Straight up

Plump, sun-ripened corn is something I look forward to every summer. Picked fresh from the plant, cooked until tender, smothered with real butter, a sprinkle of flaky sea salt… and I am in heaven. Corn is an easy crop to grow if you provide the essentials. Its main requirements are full sun, a rich, fertile soil and plenty of water through the hot months.

Large, deep containers or planters are options, too, with old recycling bins the perfect size for a number of plants. To get the best results, put some work into the soil first. For growing in the garden, choose a position away from strong winds. Dig in bucket loads of chicken or sheep pellets before sowing seed or planting seedlings. If the soil still looks pale and lacking, add a barrow or two of good compost. Water thoroughly before planting to ensure the soil is moisture retentive. Seed requires moisture to swell and germinate. Parched, bone-dry soils are not a good place for corn to start its journey.

Seedlings versus seed

Seed is better value for money, however, seedlings are quicker to grow. If sowing seed, do this before the end of November to ensure a long enough growing period. The old American farmer’s rhyme about planting corn seed, “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the soil and one to grow”, is a bit excessive, but it doesn’t hurt to add a few extra if you have room. Birds are rather partial to corn seed and love to fossick around in freshly cultivated blocks. Netting the area until seed has germinated is a good insurance policy. Seedlings can be planted out up until Christmas. Plant at least five to seven plants per person in the household, as each plant will produce an average of three to four cobs. By planting early, mid and late season varieties, you can extend the harvest period by a good six to eight weeks. Corn is a tall crop, so plant it near the back of the vegetable patch, where it is protected from strong wind, but also in a way that it won’t cast a huge shadow over other crops. Plant in blocks, not rows, as this allows for better pollination. Space plants a trowel-length apart (20-30cm). Keep soil moist and weed free. Mulching between blocks helps with water retention and limits weed growth. Beans and peas can grow up corn, saving space in the vege patch. Corn needs a head start and both climbing crops will grow faster than corn. Once corn seedlings are planted or seed has germinated, sow the bean seed at the base of the corn.

Harvesting – when and how to pick

The plant indicates it is ripe in a few ways, starting with its tassels, which turn a golden brown colour when ready for picking. The cob will also start to move itself further away from the main stem and, once it is at a 45? angle, it is mature. If you don’t trust your judgement, pull back a bit of the husk and check if the cob looks like it’s ready. Corn cobs don’t all mature at the same time. You are best to leave the corn on the plant to ripen fully before you harvest. Sometimes, you will find your cob might not contain a lot of actual corn. This is often caused by a lack or water and/or nutrients during its development phase. Once the cob has grown, there is nothing you can do about a lack of corn kernels, other than make a note to remember to water corn more thoroughly next season. Corn is perfect cooked in its husk on the barbecue or in the microwave. A few minutes a side on the barbecue is all it needs, or nuke it for three to five minutes in the microwave. Serve with lashings of fresh butter, rock salt and freshly ground pepper.


‘Chieftain’ – yellow variety, renowned for its ability to produce an evenly filled cob.
‘Early Marika’ – compact, quick-growing, early cropping variety, with sweet, yellow cobs.
‘Honey and Pearl’ – white and yellow kernels. An old favourite.
‘Staysweet’ – early maturing, sweet, yellow variety.
‘Supersweet’ – a large, sweet, yellow variety that’s popular and reliable.
‘Xtra Tender Stellar’ – large cobs, excellent eating quality, and very tender kernels.

Did you know? Corn is monoecious, meaning it has both male and female flowers, found on each plant. Suckers produced around the base of the plant don’t produce cobs, but help the plant photosynthesise, so are still beneficial.

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Mulching between corn blocks keeps weeds at bay. Maximise the growing space by planting a few lettuces.

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Corn is adaptable to life in a container, as long as it’s got enough root room. Plants might not get as tall, but cobs will form just the same.

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These corn cobs are ripe and ready to pick. The brown tassels indicate this, as does the angle it’s leaning on, away from the main stem.