Rumors Against Sweet Corn
My fourth and last planting of sweet corn went in a few days ago. I grow sweet corn despite reading years of advice that backyard gardens are too small to make sweet corn worth planting. In the last few decades, that advice has been reinforced by the fact that supersweet corn — which can be more than four times sweeter than heirloom (traditional) sweet corn, and holds that sweetness much longer after harvest — is so readily available at farmstands and markets. I strongly disagree on both counts!
Backyard gardens are too small? My vegetable beds are three feet wide and about 20 feet long. I plant corn in “hills,” which actually are not at all hilly. In gardening, a “hill” is a station, a location where you grow a clump of plants.
Squash is another plant grown in hills, in this case so that trailing vines from each of a few plants can radiate out in all directions.
One reason to plant corn in hills is for good pollination. The pollen that drops from the tassel atop each plant is heavy, relying mostly on gravity, not wind or insects, to carry it to the silk. Pollen grains germinate on the silk then penetrate and travel to the female ovule attached to the cob, each one of which becomes, when fertilized, a kernel. Mating is more guaranteed with clumps of tassels perched above lots of receptive ears.
Four seeds go into each planting hole, which are two feet apart running two rows per bed. That leaves twenty hills per bed, thinned to three plants per hill.
The fourth seed per hill was for insurance, mostly from mice or chipmunks. As further insurance, I sometimes dust the seeds with a mixture of cayenne pepper and cinnamon. This year, for even further insurance, and for an earlier crop from the earliest planting, I presprouted the seeds indoors by soaking them overnight in a jar with a screened lid, then rinsing then turning the jar upside down in a saucer twice daily in my seed incubator. Seeds went into the ground when roots were 1/2 inch long. At any rate, I thin the number of plants in each hill to the strongest three once they are up and growing.
Each plant yields one or two ears, usually two. Let’s say one and a half, which makes ninety ears per bed. That’s a lot of sweet corn, and from only one of the four beds! (It’s hard to believe. Have I miscalculated?)
No Wasted Space
It’s not as if this last corn bed, any of my four corn beds for that matter, has stood idle waiting to be planted. All the beds do double or triple duty.
What’s planted before or after the corn depends on when the bed is planted. The first planting went in in mid-May, which coincides with the average date of the last killing spring frost here. Even that first can be preceded by an early planting of arugula, turnips, spring radishes, and lettuce. These plants thrive in cool whether, germinating and growing, with their harvest over and plants pulled as soon as young corn stalks have grown enough to need the space.
Following harvest of the corn, the bed can be cleared for any one of a number of fall crops such as winter radishes, bok choy, spinach, and, again, lettuce, and turnips.
(Corn is a hungry plant. I detail creating and maintaining a rich soil for corn and other hungry vegetables — organically, of course — and intercropping and succession planting for maximum production in minimum space in my book Weedless Gardening.)
Pick your Corn
Sweet corn is among the vegetables that I most eagerly await in summer, which brings me to debunking the second reason “experts” put forward that corn isn’t worth planting in backyard gardens.
All sweet corns are not created equal, and planting sweet corn lets me — and could let you — choose which varieties to grow: yellow, white, bicolor, supersweet, or heirloom sweet. I’m partial to old-fashioned sweet corn. It’s not nearly as sweet as modern supersweets but has a rich, corny flavor and a texture you can sink your teeth into.
My favorite variety, Golden Bantam, was the standard of excellence for sweet corn a hundred years ago.
One season about 30 years ago my corn crop, for some reason I can’t remember, came up short. I went to the farmstand of a local sweet corn grower and asked if they grew and sell Golden Bantam. The farmer behind the counter smiled and said, “Yes, we grow it, but we grow that for ourselves.”
Not everyone is a fan of Golden Bantam. My friend Kit says it tastes like “horse corn.” Still, growing your own corn lets you seek out and grow whatever variety you like best.