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How and When to Pick Corn

by Jack Grover
Reading time: 10 min Prefer to listen?

Harvesting corn at the perfect time is a science as much as it’s an art, ensuring the peak of sweetness and tenderness that elevates a simple ear of corn into a summer delight.

Whether you’re a seasoned farmer or a backyard gardening enthusiast, understanding when and how to pick your corn can vastly improve its quality. This guide will arm you with the necessary knowledge to gauge the perfect picking time, the right way to harvest, and how to store your bounty.

Let’s unlock the secrets of harvesting perfect corn!

Types of Corn

Not all corn is made equal. There are three primary types of corn you’ll find:

  • Dent corn, recognized by its indentation or ‘dent’ on each kernel when dry, is typically used for livestock feed.
  • Sweet corn is the variety most familiar to us; it’s what we toss on the grill or boil for dinner.
  • Popcorn is a special type of corn that explodes from the kernel when heated.

Learn More: Can You Grow Corn from Popcorn?

As such, you’ll find varieties with kernels that vary from the familiar yellow to blue, red, and even multicolored, with each type of corn having its own unique growth pattern and picking time.

For this article, we’ll focus primarily on sweet corn as it’s the most common for home gardeners and the preferred choice for your dinner plate — it’s relatively easy to grow and rewards you with a taste that is unparalleled.

When to Pick Corn

Timing is everything when it comes to harvesting corn. Pick too early, and you’ll be left with underdeveloped kernels; too late, and the sugar has converted to starch, leaving you with tough, flavorless ears.

Each variety has its own rhythm, maturing anywhere from 72 to 110 days after planting the seeds. It’s vital to check your seed packet for the “days to maturity” information, as it will provide you with an estimated timeline for when your corn should be ready for harvesting.

Sweet corn should be picked when the silks are brown but not dried out, usually 17-20 days after the silk first appears. The kernels should feel plump through the husk.

However, timing isn’t solely dependent on counting days. Paying attention to the subtle signals of the corn plant can guide you toward a successful harvest.

The silks — those fine, threadlike strands adorning each ear of corn — play a crucial role here. Approximately 20 days after their appearance, the corn should have developed adequately.

Harvest signals are easy to spot:

  • brown silks but green husks,
  • a plump ear nestled near the top of the stalk.

Lower ears on the stalk may not mature simultaneously with their higher counterparts; they’re typically smaller initially but will catch up in due course. 

Before you get into harvest mode, perform a “milk stage” test. This involves poking a kernel with your fingernail — if the liquid inside looks milky, your corn is ripe for picking. If it’s clear, give it another day or two before testing again.

Conversely, if there’s no liquid in the kernels, unfortunately, you’ve missed the optimal harvest window.

How to Harvest Corn

Harvesting corn is an exercise in gentle strength — but it’s pretty straightforward:

  1. Start by grabbing hold of the ear firmly, then twist and pull downwards in one solid motion. If your corn is ripe, the ear should detach from the stalk with ease, husk and all.
  2. Avoid yanking straight out, as this can damage the stalk and prevent further ears from developing.
  3. Once harvested, strip away the husks and silks — unless you’re planning a barbecue, in which case leave them intact for grilling.

Be sure to check for any tiny caterpillars at the tip — they have a fondness for sweet corn, too!

Related: What To Plant With Corn To Keep Bugs Away?

To maximize sweetness, pick your corn early in the morning before the sun has had a chance to warm the ears. This is because heat accelerates the conversion of sugars in the kernels to starch — the sweeter your corn, the slower this process has been allowed to occur.

A golden rule of corn harvesting is to only pick as much as you can eat unless you intend to preserve your crop for later use. However, ensure that all your sweet corn within the “milk stage: is harvested to avoid any waste of those deliciously ripe kernels.

How to Store Fresh Corn

Keeping your freshly picked corn fresh can be a challenge. To savor its fresh-from-the-garden flavor, it’s best to consume your corn within a week of harvesting.

The sugars in sweet corn start converting to starch as soon as it’s picked. To slow this process down, get your corn into a refrigerator as quickly as possible. Just place them in a gallon plastic bag and aim to cook them within two days. To prevent moisture build-up that could hasten spoilage, wrap the cobs in paper towels before placing them in the plastic bag.

If you can’t consume all your fresh-picked bounty at once, consider blanching and then freezing your corn. This process involves briefly boiling ears whole before dunking them in cold water and then freezing them, thus perfectly preserving those sweet summer flavors for months to come.

Saving Corn Seeds

For those looking to go full circle with their gardening efforts, saving seeds from your best ears of corn can be rewarding.

Here are a few simple steps to follow:

  1. Quantity matters. Aim to save at least 500 seeds to ensure genetic consistency, as cross-pollination with other corn varieties can result in slight variances in the seeds.
  2. Post-harvest drying is essential to prevent mold growth. You could either pull back the husks — leaving them attached as a convenient hanger — or remove them entirely and lay the cobs out on a rack or screen. Whichever method you choose, remember to keep them out of direct sunlight.
  3. Separating the kernels from the cob requires a simple twisting motion of your hands. If you have a sizable number of ears to process, consider investing in a corn sheller—a handy tool designed for this task.
  4. Once completely dry, store your kernels in mason jars placed in a cool, dry, and dark environment. There they will wait patiently until it’s time for them to spring to life in next year’s garden.

Conclusion

Picking corn may sound like an easy task — but knowing when and how to do it properly ensures you get the most out of every ear.

Whether you’re growing acres or just a few stalks in your backyard, understanding these basics can lead you toward a successful harvest fit for even the grandest summer feast!

After all, there’s nothing quite like biting into an ear of perfectly ripe sweet corn that was picked just hours ago in your own garden.

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