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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In the Garden: Grow corn to indulge in summer’s favorite treat

To be successful at growing corn, plant them in blocks and provide the plants with support if you live in a windy area.  (Susan Mulvihill/For the Spokesman-Review)
To be successful at growing corn, plant them in blocks and provide the plants with support if you live in a windy area. (Susan Mulvihill/For the Spokesman-Review)
By Susan Mulvihill For the Spokesman-Review

Eating corn on the cob is one of my favorite summertime treats. It’s pretty hard to beat a sweet, freshly picked ear that has been cooked and topped with melting butter.

Sweetcorn has been a mainstay in my vegetable garden for as long as I can remember. As a warm-season crop, corn should be planted after the danger of frost has passed. In the Inland Northwest, that’s around May 15, but since Mother Nature can surprise us with one more frost, I’m aiming for late May.

Even though we have a roughly 120-day frost-free growing season, I recommend choosing corn varieties that will reach maturity in 85 days or less. Sweetness Bicolor, Bodacious and Peaches & Cream are three tasty options.

Each spring, I add an inch of compost to the surface of the corn beds. Every other year, I also add composted chicken manure.

I start my corn seeds indoors about two weeks ahead of time to give them a head start and to protect the newly sprouted seedlings from nibbling quail.

To plant the seeds, I place each one with the pointed end facing down in order to get the best germination possible. This orients the seeds properly so they can quickly root and send up a sprout. If you’d rather sow your corn seeds directly in the garden, wait until late May.

At transplanting time, I space the seedlings a foot apart within the rows and space each row a foot apart, as well. It’s important to plant corn in blocks of at least three rows rather than in a long, single row.

Why? Corn is primarily wind-pollinated. During the summer, each plant sends up tassels that contain grains of pollen. When the time is right – and if all goes according to plan – the pollen will drop and land onto the exposed silks below.

If you plant your corn in a single row, you might get spotty pollination, which will result in corn cobs with missing kernels. Multiple rows provide the pollen with more opportunities to land on the silks. Unfortunately, drought conditions can also impact the development of corn silks, so regular watering is crucial.

Once I transplant the seedlings into the garden, I fertilize them with a liquid nitrogen fertilizer to get them off to a good start, and again two weeks later. I also cover the soil surface with mulch to help the soil retain moisture and impede weed growth.

It’s amazing how quickly each cornstalk grows. Unfortunately, the plants have short, stubby roots, which is bad news if you live in an area that gets a lot of wind. Many years ago, I was admiring our corn patch one day, only to come out the following day and find all the stalks lying on the ground after a windstorm. What a depressing sight!

The following year, I started giving the plants extra support. Since I grow corn in raised beds, I place sturdy stakes at the corners of each bed and run jute twine around the perimeter of the planting at three different heights: 12 inches, 24 inches and 48 inches. If it gets windy, the twine allows the plants to sway slightly rather than snapping at their bases.

As harvest time approaches, I check the ears often for signs of ripeness: The kernels should have filled out the ears, and the silks should be brown, dry and brittle. It’s important to harvest the ears while the kernels are sweet rather than starchy.

Susan Mulvihill is author of “The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook.” She can be reached at susan@susansinthegarden.com. Watch this week’s video at youtube.com/susansinthegarden.

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