Monday, February 10, 2014

Garden Tips A to Z: CORN

Do you have any other tips for growing or using corn?  Share your tips in a comment!
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Growing Corn

d  Corn is a grass native to North America and was first cultivated by Native Americans.  They used it as a main food source and developed very effective planting and growing methods.  Over time, taller plants with bigger ears were bred.  To Native Americans, corn was one of the "Three Sisters" of the garden.  Corn grew tall and became a climbing support for beans, while gourds (pumpkins, squash, etc.) grew between the corn stalks, shading out weeds and conserving moisture in the soil.  Often, a tall platform was built in the garden, where a member of the tribe would sit and scare away birds and other animals trying to eat seeds and crops.

d   For thousands of years, Native Americans grew field corn and later taught European settlers how to grow it.  Sweet corn was first developed by Native Americans and was being grown by colonists in Pennsylvania by the mid-1700's.  Seed catalogs carried white sweet corn by the 1820's.  Golden Bantam was the first yellow variety, which was developed in 1902 and later led to bi-color varieties.

d  There are three main types of sweet corn: SU, SE, and Sh2.
  • SU ("sugary") corn is the old-fashioned sweet corn with tender kernels and a true corny taste.  SU corn quickly changes sugar into starch, so the harvest and eating time is short.  The most popular SU variety is Silver Queen, a beautiful milky white corn.  (Silver Queen is the traditional white favorite at Ransom Farm, also!)
  • SE ("sugary-enhanced") corn is sweeter than SU varieties and has a tender kernel.  The harvest window is a bit longer due to the higher sugar content.  (We ordered Kandy Korn this year, a popular SE.)
  • Sh2 ("shrunken-gene" or "super-sweet") corn is the sweetest type and has the longest harvest window, due to the low starch.  Sh2 may have tougher kernels.  Sh2 varieties usually need warmer soil than SU and SE, so are harder to grow in the north.  (However, we had good germination with Northern Xtra Sweet last year, an Sh2 variety for colder climates.)
  • Out of the three basic types, new varieties are being developed which contain the most desirable qualities.  "Synergistic" varieties are SE with some Sh2 kernels, which are good growers with added sweetness.  "Augmented Sh2" corn is Sh2 with SE traits, leading to tenderness, sweetness, and longer harvest window.  (For more detailed info on sweet corn varieties, visit the University of Vermont Extension.)

d  Corn is a wind-pollinated plant; the wind blows pollen from the male tassels of one plant to the female ears of another.  To insure proper pollination, corn plants must be fairly close to one another.  If you have a small garden with only a few rows of corn, you should plant in square blocks rather than long rows to enhance pollination.  Keep rows to between 2'-3' apart.

d  If an ear of corn is missing kernels (either throughout the ear or at one end), there was probably poor pollination.   (Purdue University has an excellent guide to pinpointing poor kernel set.) This can occur by either a lack of wind pollination or by parts of the ear being damaged and therefore not receptive to pollination.

d  You can extend your corn harvest over many weeks.  You can choose several varieties with different maturities (like 65, 75, and 85 days) and plant them all at the same time.  Or, plant one variety successively over a few weeks.

d  Corn is a picky garden plant.  It likes warm ground (at least 60 degrees F), rich soil (compost and manure worked in), and damp (but not wet or soggy) conditions.  Seeds will not germinate in cold soil and will rot in wet dirt.  Most seed is now treated with a pink-colored fungicide to prevent fungus growth.

d  All sweet corn should be isolated from field, ornamental, cow, and popcorn to prevent cross-pollination, which will result in poor characteristics.  SU and SE varieties also need to be isolated from Sh2.  Isolation can be achieved either by planting types at least 100-200 feet away from each other, or by spacing maturity at least two weeks apart.

I just got my seed order and am so excited for my garden this summer.  Corn always seems like the challenge in the garden: if you can grow corn, you can grow anything!  As summer rolls around, I will post my "Katie's Garden Salsa" recipe for eating fresh or canning, which includes copious amounts of farm-fresh sweet corn.

Happy Gardening!

-              - Katie

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