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Organic Gardening:

How to grow organic Corn


Though these have been husked, it's best to leave it to the very last minute before cooking.

Corn (Sweetcorn, Maize, Indian Corn)

Zea mays

Family: Gramineae (Group 9)

Though it's not advisable (especially in the UK), sweet corn is the only vegetable which will grow in darkness. It's actually a member of the grass family, although it comes from sub-tropical areas, and needs a lot of heat and a long growing season to do well.

Bob Flowerdew lives in Norfolk, and he gets a good crop - which is partly down to his well known expertise - but anyone living much further North than that may have some difficulties. You may be lucky with a "short season" variety, and if you are as fond of corn as I am, it's probably worth trying.

Wherever you're growing it, though, for the best flavour, you get the water boiling before you pick it, as the sugar turns into starch incredibly quickly. Try and get the corn into the water within 10 minutes of picking (but if you're an allotment gardener, don't break the speed limit on the way home!).

Site and Soil

Corn needs well prepared soil in a sheltered area with full sun. Although it does not like clay, almost any other soil is suitable, so long as it is deeply dug. Incorporate plenty of well-rotted organic matter and a couple of handfuls of fish, blood and bone per square metre/yard (don't forget to wear gloves).

Corn is wind-pollinated, so for best results, it should be planted in blocks. It likes a lot of water, so it is helpful to make the bed a couple of inches lower than the surrounding soil, so that you can really flood the area at watering time.

Sweetcorn does not like root disturbance, but because it needs a long season and a soil temperature of at least 10ºC (50&ormd;F) to germinate, the best way to get a good crop is to start it off indoors. Use rootrainers or peat pots, so as to minimise root disturbance when it comes time to plant out. Sow two seeds to each module around the third week in April, and thin to the strongest if both germinate. Harden off before planting out from mid-May, spacing plants about 45cm (18″) each way. If the weather is not all it might be, provide some protection in the form of a cloche or some fleece. Remove this when the weather heats up around the end of May.

Recommended varieties

Earlibelle The variety likely to do best in the more Northerly parts of the UK. Matures early, decent sized cobs and doesn't mind a bit of bad weather.
EarlikingAnother variety popular in Northern areas. Very sweet.
First of AllAnother short season variety, useful for more Northerly areas. Cobs are about 15cm (6″) long.
Kelvedon WonderAn old favourite with gardeners, now superseded.
SundanceThis one is bred from the old Kelvedon Wonder stock and has received an RHS Award.

Corn responds well to feeding with tomato fertiliser or comfrey liquid every 2 weeks during the growing season. Make sure that you water well in dry weather, particularly when the plants come into flower, and remove any more than 2 flowers per plant. If there is any problem with wind, earth up the plants to help them to stay upright.

When the silks appear, you can assist pollination (and ensure a better crop) by stroking each of the silks in turn. Just run the silk gently through your hand from top to bottom of each cob, then move on to the next.

Corn will be ready to harvest about 12 weeks after sowing. To check whether an individual cob is ready, peel back the husk and pierce a kernel with your thumbnail. The liquid should be like cream: if it is too watery, the cob is not ready, and if almost like cottage cheese, it is over-ripe. Twist off ripe cobs carefully when you are ready to cook them, and get them indoors and into the boiling water (or wrapped in foil and onto the barbecue) straight away.

Pests and diseases

Smut is a fungal disease which causes the appearance of green and white balls on the plants in hot weather. If you see this (unlikely in the UK, but with global warming, who knows?), cut them off and burn them to prevent the release of the spores when they mature and burst.

Corn borers haven't occurred in the UK up to now, but I have heard worrying rumours, so it may be best to keep your eyes open for them. They are the caterpillars of a brown or buff moth, and as you might expect, they bore into the corn, causing disease and a reduction in the size and sweetness of the crop. The same pest sometimes attacks peppers. The best treatment is to burn the affected plants or cobs (if only one on a plant is affected).

If you're interested in healthy food, you may also be interested in our sister site, The Health Site, Your Online Health Channel.

Article ©2007 Frann Leach. All rights reserved.

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