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Good flavor comes from sweet corn

Sweet corn gets tassels in midsummer to pollinate the young ears for cobs of corn. John Zvirovski / The Sun

The availability of that mouthwatering, succulent, buttery taste of sweet corn is a common delight in the late summer activities that surround most of us. You can get it at the local farmer’s market, in the stores, via roadside stands, at county and state fairs and even in your own garden. It is one of those wonderful vegetables that is easy to grow and always rewards us with ears of corn too numerous to eat all at once.

Corn is foreign to nobody. Kids learned about it during school discussions of Thanksgiving, when the first pilgrims and Native Americans got together to eat. They also had to make a decision whether they liked whole kernel or creamed corn better. I was always more accustomed to the whole kernel myself. Corn is mainly used for feed in livestock, but more recently being used to produce the biofuel called ethanol.

Field corn and sweet corn are the same product. The main difference is that field corn is grown as a grain and harvested when it is mature and dry. Sweet corn is the immature product that is harvested when it is still milky, tender and full of sugar, thus giving it the name of “sweet” corn. As the corn ages, this sugar and milk turns into a starch and the vegetable becomes a “grain” for dry storage and use.

In the agricultural world, all parts of the plant are used in one way or another. The stocks and leaves can be used as feed when shredded along with the kernels of corn. The corncobs can be used as a fuel source in some heating stoves. The silk strands from the ears of corn can be dried and used as a stuffing for pillows and stuffed animals. Even the corn itself can be used as decoration and ornamentation when dried.

Mitchell, S.D., has one of the perfect examples of this decoration in its amazing Corn Palace. Every year the exterior is decorated with different murals made out of corn. Mitchell has the annual Corn Palace Festival that, this year, goes from Aug. 22-26 with interesting activities and musical events.

In the garden, corn is grown as a row crop. Planted in rows that are 18 to 24 inches apart and seeds spaced at 6 to 8 inches for optimal growth and production. The old saying goes, if your corn plants are knee high by the 4th of July, then you are right on track for the season. They prefer to grow in full sunlight with a well-drained soil and plenty of moisture.

As the plant grows, it terminates with a top called a tassel. This is what produces the pollen to pollinate the silk, which comes from the ears of the corn that develop along the stock. In the plant world, this is known as the plant’s “flower.” Sweet corn can be ready to harvest anywhere from 65 to 90 days depending on the variety that is planted.

If you have ever looked through a catalog to order seeds for corn, the selection can become overwhelming. Of the sweet corn that is available, the main selection is that of the yellow sweet corn. Some of the choices are Tendersweet, Sugar Sweet and the old faithful variety of Kandy Korn. There are bicolored options also with yellow and white kernels, including Butter and Sugar along with Trinity and the newer Peaches and Cream. There is even the white corn variety produced by the varieties Silver Queen, Frosty and Sugar Pearl.

Newer selections have been developed to create an even sweeter tasting corn called the Triple Sweet series. Some of those selections are White Avalon, Honey Select and Serendipity.

Some also choose to grow corn for decorating purposes. These varieties are usually called Indian corn, because of their incredible kernel colors. Some if those types are Rainbow Indian, Autumn Explosion and Earth Tones.

Though corn can be a tough plant, it can be susceptible to some insects like the European corn borer, which lives in and destroys the corn plant in its first stages. In its later stages, it ruins the corncobs themselves. There is also the corn earworm that eats away at the developing kernels on the cob.

Corn can also be prone to the fungus called “smut.” This develops mostly on the developing ears and look like a cluster of gray, powdery masses over the corn kernels. When they dry, the spores become airborne and affect other corn plants down the road. Local nurseries have chemicals available to hinder these issues.

Overall, corn is a very easy vegetable to grow. Either grow the product yourself or purchase it at local markets and indulge in the centuries-old practice of corn on the cob, smothered in butter, with just a touch of salt to entice your palate. Just the thought of it will make your mouth water.

Don’t tell your kids, but there are even great health benefits in this vegetable, including antioxidants to aid in the fight against cancer. This is the time to get your corn planted so there is a big crop to harvest come the month of August!