Gardeners' Dirt: Three secrets to successful sweet corn
By Vicki Dismuke - Victoria County Master Gardener InternEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Feb. 16, 2012 at midnight
Updated Feb. 15, 2012 at 8:16 p.m.
Have you had problems getting your corn to grow? Have you been less than satisfied with the quality of the cobs you are getting? I've been growing corn for almost 10 years and have discovered a few secrets for ensuring a good crop with full, succulent cobs that I will share with you.
Corn has been cultivated for more than 4,000 years, and many different types have been developed over the years, such as American Indian corn, field corn, popcorn and sweet corn.
The American Indians usually grew it in a triad of corn, beans and squash. The corn provides support for the beans, which provide a natural fertilizer for the corn, and the squash makes a natural ground cover to help prevent weeds and keep the ground more moist.
Secrets to success
For successful corn, one needs to begin with a well-fertilized garden plot with good drainage and at least eight hours of sunshine. Plant past your local frost dates, and keep it well watered.
Since corn dislikes its roots being disturbed, I recommend hand weeding, or you can plant an understory with squash or melons as American Indians did to discourage weed growth. But the secrets to a truly successful crop are as follows:
• Secret No. 1 - Plant in grids
One of the first problems I ran into trying to grow corn in South Texas was getting it to stay upright in our robust winds, especially if the ground is saturated with water.
I have tried several methods to deal with this problem and found the best to be planting the corn in a close grid pattern. This also helps with pollination. Try planting your corn in grids of several short rows close together, say 5- to 10-feet long with the rows only a foot apart. Plant the seeds about 12 inches apart.
According to Texas AgriLife Extension, (http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/lawn_garden/veg.html) planting any closer together results in the cobs not being able to develop properly. I also find that planting any farther apart results in them being unable to support one another properly. It is also helpful to try to plant corn near some kind of structure that will block the wind, but not shade the corn. A good publication on the Texas AgriLife website is "Easy Gardening" Bulletin E - 287 - Sweet Corn.
According to Joe Janak, Victoria County Extension Agent, repeated lodging of corn is probably because of damaged roots caused by the corn rootworm, a soil insect pest. This can be cured by not planting corn in the same spot each year or using a soil insecticide at planting.
• Secret No. 2 - Filled cobs
The second thing that I had problems with was too few cobs, or cobs that were not filled properly with kernels. According to eHow (www.ehow.com/print/how_7557757_grow-sweet-corn-texas.html), development of kernels is dependent upon every strand of silk getting pollinated. To ensure this, it is necessary to plant the corn close together so that the wind can transfer the pollen to the silk strands.
On the website Organic Gardening (www.organicgardening.com), it is explained that it is also possible to hand pollinate corn by shaking the pollen loose from the tassels into a container and then sprinkling this over each cob's silks. I have tried this, and although it is pretty labor-intensive, it does help! Also, it is particularly important to make sure the corn gets at least an inch of water a week when the stalks are tasseling, preferably from a soaker hose or drip irrigation, to ensure proper kernel formation.
Secret No. 3 - Controlling pests
Something else to look out for is insect pests. The most common culprits are the corn earworms, which like to crawl inside the developing cobs, and cutworms and flea beetles, which attack the plant itself. According to Organic Gardening, a few drops of vegetable oil mixed with Bacillus thuringiensis, water and dish soap applied to the silks after they first emerge is effective in preventing the earworm from entering the cobs. I have actually tried this, and again, while labor-intensive, it is effective.
The other two pests can be controlled by the application of Bacillus thuringiensis or spinosad to the young plants. Some of you also may have discovered peculiar-looking ears with pale white and black swollen kernels.
This is called corn smut, and while very peculiar looking, these ears are actually considered a gastronomic delicacy in Mexico. However, if you do not wish to partake of this edible fungus, it is best to destroy these plants.
Enjoy the results
These are the three things I have learned over the years that have improved both the quality and quantity of my sweet corn crops yields. I hope that these suggestions and recommendations will help you to produce a successful crop of sweet corn this year, too, and that by summer you are enjoying a bountiful crop of beautiful, perfect cobs of sweet corn hot and dripping with butter.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.