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How To Grow Sweet Corn At Home + 8 Ways To Use It

Corn – technically maize (Zea mays) – was first domesticated by indigenous peoples of southern Mexico some 10,000 years ago.

A product of human intervention, corn as we know it does not exist naturally in the wild. It is believed to have been derived from the selective breeding of teosinte, a wild grass with few edible seeds. It took several generations for teosinte to elongate and form tightly packed rows of edible kernels that resemble the corn cobs we know today.

About Sweet Corn…

Much of the corn grown today is dent or field corn, a starchy variety that is harvested when the kernels are dry. It is used for animal feed, biofuel, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn meal, and other food manufacturing. When corn is mature, it is considered a cereal grain.

Sweet corn, on the other hand, is the result of a naturally occurring genetic mutation that controls the conversion of sugar to starch in the kernel. This causes sweet corn to have two to four times more sugar content than field corn. While corn typically loses its sweetness as soon as it is picked off the plant, these super sweet varieties retain their sugar content for up to two weeks after harvest. Sweet corn ears are harvested while still immature. When eaten fresh, it is considered a fruit.

Typically growing to a height of 10 feet, corn plants have a thick stem comprised of about 20 internodes. A pair of long leaves extend from each node and ears develop just above the leaf. The plant is topped with the “tassel”, a cluster of male flowers that resemble wheat.

Corn cobs grow to around seven inches in length and are covered in tightly wrapped leaves known as the husk. The hairy tufts that emerge from the top of the cob are known as “silks”, these are the female flowers. Each strand of silk is connected to a single ovary that will develop into a kernel when fertilization is successful. After the corn is shucked, even rows of yellow or white fruits are revealed. A single ear of corn often holds around 600 kernels.

There are numerous varieties of sweet corn available in three types – normal, sugar enhanced, and super sweet. As a general rule, the sweeter the cultivar, the longer the storage life after harvest.

To grow baby corn, simply harvest corn ears when they are two to four inches in length.

How To Grow Sweet Corn:

Sweet corn is an easy crop to grow at home. It is a warm season plant that thrives in long, hot summers.

Light Requirements – Choose a spot in your yard that receives at least six hours of sunlight each day. Strong winds can easily flatten your crop so choose a site that is somewhat sheltered.

Soil – Corn plants prefer aged, fertile soil. When possible, amend garden plots with compost or manure in the fall before sowing seeds the following spring. Otherwise, you may add a 10-10-10 fertilizer into the soil before planting.

Corn Varieties – Available in dozens of yellow, white, and bicolor cultivars, most backyard gardeners should stick to one type per season. Corn is wind pollinated and different varieties should be kept separated by a minimum of 800 feet to prevent cross pollination – which can ruin the entire crop.

Sowing – Sow seeds directly into the soil two weeks after the risk of frost has passed. Ideally, soil temperature should be above 60°F for successful germination. Plant seeds 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Because corn is pollinated by wind, it’s more efficient to plant them in blocks (a minimum of four by four) instead of long rows. When seedlings are 4 inches tall, thin them so they are 12 inches apart.

Watering ­– When seeds are planted, water the site well; corn needs a lot of moisture to germinate. Once sprouted, they need a minimum of 1 inch of water each week for good growth.

Fertilizer ­– Sweet corn shouldn’t need much additional fertilization, but if you notice it could use a boost, choose an NPK balanced fertilizer.

Companion Plants ­– Corn is one of the Three Sisters and grows particularly well alongside beans and squash plants. These three have a mutually beneficial relationship – corn provides support for beans to climb, beans release nitrogen into the soil, and squash block sunlight from the soil to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and act as a living mulch. Other good companions include beets, cucumber, dill, melons, peas, potatoes, parsley, and sunflowers. Avoid planting corn next to celery and tomatoes.

Supports – Although corn can grow pretty tall, they are study plants that shouldn’t need additional supports. If, however, bad weather or foraging animals topple your plants, use individual stakes on each plant.

Pollination – Once the silks of the corn plant emerge, you can assist with pollination by gently shaking the plant to loosen the pollen.

Harvest – Depending on the variety, sweet corn should be ready to harvest in 60 to 90 days after sowing. When the silks begin to turn brown, peel a bit of husk back and prick a kernel with a fingernail. If a milky liquid comes out, it is ready to harvest; if the liquid is clear, it needs more time to mature. Pick corn off the plant by pulling ears downward and twisting.

