The sex life of sweet corn and how it helps you grow full, fat corn on the cob

Corn earworm on an ear of sweet corn.

The Scholar of Nature / ADOBE STOCK / Tips

Corn earworm on an ear of sweet corn.

Question

What was wrong with my sweet corn? There is nasty brown stuff on the tassel end of the cob and there are lots of spaces between the kernels.

Responnse

Your corn cobs harbor corn earworms, the larval stage of the moth Helicoverpa zea. These larvae are not picky about what they eat, so they are also known as tomato fruitworms and cotton bollworms.

And they don’t stop there. They will also work their way into squash, beans, peas, peppers, and potatoes. They even eat each other! Many larvae start feeding together leaving a mess of brown excrement (droppings) in their wake, but eventually the older larvae become cannibalistic until only one or two are left to burrow in the cob to feed in peace safe from predators inside the leaves protecting the developing corn seeds.

READ MORE:
* Sweet Corn Growing Guide
* Can I prevent my herbs from going to seed?
* How do gardeners water their gardens without using sprinklers?

Ears of sweet corn showing the results of poor pollination.

The Scholar of Nature / ADOBE STOCK / Tips

Ears of sweet corn showing the results of poor pollination.

Gappy sweet corn cobs are the result of poor pollination. For full fat ears, a pollen grain (male part) must reach each potential nucleus, an ovary (female part) on the ear.

Pollen from the flowers at the top of the sweet corn plants should reach the silky tassels of the immature cobs below.

BARBARA SMITH/Stuff

Pollen from the flowers at the top of the sweet corn plants should reach the silky tassels of the immature cobs below.

Pollen from the flowers at the top of the plants falls or is blown onto the sticky silken tassels protruding from the tips of the developing ears. The pollen grain sticks to the silk and forms a tube in the ovary.

Each silky filament leads to a potential kernel of sweet corn.

DIETMAR RABICH / WIKIMEDIA COMMO/Stuff

Each silky filament leads to a potential kernel of sweet corn.

Corn pollen moves in place with the wind, not the hairs of bees and flies. If you’ve wisely planted blocks rather than rows, there’s usually no need to do anything, as the wind is never far away in our breezy island nation.

Plant sweet corn in blocks for better pollination.

GROW / Tips

Plant sweet corn in blocks for better pollination.

But if your maize patch is small or you planted it in a single row, you can help by shaking the plants to release the pollen if there hasn’t been much wind.

You can also cut off a pollen-laden tassel (it will look yellowish when the pollen is fresh) and brush it over the silks, paying particular attention to the ears on the windward side of your cornfield. Repeat the process as full pollination can take four or five days.

Sweet corn is ripe when the silk turns dark brown.  To choose, twist and pull gently.  For the sweetest kernels, pick the corn just before cooking.

COMMON PIXABAYA / Tricks

Sweet corn is ripe when the silk turns dark brown. To choose, twist and pull gently. For the sweetest kernels, pick the corn just before cooking.

After pollination, wait a few weeks until the silks turn brown, indicating the corn is ready to be picked.


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