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Sweet Corn: How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Sweet Corn at Home | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Corn

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Zea mays
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Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Sweet Corn

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How do we grow the sweet corn of our dreams—full, juicy, and oh-so-delicious? It’s disheartening when there are gaps left in our cobs’ kernels. Corn needs to be planted properly for optimal pollination. Here’s how to plant, grow, and harvest sweet corn in the garden.

About Sweet Corn

Sweet corn is a tender, warm-season annual crop that produces ears of yellow, white, or bi-colored kernels. Native to the Americas, sweet corn has been cultivated for thousands of years; it’s famous as one of the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—grown by Native Americans.

A long, frost-free growing season (60 to 100 frost-free days) is necessary to grow and harvest corn. Don’t be tempted to sow too early, though. Mid to late spring is just fine once any chance of frosts is long gone.

And corn is a grass! A member of the Poaceae family, corn relies on wind, not bees or insects, to pollinate its flowers. This is why we plant corn in blocks of short rows instead of long, single rows. 

Types of Sweet Corn

For a continuous supply of sweet corn, plant early, mid-season, and late varieties or plant every 2 or 3 weeks.  

Have you ever had the intensely disappointing experience of tucking into a juicy-looking sweet corn cob only to find it tastes bland? This is the number one reason why paying a little bit more for your seeds really pays dividends. Hybrid or F1 varieties of sweet corn may cost a bit more, but they’re worth every penny, yielding cobs with a superior flavor, especially if you pick one of the supersweet types. Varieties bred for sweetness hold their taste for longer too, but the sooner you cook them after picking, the better.

Learn more about the different varieties of corn below. 

Planting

The most common reasons for slow growth include poor light levels, not enough moisture, or a lack of nutrients. Plant in full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight). Soil needs to be consistently moist (though well-draining),as corn tends to suck up a lot of water. Corn is a hungry plant, so it’s important to enrich beds with lots of organic matter, such as garden compost (ideally in the fall).

When to Plant Corn

  • Most gardeners sow corn directly in the garden soil (versus indoors) so that their sensitive roots aren’t disturbed when transplanting.
  • Corn is very sensitive to frost; do not plant soil temperature is at least 60°F (16°C), or 65°F (18°C) for super-sweet varieties. Usually, this is 2 or 3 weeks after the last frost in spring. See our Planting Calendar for corn based on average frost dates.
    • If you live in an area with a shorter growing season, choose an early variety that will mature well before the first fall frost. The ground can be warmed by a black plastic cover; sow seeds through holes in the plastic.
  • A couple of weeks after planting your first round of corn, plant another round in order to extend the harvest.

Corn in the garden

How to Plant Corn

  • To speed germination, moisten seeds, wrap them in moist paper towels, and store them in a plastic bag for 24 hours. 
  • Because corn is wind-pollinated, it’s essential to plant in a block, rather than a single row. For decent pollination, we recommend a modest block of, say, 10 to 50 plants. This maximizes the chances of the pollen released from the male tassels at the top of the plants drifting down into contact with the female silks lower down. Incomplete or inconsistent kernel development, with the cobs only partly or sporadically filled, is down to poor pollination. The silks protruding from the end of each cob are responsible for carrying the pollen down to the kernels. One strand connects to one kernel, so for complete fill, every strand of the silk must be pollinated.
  • Sow seeds about 1½ to 2 inches deep and 12 inches apart in rows 2½ to 3 feet apart. Don’t plant too close together or you run the risk of disappointingly small cobs.
  • You may choose to fertilize at planting time with a general purpose (10-10-10 fertilizer); corn is meant to grow rapidly. 
  • Water well at planting time.

Sowing Corn Indoors

If you’re going to start seeds early, sow the seeds in pots under the protection of a greenhouse, hoop house, or cold frame. This means you can begin sowing three to four weeks before your last frost date, giving you a head start on corn sown outdoors—a huge advantage for areas with shorter growing seasons.

Sow eight to ten seeds half an inch deep into four-inch-wide pots, or sow two seeds per module in a plug tray and remove the weakest of the two seedlings when they emerge. Keep the potting soil moist as they grow on.

Harden off the plants as your recommended planting time approaches by placing them outside for increasingly longer spells over the course of about a week. Plants should be at least six inches tall by the time they’re transplanted outdoors.

Check out this video for great tips on growing juicy corn:

Growing
  • Consistent moisture will encourage bigger, fatter ears of corn, so it’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of this. Keep corn well watered, as it has shallow roots and can become stressed by drought. About 2 inches of water per week is sufficient; water more if conditions are especially hot or if your soil is sandy. If the soil remains dry, soak the soil again. When watering, aim at the base of plants to avoid problems with fungal diseases.
  • Mulch helps to reduce evaporation around the plants.
  • Corn’s roots are shallow and can easily be damaged by hoeing. Instead, weed your corn by hand for as long as you’re still able to get between the plants without damaging them.  Then, apply several inches of mulch.
  • Corn sometimes produces aerial roots a few inches above the soil. These are not meant to absorb water or nutrients but rather to stabilize the tall stalk. If this happens, mound soil up over the roots to keep them covered, or just cover the whole area with a mulch of compost, which will help feed the plants, too. 
  • Support stalks in windy places. Mounding the soil around the base of 12-inch-tall plants will help. If you do notice plants getting rocked about in the wind, consider tying them to stakes. 
  • Wind pollination is critical to developing full cobs of kernels. To help this along, gently shake the stalks of the plants every few days for as long as the tassels are viable to increase the chances of every silk being pollinated.  Mornings are best. Learn more about corn pollination, including how to hand-pollinate to guarantee pollination success.
  • Watch for signs of nitrogen deficiency (yellowing leaves) and respond with quick side-dressings of a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as fish emulsion. 

