America’s summer sweetheart: fresh corn

Nothing completes a summer meal like fresh, sweet corn. With its roots in ancient Mexico, corn, Zea mays, is a cornerstone of both plot and plate. Bred by Native Americans, this grain and vegetable provides fuel for man, beast and machine (as ethanol). But growing those tasty, golden ears can be tricky for the home gardener.

Just like most Americans, corn needs space and community. For a successful harvest, plant a minimum of four rows, three feet apart. Since corn is a grass, like wheat, it relies on wind for pollination. The Native Americans grouped corn, bean and squash. The corn provides structure for the climbing bean and the low-growing squash prevents weeds. Corn prefers soil rich in nitrogen. Sow it with fava or soy beans, and they’ll “prepare the soil for good corn growth with their nitrogen-fixing nodules,” says Wilbur Claus of Medford’s Garden Patch Produce.

Good eating off the cob

“Our local white corn is the sweetest. That’s why this salad can’t fail,” says Dorathy Anderson-Thickett, owner of Medford’s Soup to Nuts Catering. She highlights the fresh kernels in her All-American Corn-off-the-Cob Salad and shares her basic recipe with Homelife readers.

“Corn arrives at the height of the summer season, so combine it with julienned zucchini, red and green bell peppers,” she says, “Decorate it with black sesame seeds and just toss and serve with your favorite vinaigrette.” She prefers giving it an All-American taste with a dressing of three parts corn oil to one part apple cider vinegar.

“I love the color and the flexibility of this salad. It’s Americana with a new spin on it,” touts Thickett. To demonstrate our multi-ethnic heritage, she suggests:

•For an Asian flavor, add julienned cucumbers and use rice vinegar.

•Take the salad south of the border by adding chopped cilantro and sliced jalapeno peppers.

• Blend in Herbs du Provence for a French flair or basil and marjoram for a little taste of Italy.

Corn also likes hot sun, and sandy-loamy soil rich with organic material. Once all danger of frost has passed, sow seeds about 1 1/2 to 2 ½ inches deep in an area protected from strong wind. Plant four to six seeds per foot, then thin to one plant every six to nine inches. Plant every two weeks to ensure a steady summer supply.

There are three main types of sweet corn: sweet, super-sweet and sugar-enhanced. Once plucked, traditional sweet corn’s sugars immediately start breaking down into starches. But super-sweet and sugar-enhanced varieties keep their sweetness for days. The Jackson County OSU Extension Center’s booklet “Grow Your Own Sweet Corn,” recommends: ‘Early Sunglow’ an early (64 days) hybrid sweet yellow corn; ‘Silver Queen’ (92 days) the most popular and very disease-resistant white corn; ‘Golden Bantam’ (65 days) a sweet, yellow heirloom corn; and two early white and yellow combinations ‘Harmony’ and ‘Butter and Sugar.’

Corn requires deep watering until ears are ripe and applications of balanced, organic fertilizer until the corn starts to “tassel.” Once pollinated, the kernels plump in about three weeks. “You’ll know your corn is ready to harvest when the tassels turn from a light to a darker color,” says Claus. His pick trick? Grab the stalk under the ear with one hand and give the ear a twist with the other.

And since corn is so sweet and nutritious, “there’s a little problem with birds coming in and eating the tops of the ears,” says Claus. He hasn’t found a good defense… aside from blasting a canon. “It’s quite effective, but the neighbors don’t like it.”

We don’t recommend it.

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