A Butter Lovers Guide to Growing Corn

Fall 2014
Eric Sideman with his favorite vegetable. Becky Sideman photo.

By Eric Sideman, Ph.D.

I like to have a garden that is like a farm stand – maybe because one of my favorite memories is going to the farm stand as a kid with my mom and dad. For whatever the reason, I like to be able to go out any day during the growing season to pick whatever possibly can be ready at that time. I want peas from early June through mid-July. I want beans from late June until frost. We raise our tomatoes in a heated high tunnel so that I can have them from mid-June until freezing weather.

Corn is my favorite vegetable. I aim to have fresh corn from July 16 (my wife, Becky’s, dad’s birthday; we bring corn and lobsters to him every year) until at least Common Ground Country Fair time. I manage that by growing three or four varieties differing in days to maturity and by making six to eight plantings from early May through June, with four 25-foot rows in each planting. Because corn is wind pollinated, I have to have that much in each planting, in a block shape to ensure good pollination. This takes about a quarter of one of our bigger gardens.

Of course having a garden like this is a tad wasteful and a lot more work than the average garden. It means a lot of things are going by when I am in the mood for something else – so we have happy, well fed livestock and happy neighbors. I don’t mind the work at all. It fits with my inability to sit still. Growing corn keeps me busy a good chunk of the year, starting in early winter when seed catalogs show up and going until sometime in November when the last of the crop is dry enough to store for sheep and turkey feed.

I hear there are more than 2,000 varieties of sweet corn that differ in flavor, color, sweetness, days to maturity and more. Years of trying some of them, and trials done by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, helped me pick my favorite four. I want a sweet, corny flavor, and I want to cover the season by growing early, midseason and late corn. My earliest is ‘Espresso’. I used to grow ‘Sugar Buns’, but ‘Espresso’ beats it by three to four days, and that is important for those who want to brag about how early they are eating corn. I used to grow ‘Spring Treat’ but settled on ‘Espresso’ because it has a better flavor – in my opinion. Experiment for yourself. Remember, the most important thing about an early corn is being early. These 65- to 70-day corns are not nearly as tasty as the midseasons.

My next corn is ‘Bodacious’. This midseason corn is the beginning of the real summer experience. It has a bold, corny flavor that is sweet but not too sweet, with ears much longer and wider than the early season corns. ‘Bodacious’ is an all yellow corn. I also grow ‘Luscious’, which is quite similar but is a bicolor corn.

My late corn is ‘Montauk’. I got hooked on it when Dave Handley, the corn specialist working with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, reported on trials and said, “’Montauk’ was the crew’s favorite.” ‘Montauk’ is really sweet but still has a full corn flavor. The ears are very big and full of perfect bursting kernels. I grow one planting of all the other varieties but fill the last half of summer with three or so plantings of ‘Montauk’.

I grow all my corn from transplants now, as I got tired of seeing gaps where the seed did not germinate. My early ‘Espresso’ is seeded the last week of April to be transplanted out to the garden the first week of May. I grow corn transplants in plug trays for 10 days in an organic, compost-based soilless mix. Every 10 days I seed a new batch of corn. I transplant by hand, putting the plants 10 inches to a foot apart in rows about 3 feet apart. The first three plantings are covered in the field with a floating row cover for needed warmth for early season growth and a bit of frost protection. Even if we get a freeze in May and the corn leaves die, the plants usually recover because the growing point of the corn plant is deep inside the plant.

Corn is a heavy feeder. Conventional growers band about 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre at planting time and then side-dress with an additional 60 to 90 pounds when the corn is about a foot tall. (Banding means applying fertilizer in a band about 2 inches beside and 2 inches down from the seed.) I, of course, follow my own advice on soil fertility, presented in Fact Sheet # 1 on MOFGA’s website. Basically, that means that using a soil test as a guide, I bring all the macronutrients into the optimum range using rock powders and organic residuals (see Fact Sheet #11). I retest the soil every three years or so.

Each spring, in the section of the garden where I will plant corn, I spread all the bedding from our chicken pen. (The bedding includes wood shavings, chicken manure and kitchen waste. Instead of composting our kitchen waste, it goes into the chicken pen where it is either eaten by the chickens or ends up in the bedding and then the garden). This nutrient-rich material has all the nutrients that corn needs and that corn removes from the soil when harvested, especially nitrogen. Lately we have had heavy spring rains that wash away a lot of those nutrients, so I have had to side-dress with Cheep Cheep or ProGro to replace what was lost from my chicken bedding. I can’t stand seeing nutrient-deficient corn in my garden.

Sweet corn is at prime maturity and best eating when it is in the milk stage – when the kernels are plump, soft, tender and filled with a milky juice. This prime quality lasts about five days. Some people think I am crazy to have so many plantings of corn, but I am thinking I’d better shorten the time between plantings, because at 10 days I am actually picking some corn that is not prime.

Problems with corn are tolerable. Diseases are usually not a serious problem. In fact, I have never seen more than scattered issues. The most important insect pests are the three caterpillars that feed on the ear – corn earworm, European corn borer and fall armyworm. For the most part I ignore these, but if I hear that they are in large numbers at any time, I will use a Bt spray. Deer, raccoons, skunks, etc., are kept away from the corn and everything else with electric fence. We put up four strands of tape, two set very low for the small pests and two set higher for the deer. It works like a charm. The trick is to get it up early in the spring before any of these animals develop the habit of going into the garden. (For a discussion of corn pests and their management, see our new edition of the Resource Guide to Organic Insect and Disease Management.)

As I write this in mid-July, I am looking forward to my first corn that is only days away. By the time you are walking around the Common Ground Country Fair, perhaps reading this, I will be nearing the last of my corn. Some people may wonder why I put so much effort into such a short season of pleasure. Maybe it’s the butter. Butter does not taste that good without a good carrier. In my mind, nothing beats corn.

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