The Corn Challenge

August 26, 2010

Corn is one of the more challenging — and satisfying — crops for the home gardener. Listen to learn more.


Corn is one of the more challenging — and satisfying — crops for the home gardener. Corn demands rich soil, from which it extracts many nutrients, so be prepared to re-enrich your soil with compost and fertilizer before, during, and after the season. Some Native Americans were known to put dead fish around cornstalks, which added nitrogen. Today, unless you are an extremely lucky fisherman, you can use blood meal and commercial (organic and chemical) fertilizers.
A challenge to northern gardeners is planting corn early enough. If the soil is below 50° F, the seeds simply won’t germinate. And until the soil is at least 68°, they will germinate with reduced efficiency. One solution for modest corn patches is to apply manure and then cover the soil with black plastic in the early spring to hasten the warming process. When the soil is approaching the optimum temperature, take the plastic off and hoe or till the soil. Let it dry out for a couple of days, then sow seed in wide rows or clusters, which will aid pollination later on.
When the stalks are about two-thirds grown, tassels emerge. This is the “male” flower of the plant, which produces the pollen. Shortly after the tassels appear, “female” flowers appear in the form of silks emerging from newly formed ears of corn. Each tiny hair of silk is connected to a potential kernel of corn. The idea is to get the pollen and the silks together, thus the clustered plantings. Poor pollination results in a less-than-complete ear of corn.
How do you tell when corn is ripe? The husks should still be green and vibrant, and the silks should be browned but not too dry. Take a gentle peek under the husks and puncture a kernel. If the “milk” is too watery, give it another couple of days. When the corn is ready, pick it as close to mealtime as possible. If it needs to be stored for several hours, leave the husk on and store the corn in a plastic bag in a cool location to preserve the sweetness.

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