Allotment sweetcorn

I lost Sunday to sweetcorn, but it’s a loss I was more than willing to incur.

When I set out on the allotment journey, many years ago, self-sufficiency was a bit of a grail. I soon realised that I could indeed be self-sufficient, but that to do so, and to maintain any of the rest of my lifestyle, I’d have to commit to living on potatoes, pumpkins, apples and kale for quite a lot of the year. I’ve got to say that it wasn’t a palatable prospect.

Instead, OH and I now aim to be ‘self-sufficient in the luxuries’, a vaguely paradoxical statement that sounds Zen but is actually very practical. Our luxuries are, in no particular order:

• Asparagus
• Strawberries and raspberries
• Sweetcorn
• Early new potatoes
• Fresh herbs
• Premium salad greens and salad flowers
• Shallots
• Tomatoes
• Purple sprouting broccoli

And to those I add my personal luxury: fresh flowers.

These are the things that cost a fortune in the shops, aren’t around for long, and make life worthwhile! We aim to produce all of them from the allotment or the garden.

Sweetcorn, home grown, is nothing like the stuff from supermarkets. Okay, their sweetcorn is astonishingly regular and symmetrical but it lacks the superb flavour you obtain by picking and eating sweetcorn when it’s totally fresh. I know this to be true because OH spent a summer working as a sweetcorn stripper on the Isle of Wight and even when he brought the rejected sweetcorn home at the end of the day, it wasn’t as sweet as it is when we pick it and cook it within the hour.

There’s a reason for this: the sugars in sweetcorn begin to convert to starch as soon as the cob leaves the plant. If your corn is three days old, the sugar will have become around 80% starch and it just doesn’t taste as good.

We grow our sweetcorn in beds that we’ve composted the year before. Our favourite varieties are Lark and Swift, both of which are classed as ‘super sweet’ and we grow them from seed every year. Getting corn to germinate is tricky: it has a very tight temperature/humidity tolerance and we’ve often lost a crop because it’s got too cold/damp at several inches tall. Now we start later in the year, use a bottom heating propagator, and ensure lots of air around and between the pots.

They really need a long careful hardening off, so we use that time to get the beds ready. We dig over and rake, then spread a little granulised fertiliser and water in, around mid April, ready for planting out in May. We set our plants about 30cm apart, in a grid to ensure that the male flowers at the top get to shake their pollen over as many female flowers as possible, and we give them a windbreak.

For us wind shelter is necessary, as Sussex is not kind to sweetcorn plants: strong winds can bend or snap the tall plants and we use trellis ‘corners’ with horticultural fleece stretched around them to about 24 inches high just to protect the plants until they are tall enough to stand firm.

When they’ve been in the ground a fortnight, we hoe between the plants to remove weeds and then mulch them with sheets of newspaper, tearing holes for each seedling, and set large plastic drinks bottles to half their depth into each grid of 4 plants, so that we can water the bottle, not the paper. This helps keep the soil damp, stops annual weeds germinating, and ensures that the roots drive down to find the water which arrives quite a bit below the surface so that the plants are less prone to being rocked by the wind.

In late June I spread barley straw over the paper – this reflects light back into the plants and so that the cobs ripen more quickly. When the tassels turn brown, the cobs can be harvested. And then you end up blanching and freezing 20 of them on Sunday, while munching your way through a couple more 'just to keep your strength up'. It's a hard life, this self-sufficiency lark!

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Posted by The Allotment Blogger on Thursday, September 1, 2011


Blogger Joanna said...

Gosh that does sound a lot of hard work for sweetcorn, I am afraid ours doesn't get that much pampering and maybe our cobs don't get as big as yours, I don't know or we just got lucky.

We start ours off under plastic outside. In England we used to use an old clothes airer, placed over the ground a week or so before planting to warm the soil up, here in Latvia my husband has made a 2ftx4ft frame and we put a plastic lid on it, which he also constructed. We usually plant out around mid-May here in Latvia as we have better summers but a late start, in England it was sometime around the beginning of May. We used to find that sweetcorn sulked if they were moved but enjoyed being under their plastic covers for as long as possible.

September 1, 2011 at 7:06 AM  
Anonymous Damo said...

Sweetcorn's one of our favourites, it's well worth the effort.

September 1, 2011 at 12:47 PM  
Blogger Mal's Allotment said...

I like your philosophy - and share it to some degree. But living in Scotland (and not having a proper greenhouse) sweetcorn is a no no. I give myself a medal if I can get tomatoes to ripen. (The first one has turned in the last day or two.)

Amongst luxuries I would include Rhubarb as the supermarkets charge about a pound a stick for it! Cavalo Nero is similarly overpriced. Seacale beat is only available if you grow it yourself. Can you buy carrots that taste as good as home grown? The list does tend to grow...

September 2, 2011 at 4:59 AM  

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