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Sweet On Corn

Summer just wouldn't be the same without eating juicy, sweet, corn-on-the-cob. Selecting and growing a corn variety that gives you the sweet flavor you're looking for can be a bit confusing unless you're able to sort through some names and abbreviations. Here are the basics on understanding corn varieties and some tips on growing a sweet and successful crop.


Understanding Corn Lingo

Corn is either open-pollinated or hybridized and ranges in flavor from mildly sweet, to sweet, to very sweet. There are four main classifications of sweet corn: open-pollinated (OP), normal (standard) sugary (su), sugar enhanced (se) and super sweets (sh2). Many companies assign different names within the same categories, but they all use the designated abbreviations consistently.

Open Pollinated (OP)

Also referred to as normal or non-hybrid corns, these corn varieties are the heirloom varieties that were popular during the first half of the 20th century. Pampoon' is a well-known OP variety that was grown by the Iroquois as far back as 1779. Saving seeds from open pollinated corn will give you offspring similar to the parent plant providing that the corn is kept at least 100 feet away from other varieties during pollination. These varieties tend to be less sweet then the modern varieties. Their sugars turn to starch within hours after harvesting, so they need to be cooked immediately after harvesting to preserve their flavor. If you cook a lot of southwest dishes, open pollinated varieties are good choice for your garden. Try Golden Bantam.'


Normal (Standard) Sugary (Su or SU)

These corns are mildly sweet and are known to be more tolerant of cool weather. First popular in the 1970s and 80s, normal sugary varieties also convert their sugars into starch within a few hours of harvesting and should be cooked as soon as possible after picking. These corns are sometimes referred to as normal sugary hybrids, standard hybrids and regular sweet hybrids. Developed in the 1960s, Silver Queen' is a variety that remains popular today.

Sugar Enhanced (se or SE)

Sometimes referred to as sugary enhance hybrids, these corns are a step up in sweetness from the normal sugary varieties. Known for their tender kernels and sweet flavor, SE varieties are a good choice for the backyard gardener or someone growing corn for the first time. These hybrids offer gardeners a greater window for harvesting before losing their sweet flavor and don't need to be kept isolated from other varieties. Try Kandy Korn' or Bodacious' for freezing.


Super Sweets (sh2)

The dry seeds of super sweets are wrinkled and shrived (hence the sh) because they contain very little starch. This gives them the sweetest flavor of all corn varieties and allows them to maintain their flavor for up to 10 days after being harvested. Super Sweets varieties are best suited for the more experienced gardener. They need to be kept isolated (as least 50 feet) or risk turning tough and starchy from cross-pollination, and their seeds are prone to rotting in wet soil. Try Supersweet Jubilee.'

Corn Likes to Be Warm

If you live in a cooler climate, select a variety that ripens early. Plant corn in full sun and make sure the soil is nutrient rich and offers good drainage. The rate at which corn matures varies considerably by climate conditions, but "early" corn varieties generally mature in less than 75 days, "midseason" varieties in 75-80 days, and "late" season varieties take 85 days or longer.


Sow Seeds Directly

Unless your growing season is really short, it's best to sow corn seed directly into the soil. Seedlings are fragile and have shallow roots. Transplanting them increases the likelihood of pest and disease problems. Seeds should be planted about 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart in rows that are 2 to 3 feet apart. As soon as plants reach 6 inches in height they should be thinned to 6 inches apart.

Plant Blocks of Stalks

Corn is pollinated by wind. To avoid underdeveloped kernels or the absence of developing ears, plant stalks in blocks at least 3 to 4 rows wide. If blocks are not possible, plan on hand pollinating stalks.

Feed & Water Well

Corn is one of the heaviest feeders in the garden. Apply an organic fertilizer during planting, when plants reach a height of 1 foot and again when they reach 3 feet tall. Corn needs an inch of water per week-especially during the period from tasseling through harvest. As soon as the soil warms up, mulching around seedlings will conserve water and help control weeds.


Control Cutworms & Borers

Rotate corn crops and sprinkle diatomaceous earth over the seeds after planting. Use a cotton swab or medicine dropper to apply 1/4 teaspoon of mineral oil around the base of silks as they appear. An alternative would be to spray Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) on the silks as they turn brown to prevent worms from entering. Bt is an organic bacterium and is safe to use around children and pets. It will harm all caterpillars, however, (including butterfly) so use it only on select plants and as a last resort.

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services.

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