After planting, keeping your corn watered is your most important concern, especially during pollination. If corn suffers a drought then, you'll end up with only a few kernels on each cob. Use drip irrigation or a soaker hose to get the water right to the corn's roots. An inch or two of mulch (straw or grass clippings work well) between the stalks helps keep the soil moist. If you grow squash amidst the corn hills, its leaves will act as a living mulch, but it will also compete with the corn for moisture, so soak the soil well when you water. Sidedress the stalks with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer a month after planting your corn, then again when tassels appear. Perhaps the most important favor you can do for your corn is to hand-pollinate to ensure that each ear fills out completely. Lerner simply grabs the tassels and shakes them to distribute the pollen to the silks below. A more time-intensive method is to gently shake the tassels into a small paper bag, collecting the pollen, then sprinkle the pollen onto the emerging silks, repeating once or twice over the next few days.
Birds (especially crows), insects, and raccoons seem to love corn as much as we do. The most widespread pests are European corn borers and corn earworms. You can outwit the former by planting a week or two after the soil warms and avoiding the borers' emergence. The best way to foil corn earworms is to choose a variety that is resistant to this pest because it has a tight husk. If you notice corn earworm during the season, help prevent infestation by applying a small amount of a 20-to-1 mix of BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) and mineral oil to the silk at the ear tip just as the silk begins to wilt. (You can get a special tool for applying this treatment, Zea-Later II, for $79 from johnnyseeds.com.) If larger critters like birds and raccoons are getting to your corn, try wrapping duct tape around the ear an inch above the stalk and an inch below the tip. (See, duct tape really is a cure-all.)
Picking and Eating
Though seed packets list maturation dates for each variety, the timing for when corn has reached its peak varies according to your specific conditions and what the climate has been like during the growing season. Check yours when the silks are brown and damp by poking a fingernail into a kernel-it's ready when the liquid that squirts out is milky. Sweet corn has a window of just a few days at its peak before the sugars start turning to starch, so if it's not possible to pick it all within that time frame, use older, starchier ears in cooked dishes like stews and chowders. After all, nothing says summer like the sweet pleasure of starting a pot of water on the stove, racing out to the garden to pick a handful of ears, and eating it just a few short minutes later. Gretchen Roberts, a food and gardening writer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, can just about taste this summer's first ear of corn right now.
How Many Ears? A reliable rule is to sow three seeds for each plant you want to grow, and to thin to the strongest seedling, since corn's germination rate is around 75 percent. Plant about 15 plants per person for fresh sweet corn, plus 30 or more plants per person for freezing and canning.