Note: Tillers, or “suckers,” are secondary shoots that may develop low on the stalk later in the season. They do not adversely affect the main stalk.

Harvesting
  • The warmer the air, the more quickly corn matures. It is usually ripe about 15 to 23 days after silking and sooner if temperatures are exceptionally high.
  • When two ears grow on a stalk, the upper ear matures 1 to 2 days before the lower one.
  • At harvest, ears should be rounded or blunt, not pointed, with tassels turning brown and kernels full and milky.
    • To test, pull down some husk and pierce a kernel with a fingernail. If it’s white, or milky, it’s ready. The milk stage is brief; in hot weather (over 85°F/29°C), sweet corn is at peak for only 1 to 2 days, so check it frequently. Corn harvested a few days after milk stage will not be as sweet.
  • Pull ears downward and twist to remove from stalk.
  • Sweet corn varieties (except for supersweet varieties) lose their sweetness soon after harvest. Immediately after picking, prepare the ears for eating or preservation.
  • Prepare for eating or preserving immediately after picking. Enjoy your harvested corncobs as soon as you can. The quicker they’re cooked, the sweeter they will be!
  • If immature corn suffers a late-season frost, the plants and cobs can be damaged and result in the death of the plant or poor-tasting corn.

Corn cob on the plant

How to Store Corn

Gardening Products

Wit and Wisdom
  • Baby corn is produced from regular corn plants that are harvested early, while the ears are immature. Regular sweet corn, sugar-enhanced sweet corn, and supersweet corn varieties can be used, along with a few varieties that are specific for baby corn.
  • A cornstalk grows slowly until it reaches about 24 inches; then it grows 3 to 4 inches per day in hot weather!
  • It’s said that corn planted under a waning Moon grows more slowly but yields bigger ears. Learn more about gardening by the Moon!
  • If your corn shucks harder than usual, prepare for a cold winter.
  • Corn is one of the Three Sisters; its growing style pairs perfectly with beans and squash. Learn more about companion planting.
  • Corn is great for eating but also has so many other uses including medicinal. Learn more about corn for natural health.
  • Learn more fun, witty facts about corn.
Pests/Diseases
Corn Pests and Diseases
Pest/DiseaseTypeSymptomsControl/Prevention
AnthracnoseFungusYellow/brown/purple/black spots on leaves; sunken, dark spots on stems; spots may develop a salmon-pink, gelatinous mass; eventually, rot; in corn, tops die back and stalks rotDestroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; provide good drainage; avoid overhead watering; apply compost; use mulch; rotate crops
Corn earwormsInsectOn corn, eaten silks and kernels; excrement; larvae also attack tomatoes and other plants, eating fruit/pods/leaves/flowersRemove caterpillars; apply vegetable oil to point where silks enter ears a week after silks first emerge; select corn varieties with tight husks; grow an early variety; add native plants to invite beneficial insects; till soil in fall; spray Bt
Cucumber beetles (spotted)InsectHoles in leaves; plants stunted/die; larvae feed on roots; may spread bacterial wiltHandpick; mulch heavily; use row covers; destroy plants infected with bacterial wilt
CutwormsInsectWilting; severed stems of seedlings just above or below soil line; whole seedlings disappearHandpick; in spring before planting, cultivate soil to reduce larvae; wrap a 4-inch-wide collar made from cardboard or newspaper around each stem, sinking 2 inches into soil; weed; use row covers; destroy crop residue
EarwigsInsectMany small holes in leaves/stems; corn silks eatenTrap in tuna can filled with 1/2 inch of fish oil and sunk in soil such that edge is slightly above ground level; remove plant debris
DeerMammalChewed stalks (especially on young plants); chewed earsScatter human-scented items, coyote urine spray, or blood meal around plants; enclose corn with fence (at least 8 feet tall)
Downy mildewFungusYellow, angular spots on upper leaf surfaces that turn brown; white/purple/gray cottony growth on leaf undersides only; distorted leaves or corn tassels; defoliationRemove plant debris; choose resistant varieties; ensure good air circulation; avoid overhead watering
Flea beetlesInsectNumerous tiny holes in leaves, like birdshot from a shotgunUse row covers; mulch heavily; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Japanese beetlesInsectLeaves skeletonized (only veins remain); in corn, damage to husks/kernels/silk; grubs feed on rootsHandpick; use row covers; plant tansy near infested plants to lure beetles away
RaccoonsMammalBroken stalks; half-eaten, missing earsScatter human-scented items, coyote urine spray, or blood meal around plants
WirewormsInsectSeeds hollowed; seedlings severed; stunting/wilting; roots eatenTrap by digging 2- to 4-inch-deep holes every 3 to 10 feet, fill with mix of germinating beans/peas or potato sections as bait, cover with soil or a board, in 1 week uncover and kill collected wireworms; sow seeds in warm soil for quick germination; provide good drainage; remove plant debris; rotate crops
Cooking Notes
  • If too much hot pepper or spice has been added to a soup or stew, adding a can of sweet corn can help.
  • Popcorn is also a favorite snack if you have leftover kernels. Learn how to make homemade popcorn here.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprise that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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