There's nothing better than eating fresh sweet corn harvested from your own garden, boiled up within minutes of picking. The combination of the sweetness and corn flavor makes this vegetable the quintessential summer treat. But sweet corn has a reputation of being a space hog. When we think of growing sweet corn, most of us think of vast fields of plants. The impression is that sweet corn needs lots of room to grow. But you can grow sweet corn in a small backyard garden, a raised bed, or even a container. It's just a matter of selecting the right varieties, having fertile soil, and making sure the corn gets pollinated properly.
Here's how to grow sweet corn in a small space in your yard.
There are several types of sweet corn and many varieties to choose from. Heirloom sweet corn varieties have an old-fashioned corn flavor but lose their sweetness quickly after harvest. Newer sugar-enhanced and supersweet varieties have a good combination of sweetness and corn flavor, and they hold their sweetness longer after harvest. However, they can be more finicky about their growing conditions.
The key to growing sweet corn in a small space is to grow blocks of the same variety close together. You can start with shorter varieties that mature early and then experiment with taller, mid- and late-season varieties to extend the harvest season.
Here are some good varieties to try:
'Ambrosia Hybrid' - (75 days) This sugar-enhanced (SE) variety produces 8-inch yellow and white ears on 6-1/2-foot-tall plants.
'Celestial Hybrid' - (87 days) An 8-1/2-inch, white-eared supersweet corn with good disease resistance. The stalks grow 6-1/2 feet tall. 'Improved Golden Bantam' - (80 days) This heirloom variety features sweet, golden kernels on 8-inch ears. The plant only grows 5 to 6 feet tall.
'Jubilee Hybrid' - (81 days) These 7-foot stalks produce 8-1/2-inch ears with super sweet yellow kernels.
'Silver Queen' - (88 days) This popular, late maturing, heirloom grows 7-1/2 feet tall and produces sweet, white kernels.
'Sugar Buns Hybrid' - (72 days) This very early sugar-enhanced sweet corn variety grows 6 feet tall and produces 7-inch yellow ears.
'Trinity Hybrid' - (70 days) This bicolor sugar-enhanced variety has 8-inch ears and the stalk only grows 6 feet.
Sweet corn is in the grass family and loves heat and moisture. Don't be in a rush to plant sweet corn in the garden or in a container. If you're growing old-fashioned varieties, wait until the soil temperature is at least 55 degress F to plant seeds. For sugar-enhanced and supersweet varieties, wait until the soil is at least 60 degrees F.
You can get a jump on the season, especially if you're growing in a raised bed or container, by laying black plastic over the soil two weeks before planting to hasten the soil warming, or by presprouting seeds indoors. To presprout, soak seeds in a moist paper towel overnight and then plant in the garden. You can even start corn plants indoors in pots and when the seedlings are a few inches tall, transplant them into your plot. Just make sure you protect these early seedlings from cold nights by laying a floating row cover over plants on chilly evenings.
When growing corn in a small space, think short thick rows. Each kernel of corn is connected to a corn silk. These fine hairs help transport the corn pollen to the kernel for proper development. The pollen drops down onto the silks from the tassels at the top of the plant. In order to have properly filled out corn ears, pollen needs to fall on all the corn silks. If you plant in short rows close together, it's more likely proper pollination will occur. Plant 4 to 5 plants in a container or plant in beds of at least 4 rows, no more than 4 feet long, spaced 1 foot apart.
While growing corn in short rows close together helps pollination, to insure success consider hand pollinating the ears. Here's how. In the morning when the corn tassels have fully extended, slip a brown paper bag over a tassel and shake the pollen loose into the bag. Spread out the silk on each individual corn ear and sprinkle pollen on the silks. Repeat this process three days in a row.
For proper growing, keep your corn well watered, weeded, and fertilized. Spread compost in small beds before planting and side-dress with 3 pounds of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet before tasseling. Keep containers well watered and fertilized every few weeks with a balanced fertilizer.
Your biggest pest may be an animal. Keep raccoons out of the patch with an electric fence, or cover each ripening ear with a paper bag sealed with tape.
Q: I've grown cucumbers before with good success. Last year, however, my cukes started out great, then yellowed, wilted, and died. What happened and how can I avoid it this year?
A: It sounds like your cucumbers had a bacterial blight disease. This disease attacks mostly cucumbers and melons, causing the leaves to yellow and the plant to die prematurely. A telltale sign of bacterial wilt disease is the white, sticky juice you find inside the infected cucumber stem when you cut it open. It's commonly spread by the feeding of cucumber beetles. To control this disease, plant blight-resistant varieties and control the cucumber beetle. Simple cucumber beetle controls include not planting cucumbers in the same area each year, cleaning up crop debris well before planting, and placing a floating row cover over the crop before flowers form. After flowers open, remove the row cover so bees can pollinate the flowers. Spray plants with pyrethrum to keep cucumber beetle adults from spreading the disease.