Sweetcorn is one of the vegetables that lose sweetness quickly as natural sugars convert to starch in the picked cobs. That’s just one reason it’s a ‘must-have’ in the home garden. Linda puts her ear to what works!
Corn is the only cereal crop native to the Americas, originating in prehistoric Mexico. It’s eaten through South, Central and North America where it’s a popular vegetable and a major commodity.
Here in Australia we also love to bite the sweet juicy kernels from the cob, but in Europe such behavior is considered quite weird because corn is what is fed to the animals.
Freshly picked is so sweet it could be eaten straight away. Photo - photolibrary.com
While not the first choice for gardeners with limited space as it needs a fair amount of room, corn is still a popular choice for home gardeners because the taste of fresh picked corn is so delicious. Simply strip off the husk and peel away the silks; then snap the cobs in half, for easier handling, and boil for a few minutes. Buttered and seasoned cobs can be eaten as they are, or you can cut the kernels from the cob and serve a more refined dish of corn. You can also roast or barbecue the cobs in their own protective husk, perhaps stuffed with a flavoured butter. And for the tastiest corn soup or puree, cut the kernels from the cob, then cover the cobs in water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes to make a corn stock in which you can then add to the kernels, sweated with copped onion in a little butter. Yum!
Sow sweet corn seed in early spring, direct into the garden once all chance of frost has passed. Choose a warm sunny spot and dig in plenty of organic matter first. Some seed suppliers recommend you soak seeds in a container of water overnight. Sow seeds 2.5cm deep and 15cm apart and in rows 30cm apart. Choose a site where you can sow seeds in a block of 4 rows to ensure good pollination for a bumper crop.
Seeds will germinate quickly, within a few days. Seedlings should be thinned to 15cm apart. Transplant the surplus seedlings to fill any gaps in your block. Sow seeds every three weeks for continued harvest. To prevent cross-pollination choose just one variety to grow.
Choose a sunny position with organic matter-enriched soil and plant seedlings in early spring in blocks not rows. This is because sweet corn is wind-pollinated and single rows decrease the chance of pollination, which will decrease your harvest.
You will see soft grass-like flowers in summer. Pollen drops from these flowers onto female flowers below called “silks”. These are the tassels that emerge from the top of the cob. Each strand or tassel is attached to a single grain. So the more pollen floating around the more grain.
Corn grows fast and needs regular side dressings of organic fertiliser, such as Nutriblend 5, to stimulate strong, vigorous growth. Liquid feed with comfrey or liquid manure. Sweet corn stems will produce above ground roots so hill up with manure and compost around developing stems to give added nutrients and to support the plant. Water deeply twice a week, every second day in hot weather.
Photo - Patrick Foto/Shutterstock.com
Cobs are ready when silks wither and brown. Peel back leaves and test for ripeness by pressing the grain with thumbnail. Ripe kernels will ooze a milky liquid. Your corn crop will mature all at the same time. Corn freezes well, so freeze the surplus as soon as it is picked. There’s no need to cook it first. Simply freeze the cobs in freezer bags, or if space is an issue, cut the kernels from the cobs first, then put them in ziplock bags until you are ready to use them.
‘Petite Hybrid’ from New Gippsland Seeds has up to five cobs per plant.
‘Zea Mays’ is a traditional, open-pollinated corn available from Eden Seeds and Diggers Seeds
‘Early Super Sweet’ is a vigorous hybrid with sweet flavours from Mr Fothergill.
‘Jubilee Bicolour Try These’ white and yellow bicoloured grains from Mr Fothergill.
‘Early Chief’ from Yates Seeds takes between 12-14 weeks to mature.
Corn varieties. Photo - photolibrary.com
Pests and diseases
Damping off can affect seedlings before they emerge through the soil.
To prevent this happening, dust your seeds with a fungicide powder.
Corn earworm is a pest that munches its way down through the cob. The telltale sign is a sawdust trail on the top/outside of the cob. Pull the top of the cob apart and squash the grub. Re-cover the cob and wrap an elastic band around the top of the cob to stop it from drying out and to stop other bugs getting in.
Tips and Tricks
- Plant corn in blocks for better pollination.
- Use the shade of corn plants in high summer to protect pumpkin, squash, cucumber and zucchini.
- On a calm day, tap the stems to assist in pollination.
- Stake each plant for support in windy gardens.
- Plants produce one or two cobs each, so judge your desire for corn and sow and thin to match your needs.