Nothing says summer like fresh corn from the garden, so sweet you can eat it right off the stalk. Corn of any kind (sweet, popcorn, ornamental, or dent) can be easy to grow if you have sun, plenty of water, and rich soil. Having an understanding of corn pollination helps, too.
Like other grasses, wind, rather than insects, pollinates corn, so it needs to be sown in blocks or parallel rows rather than single rows. This planting technique, along with some wind, ensures the pollen from the tassel will reach each and every silk on the ear. The tassel grows from the very top of the stalk and eventually opens, releasing pollen at about the same time the silks are emerging. This magical timing of tassel and silk emerging to shed and accept pollen is called “nick”, as in, “in the nick of time” (the exact instant at which something has to take place.) Each silk, when pollinated, forms an individual kernel on your soon-to-be succulent ear of corn. If every silk is not pollinated, you’ll see some holes or skips on the ears. To ensure that each silk is pollinated, you can always hand-pollinate. Once the silks emerge and the tassel begins dropping pollen, snap off the tassel and brush it on multiple plants’ silks, and voilá!—pollination has occurred. Sweet corn will be ready to eat about 3 weeks after the silks appear. Look for brown silks (not dried) and, plump ears. Then you can pull back a small portion of the husk to see how things are progressing. Sweet corn is at its peak when the liquid in the kernels turn from clear to a milky color.
Even among sweet corns there are several types. Here is some handy information, which can help you choose the right fit for your palate: Sugary (su) sweet corn is the original type of sweet corn with higher amounts of short-lived sugar than flint or dent corn. Sugary Enhanced (se) sweet corn has higher amounts of sugar and is tenderer than su types. Shrunken/Supersweet (sh) sweet corn seeds are smaller or “shrunken”, and are even sweeter, holding their sweetness the longest.
I don’t stop at sweet corn! I am not one to follow convention, and every year I also add corn to my flower beds as an ornamental; their big strappy leaves add lush texture, and the Striped Japonica variety adds big flare with its striped pink, green, and white leaves. Once I am done using the beautiful Strawberry and Dakota Black popcorn ears for autumn decorations, they get put into the popcorn pan, popping up into traditional snowflake-shaped popcorn. Our newest popcorn is Robust Pop 400MR, a variety that pops up into little mushroom-shaped popcorn, the kind you use for kettle corn. The kids really get a kick out of pulling the jewel-like kernels off the cob and popping them over the stove. I can just about smell the kettle corn now!