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Growing corn takes space, time, water and heat

Most corn-lovers say the best corn on the cob is eaten straight from the field - within hours of when it's picked. That's because the sugars in corn turn to starch as quick as you can say "daylight-saving time." When I was growing up, it was best eaten straight from a brown paper sack.That's because that sack was delivered, usually around 8 o'clock on a summer evening, by Maggie Dudley - and she had picked it just hours before.Dad would insist that Mom put the big pot on the stove, and we would all gather around the white Formica kitchen table, Maggie and her husband, Jake, my brother, sister, Mom, Dad and I, with nothing on the table but plates, butter and salt. (I was too young, but something tells me there was cold beer, too.) I imagine Mom insisted on napkins, as well, but I do remember the buttery cheeks and hands that went along with the full tummy following the corn fests.We would eat ear after ear of corn, having contests to see who could eat a row the fastest. We would compare notes: Do you eat across or round-and-round? It was summertime heaven. Of course, the next day, we would eat the tomatoes and other goods that Maggie had supplied to our young family. But the corn was the center of attention for my city-raised parents.Growing corn takes space, time and heat. Plant in May or June, as soil temperatures should be about 60 degrees for proper germination, according to Plant in full sun after any risk of frost. Your plants will need eight good hours of sunlight daily, so pick a sunny spot.Plant your seeds about 1 inch deep and space them about a foot apart in each row. If you have sandy soil, you can plant your seeds a little deeper. Planting your corn in groups of four rows works well to stimulate pollination. Thirty-two inches between rows is a good standard distance.The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service explains that sweet corn is best adapted to larger gardens because only one or two ears are produced per plant and several rows are recommended to ensure adequate pollination. However, even small plantings can be successful if planted in blocks rather than rows.
Corn needs lots of water, at least 1 inch per week once the tassels appear. Corn pollinates by wind, so don't water from above, which will wash off the pollen. Keeping the weeds down between rows is beneficial, as well."It is very important to harvest sweet corn at the proper stage of maturity," according to the extension folks at Purdue. "The critical time is the milk stage, a stage when the juice in the kernel appears milky when you puncture the kernel with your thumbnail. Sweet corn remains in the milk stage for a relatively short period, so check the ears frequently. Corn that is too young will ooze a watery material, while ears that are too old will have a tough, doughy kernel. During the milk stage, the unhusked ear should feel firm, have full kernels at the tip of the ear, and have brown, dry silks. Generally, ears should be ready about three weeks from silking time."Some tips from
  • Corn is a big-time consumer of phosphorus and nitrogen. If the leaves start to yellow, it's a sign of nitrogen deficiency; correct the problem by spraying with manure tea or fish emulsion.
  • To keep fresh corn coming through the season, make successive plantings every two weeks. Crops planted later, when warm weather has settled in, will mature more quickly than earlier plantings.
  • Corn can take up to 90 toasty-warm days to mature. If your growing season isn't that long, look for faster-growing varieties such as 'Precocious' (70 days, with more cold tolerance than most), 'Seneca Brave' (72 days) or 'Breeder's Bicolor' (73 days).
  • Deer and raccoons love corn. The best way to deter these and other four-legged diners is to install an electric fence. Failing that, try adorning your corn patch with whirling metallic pinwheels, shiny windsocks or lights timed to go on and off through the night - assuming neighbors' windows don't overlook your garden.
  • Sara Busse is a Charleston resident and master gardener. She may be contacted at
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