8 Uses For Sweet Corn:

1. Corn Is Quite Nutritious

Whether steamed, boiled or grilled on the barbeque, sweet corn has a deliciously mild and pleasant taste. It is also low in calories and fat, high in fiber, and provides a good amount of vitamins and minerals:

Per Cup of Sweet Corn     % of DV
Calories 177 9%
Protein 5.4 g 11%
Fiber 4.6 g 18%
Fat 2.1 g 3%
Vitamin A 431 IU 9%
Vitamin C 10.2 mg 17%
Vitamin E 0.1 mg 1%
Vitamin K 0.7 mcg 1%
Thiamin 0.4 mg 24%
Riboflavin 0.1 mg 7%
Niacin 2.6 mg 13%
Vitamin B6 0.1 mg 5%
Folate 75.4 mcg 19%
Pantothenic Acid 1.4 mg 14%
Iron 0.7 mg 4%
Magnesium 42.6 mg 11%
Phosphorus 123 mg 12%
Potassium 348 mg 10%
Zinc 1 mg 7%
Copper 0.1 mg 4%
Manganese 0.3 mg 13%

Sweet corn is also a good source of ferulic acid and carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin. When cooked, corn’s antioxidant activity is enhanced – one study on this subject found that heating corn to 239°F for 25 minutes increased total antioxidant activity by 44%, boosted ferulic acid content by 550% and total phenolics by 54% but reduced vitamin C levels by 25%.

2. Popcorn

For home grown popping corn, let ears mature on the plant until kernels are hard and husks are dry. Remove husks and hang in a mesh bag in a warm, well ventilated spot. After a few weeks, remove kernels by rubbing two ears together over a bucket. Store popcorn kernels in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

3. Corn Flour

Corn flour – also known as corn meal – is a versatile gluten free grain. It is naturally enriched with protein, fiber, B vitamins and minerals.

A key ingredient for corn bread and tortillas, corn flour can also be used to make pizza crusts, cookies, cakes, and more.

To make maize flour from scratch, you’ll need a grain grinder and pickling lime. Though a bit time consuming, the process for making corn flour is really easy – and you’ll never have tastier tortilla.

Here are step-by-step instructions for how to make authentic Mexican maize flour.

4. Corn Syrup

A healthier alternative, homemade corn syrup is a liquid sweetener used in baking and candy making. While maple syrup and honey are similar sweeteners, some recipes call specifically for corn syrup since it prevents sugar from re-crystalizing.

It’s less intense than store bought corn syrup because it doesn’t contain high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient. It’s still super sweet though, with a slight corny flavor.

To make, all you need is a cup of sugar and two cups of fresh corn kernels. See the complete recipe here.

5. Corn Husks

Once the cobs are off the corn stalk, a lot of vegetative matter is left behind. Though the leaves and husks are typically tossed away, there are a few ways to put them to good use.

When leaves are still green, rinse them well in clean water and wrap up foods – like fish or vegetables – for steaming on the grill like so. Or make some tamales.  

Hang corn leaves to dry for later use. Rehydrate them by soaking them in water for about 30 minutes or until softened.

6. Corn Silks

Rich in antioxidants and other phytochemicals, corn silks are another often overlooked part of the corn plant. Corn silks have long been used to treat urinary infections and kidney stones in traditional Chinese, Native American, and Turkish medicine.

A research review published in 2012 identified several potential therapeutic uses for corn silks. These include anti-depressant, anti-fatigue, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties.

The easiest way to consume corn silks is to brew them into tea. Using fresh or dried silks, add two tablespoons to two cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the out the silk. You can then add honey, lemon, or lime to flavor.

7. Corn Cobs

Though spent corn cobs are great additions to your compost pile, here are some other worthy applications:

8. Save The Seeds

It’s ridiculously easy to save corn seeds from one growing season to the next. When sowing in the spring, allow for one or two extra corn plants for the purpose of seed saving.

As with popcorn, let the plants fully mature and harvest when husks are brown. Set them to dry in a mesh bag or on a wire screen. Seeds are ready to harvest when they are hard and come easily off the cob. Store them in a cool, dry place for up to three years.