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Lucas Holman: Captivating corn

Lucas Holman • Updated Aug 1, 2018 at 10:00 AM

Corn is one of the most widely grown vegetables around with hundreds of kinds available to plant today in your home gardens. It can be used in so many ways such as corn meal, fresh off of the cob, popcorn and grits, just to name a few.  

You may have heard of the Native Americans using the Three Sisters method, which consists of corn, squash and climbing beans. The corn provides a support for the beans, and the squash is planted at the base of the corn to provide shade for the roots.  

There are so many different cultivars that the gardener should know what exactly they’re wanting to grow. Sweet corns are the ones that we typically eat whether that be off the cob, cream-style or niblet. Dent corn or field corn form a hard kernel that is used for corn meal, grits, etc. Before you purchase any corn seeds, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting.  

Growing up in East Tennessee everyone has their favorite corn that they have grown for many years. While visiting farmer’s markets, one can easily tell which favorite is the regional favorite. I’m always interested to see which kinds I see at local markets.  

Corn is a warm-season crop and needs soil temperatures of at least 60 degrees for good germination. Typically for Wilson County, the ideal planting time is the third week of April, but make sure you watch the weather forecast. This year, we had some extremely cold temperatures up until April 17. People will extend the season by planting corn again in May and June so the corn will come in at different times. In smaller gardens, it’s possible to have corn planted 10-12 inches apart with good growth still happening. Fertilization can be tricky and should always be done based upon the soil test recommendation. Initial fertilization should be followed by a soil test to indicate the types and amounts of fertilizer needed when planting. Sweet corn is a heavy feeder of nitrogen and side dressing corn with 1.5 pounds of ammonium nitrate per 100-feet row is recommended when the corn is 8-12 inches tall.

There are a few issues that can arise from growing corn, but the main one that we deal with is the dreaded corn earworm. This insect can decimate a cob of corn in a matter of days. It’s extremely discouraging to shuck a fresh ear of corn from the garden only to find the corn earworm in it. One of the ways to help prevent the corn earworm is by planting corn as early as possible, typically the third week of April for Wilson County. Another way to help prevent is by selecting cultivars that have tight-husked ears. This will help prevent the worm from gaining entry. There are many pesticide recommendations that will help deter earworms and those include Bacillus thuringiensis, Sevin and spinosad are a just a few of the recommendations. Be sure to read and follow all label instructions.  

Corn must be harvested when the silks are dried down and the kernels are filled out. The kernels will be milky when crushed is another sign that the corn needs to be picked. Harvesting corn at the right time helps ensure enough sugar is still in the kernels. 

With so many cultivars of corn available, one can easily get lost in which one to grow. Some of the regional favorites of sweet corns include Peaches and Cream, Incredible and Silver Queen. Most of the sweet corns will average anywhere between 90-120 days to harvest. Various field corns are also available to purchase such as Trucker’s Favorite and Hickory King.  The local favorite field corn is Neal’s Paymaster, which helped revolutionize seed corn production in Tennessee. This field corn was developed in Wilson County and was developed by William Haskell Neal because it had two ears per stalk. It was estimated that Neal’s Paymaster helped farmers by adding $2 million a year to the economy. It’s still available today and has stood the test of time.

If you have any questions regarding vegetables or any other horticultural matter in your garden or lawn, feel free to contact Lucas Holman, horticulture UT-TSU Extension agent in Wilson County, at 615-444-9584 or lholman1@utk.edu. The University of Tennessee Extension offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability and is an Equal Opportunity Employer. Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides real life solutions, ag.tennessee.edu.


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