills). The rope and its shadow make useful guides for keeping the rows straight. Next we have someone flood the drills with water from a hose, and we hand sow into the mud. After covering the seed and tamping the soil, we ignore the patch until the seed germinates. The watering in the furrow reliably provides enough moisture to get the plants up out of the ground. The ropes (about 12” (30 cm) above the ground) deter the crows, making it hard for them to land near the buried seeds. In recent years we have started using a seeder again, as the number of crows has worryingly declined.

We use overhead irrigation for corn. If you use drip tape, you might set out the tape, turn on the water for long enough to mark the soil with damp spots, then sow those spots with a jab planter.

Transplanting Sweet Corn

 It is quite possible to transplant sweet corn, so those in marginal climates don’t need to give up hope. We usually prepare some plugs the same day we sow our first corn outdoors and use these to fill gaps at the first cultivation. We use 200-cell Styrofoam Speedling flats (1”, 2.5 cm cells). We float these in a tank of water until we set them out. Some vegetable seedlings would drown if continuously in water, but corn does not. It is important to transplant the corn before the plant gets too big, and the taproot takes off. 2″-3” (5-7.5 cm) plants seem OK. The plugs transplant easily using butter knives.

I’ll write about Growing Great Sweet Corn in about a month.

 

2 thoughts on “Success with Planting Sweet Corn”

  1. Zone 7b here, just south of you in East Tennesee. I think those crows may be hanging out here as there are more than I can remember in many years.

    Recently purchased your garden books. I have been a TN gardener for 20+ years. Your books are fantastic!

    1. Hi Kristin, Thanks for your appreciation of my books! About the crows – could you send a few back, haha? I value biodiversity but not plagues of pests!

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