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How to Grow Sweet Corn In Your Backyard Garden

Young corn plants thriving behind tomato and zucchini plantsMost backyard gardeners don't plant sweet corn alongside their tomatoes and zucchinis, but with proper care, space and growing conditions, sweet corn can thrive in a backyard garden. Fresh corn on the cob is a summer delight that's sweetest when it's just picked, a perfect reward for the effort!

When to plant

Sweet corn grows best in full sun and in rich, warm soil. It doesn't do as well in frost or freeze conditions, but likely will survive light or scattered frosts. Start planting on or just prior to the mean frost-free date for your region. Planting can continue as late as early July.

Most of today's sweet corn varieties are hybrids. Plant the kernel (seeds) about one inch to one-and-a-half inches deep and about nine inches to 12 inches apart. Plant at least four rows, each four feet long. It can take 65 to 95 days for sweet corn to mature, depending on the variety. For a long lasting sweet corn crop, plant several varieties that mature at different times. When planting more than one variety, place the same variety in side-by-side rows.

Sweet corn growing in the back yard.Water deeply after planting, and again a few days later if there's been no rain. Even though sweet corn flourishes in hot weather, it benefits from regular watering. Use a general purpose fertilizer every few weeks. Weed the rows frequently, but chemical herbicides generally are not recommended for home gardens.

Diseases become more prevalent when the ears form. At that point, silkworms are common pests. During rainy periods, a fungus may develop on the ears. Deer can be a problem, as can blue jays and other birds that help themselves to the crop.

Harvest time

A shucked ear of corn on top of a freshly harvested pile of sweet corn earsEach cornstalk should produce at least one large ear. Many varieties produce a smaller, second ear that develops later than the first ear.

Ears are ready to pick when the unhusked ear has tightly folded, green leaves and dried, dark brown silk. Pull back the husk to expose the tip of the ear. Corn is at its best when the kernels are fully formed, but not fully matured. Known as the milk stage, the juice in the kernel is milky when punctured. Milk stage lasts about a week and usually occurs about 20 days after the first silk strands appear.

If the ear is not ripe, the liquid will be watery. Close the husk to prevent bugs. Some folks use a twist tie around the end.

When the ears are ready, snap them off by hand with a quick, firm, downward push, twist and pull. Hold the cornstalk with your free hand.

After the harvest, the dried stalks can be used in fall decorations or pulled out and composted.

A taste of summer

Proper timing for harvest is crucial to quality. The best time to pick sweet corn is right before eating it. The fresher the corn, the sweeter it will taste. Sweet corn aficionados actually measure freshness in minutes, not hours or days. That's because once picked, the sugar immediately starts turning to starch and the ears lose flavor, kernel quality and sweetness.

If the ears must be stored, pick in the morning when the corn is at peak sweetness. Refrigerate them to slow the sugar-to-starch process. Use the corn within a day or two, husking the ears just prior to cooking.

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