A Taste of Summer: Growing the Best Sweet Corn

From planting to harvesting and everything in between, learn how to grow summer’s signature stalk.


| March/April 2018


For the American farmer, corn is king. Corn and soybeans obviously form a formidable one-two punch for commercial farmers. For American gardeners, though, tomatoes probably take the crown, but perhaps you could say sweet corn is queen.

For many gardeners each summer, nothing tastes as good as fresh sweet corn, brought in straight from the garden and cooked. Maybe a little butter sets it off at your table.

Watching the grass grow

Corn (Zea mays) is a cereal grass, in the same botanical family (Poaceae) as wheat, rice, barley, sorghum, oats, millet, rye, and others. Each kernel on a cob of sweet corn is a seed, which contains the embryo of the corn plant and a reserve of starch that fuels the plant’s early growth.

When a corn seed germinates, its roots begin growing into the soil and its coleoptile — the first tubular leaf-like structure — emerges above the soil. New (true) leaves emerge from the collar of the “tube” one at a time as the plant grows. After a few weeks, when the plant has four or five leaves, it almost looks like a small bush. Later, the distance between the leaves increases, as the plant “telescopes” to grow taller. It also keeps producing new leaves up until sexual maturity. By this time, some of the earliest leaves will have turned yellow and fallen off. Some field corn varieties can grow up to 16 feet tall, although most sweet corn varieties only hit 3 to 5 feet.



Corn produces both male and female reproductive structures on the same plant. It is monoecious (having both male and female reproductive parts), in the lingo of biologists. Eventually, a cluster of male flowers — called the tassel — appears atop the plant. The flowers shed pollen when mature. These flowers lack large, showy petals and don’t look like what we normally think of as flowers. Very shortly after this, the silks emerge from the presumptive corn ears. Each silk is an elongated part (style) of a female corn flower. Like the male flowers, female flowers don’t have showy petals. The silks capture pollen and direct them to the ovary in the growing ear. The fertilized ovaries become corn kernels and soon fill with a clear liquid. The corn embryo also appears at this time. This is called the blister stage.

Next, in the milk stage, the liquid inside the kernels turns a milky white. The color is due to the presence of sugars. These sugars are progressively converted into starch — through the dough and dent stages — and then they dry out. The embryo continues to grow through all these stages. Most varieties of field corn take over 110 days to mature. Sweet corn varieties take less time, because they have been selected for quicker maturation and are harvested in the late milk stage. Typical sweet corn maturation time is 60 to 90 days.







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