Vegetables

Sweetcorn

Sweetcorn - a view from the ground between the stems
Welcome to the sweetcorn forest!

I grew sweetcorn last year for the first time and was told that, once I’d grown it, I would never go back. It’s true, or at least partially true, as I love sweetcorn enough that I could never really grow enough to keep me going through the winter (although I seem to be giving it a good go this year!)

Despite what you may have heard, sweetcorn is quite easy to grow. Although I live in Essex, in the sunny south east of the UK, I have been reassured that it can be grown anywhere in England (non-English UK- please report in the comments!). There are a couple of things to keep in mind when you’re growing your corn to improve your chances.

First, I get mine in pots relatively early – around mid to end of April. I promise that it will bring you so much joy because the baby sweetcorn plants look just like adult plants, but in miniature and what could be better than miniature (honestly, I love things in miniature). You do need to keep them in the greenhouse until it warms up, so make sure you have space to keep them in small pots until they’re ready to go out. When they do go out, make sure you’ve added plenty of compost or manure to the ground.

Once you’re ready to plant out, make sure you do so in a warm, sunny, sheltered area. None of my patch is particularly sheltered, so if they’re looking a little bit vulnerable, loosely tie them to stakes while they’re still little. It’s really important that you leave a big loop when you tie them, because the stems will fatten up really quickly and you’re going to need to cut them off and remove the stakes before the tie gets too tight, otherwise you’re going to damage them. Remember, when you’re tying them to stakes, you’re just providing a little loose support from gusts of wind that might snap them.

A suggested arrangement for growing sweetcorn - avoid one single row
Try this arrangement for planting your sweetcorn

Equally important when you’re planting out is the arrangement. You may well plant everything else out in rows, but sweetcorn you need to plant in a grid. The tassels at the top of the plant are the male part and the silks – i.e. the strands that come off each cob that grows up the side of the stem – are the female. The tassels need to drop their pollen over the silks and planting in a grid means that wind pollination is more likely. I also find it helpful to give the plants a shake and maybe even spread some of the pollen around by hand. You’ll certainly need to do this if you plant in a row.

Close up of a sweetcorn growing on the stem to demonstrate the silks
The silks are the female part – look out for them changing when the corn is ripe

The roots stay relatively close to the surface, so they’ll need watering if it’s dry, particularly around the flowering and fruiting stage. You may wish to mulch around them to conserve water. You’ll also need to be careful when you’re weeding that you don’t damage the roots with a fork or hoe.

When the silks have shrivelled up and turned brown, the cobs are about ready. You can check whether they’re ready or not by peeling back the layers covering the corn and piercing one of the pieces of corn with your nail. If the liquid is watery, you need to leave them longer; if it’s dry and thick, it’s too late – when the liquid is creamy, you’re spot on and Goldilocks would be proud.

Sweetcorn is also one of the ‘three sisters’ in that particular method of planting, along with runner beans and trailing squashes. Although I’ve never tried it, it does seem a really good use of space. In summary, you would plant the sweetcorn at regular spacing(30-45cm), then plant runner beans to climb up the sweetcorn and finally the squashes to grow across the ground and provide cover. Maybe next year – I’ll let you know!

Eat the sweetcorn as soon as you can after picking it – the sugars eventually turn to starch and it won’t be as yummy (hence, homegrown being better than supermarket). You can boil the cob for around 10 minutes or, my favourite, wrap in tin foil with some butter and bake in the oven for half hour.

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