Growing corn for Independence Day

How-to: Selecting fast-maturing varieties and giving them a head start indoors are key factors to some fine patriotic eating.

In The Garden

March 18, 2001|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,Special to the Sun

Fellow gardeners just have a way of bringing some of us back to earth when we get too focused on the esoterica of gardening rather than the nitty-gritty issues.

For instance, at a talk I gave not so long ago, the first question asked was not about the subject I spoke on. Instead, what I heard was: "Yes, that's all wonderful and very interesting, but tell me, how can I get sweet corn on the table by the Fourth of July?"

Whomp!

Yet, if one person wants to know, I expect a lot of others do, too. So for those who are wondering how to perform this minor magic in their own garden, here's how to do it.

First, be picky in choosing the variety. Pay attention to maturity dates. Seventy to 75 days is about right, and there are many full-size varieties that fit this criterion.

'Clockwork' (76 days) is a favorite bicolor corn with excellent taste and tightly wrapped ears that resist insect damage. It also performs well in cooler weather. 'Chubby Checkers' (72 days) is another good bicolor, while 'Quickie,' at 65 days, may be the earliest yet.

For yellows, you might try 'Sugar Buns' (70 days) or 'Early Extra Sweet'(71 days), which is very popular in the North and highly recommended as having a nice balance between corniness and sweetness. If you prefer white corn, 'Pristine' (75 days) has real corn flavor and is favored by market gardeners.

Keep the feet warm

One of the things that makes life difficult for early corn -- as much or more than frost, even -- is low soil temperature. Corn simply is not happy and will usually fail to germinate if the soil is not at least 60 degrees.

The trick to beating this is simple. Start the corn ahead of time indoors. I use 2 1/2 -inch pots or the larger cell packs that come 48 to a standard 10-by-20-inch planting flat. Plant the corn one or two to a pot in early April. Use moistened potting soil or germinating mix. Cover it with a sheet of plastic wrap to keep in the moisture, and put it in a warm place to germinate. Check your plants daily. In a few days, when they have begun to sprout, remove the plastic wrap. Put the infant plants on a warm, sunny (south-facing) windowsill or under grow lights about 3 inches above the plants. Thin the corn so there is only one plant per pot.

After a week or 10 days, give the plants a nutritional boost with kelp emulsion or another balanced 10-10-10 plant food. Corn is a heavy feeder, and light but continuous fertilization is needed for stocky, healthy plants. Avoid fertilizers with high P (potassium) values at this point.

When considering where to plant the corn in the garden, keep in mind that for good pollination and well-filled ears, corn should be planted in blocks at least five rows deep. More is better. Corn is wind-pollinated, and the pollen from adjacent tassels has a better chance of reaching all the silks this way.

Dig the soil deeply and add balanced soil amendments like bone meal, dried blood and rock phosphates. Add some extra So-Po-Mag or other high-phosphate fertilizer. It will do wonders to get the plants off to a quick start.

Cover the corn patch with either black plastic mulch or growers' paper (a black, biodegradable weed barrier). This is not just for weed control, but to help the soil warm up more quickly and stay warm.

Watch the dogwoods

Plant the corn seedlings through holes cut in the plastic mulch. Use the standard spacing recommended on the seed packet. This should be done about the first week of May, or when you are satisfied the threat of hard frost has passed. My rule of thumb is the old American Indian adage that corn should be planted when the dogwood is in full bloom.

Cover the corn with a floating row cover. The row cover serves three purposes. It keeps the corn warm, protects against the freak late frosts we seem to have had in the last few years, and prevents crows from pulling up the seedlings -- a favorite avian hobby.

When the corn is about 10 inches high, remove the row cover. Leaving it on too long may abrade the leaves.

When the corn is knee-high, it will benefit greatly from a side dressing of azomite or alfalfa meal. Such well-timed boosters of mild fertilizers high in phosphates will encourage your corn to make strong, rapid growth and ensure good production.

Weed as needed and try to hill up the earth a little around the base of the stalks. Other than that, you can pretty much let nature do the work until after the corn has tasseled.

After tasseling occurs, dust or spray the ears with Bt, var. kurstaki to deter corn earworms. This is marketed under various trade names. Dipel and Safer Bt Caterpillar Attack spray are the most common.

As for varmints, I can't offer much advice. Planting pumpkins under the corn sometimes helps, but not always.

By July 4 you should be eating your own fresh, home-grown corn on the cob!

SOURCES

W. Atlee Burpee & Co. 300 Park Ave. Warminster, Pa. 18974 800-888-1447 www.burpee.com

Johnny's Selected Seeds Foss Hill Road RR 1, Box 2580 Albion, Maine 04910 207-437-4301 www.johnnyseeds.com

Park Seed 1 Parkton Ave. Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001 800-845-3369 www.parkseed.com

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