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Sweet? Sweeter? Sweetest? What's best?

CORN IS SWEETER than ever, and gardeners are raving about the newer varieties. Not only do they taste sweeter, but the sweetness lasts much longer after harvest than it did in the old-fashioned corn our parents and grandparents grew.

What makes the corn so sweet? It's in the genes. One type, called "sugary enhanced" has a gene (labeled "se" in catalogs) that modifies the normal gene for sweetness, making kernels much more tender and sweeter (although sweetness varies among varieties). The conversion from sugar to starch is somewhat slower after harvest than in older varieties, so the corn stays sweeter for many days after picking.

The supersweet varieties (shrunken-gene types, labeled "s|h.sub.2~") are even sweeter than sugary enhanced varieties, and they'll stay sweet up to two weeks if they are stored in a refrigerator.

May is an ideal time to plant sweet corns. (If you live in the lower deserts, plant earlier in spring or in late summer.)


All this sweetness has initiated a debate among gardeners. One side claims the sugary enhanced varieties have a perfect balance between sweetness and old-fashioned corn flavor--and that supersweets are too sweet and don't taste like corn. On the opposite side are gardeners who prefer the supersweets.

At Sunset's Menlo Park, California, headquarters, we decided to join the debate, so we planted sugary enhanced and supersweet corn in our test garden. A jury of "experts" rated the harvest.

Since many breeders are focusing on these sweeter corns, gardeners can now choose from dozens of varieties. One catalog mentioned at right lists 25 types of sugary enhanced and 13 types of supersweet, with names like 'Kiss and Tell' (se) and 'Sweet Desire' (s|h.sub.2~).

How do you select from all these choices? The best way is to grow several kinds and evaluate their taste. (Planting tips follow.) Earliness may be important, depending on your climate. Some take less than 60 days to mature; others, more than 90.

Other things to look for in catalog descriptions are tolerance of cool soil, disease resistance, and plant sturdiness, especially if you live in a windy climate.


Differences in growing requirements for sugary enhanced and supersweet varieties are well documented. These differences may influence what kind you plant.

Most sugary enhanced types germinate much more readily than the supersweets. Because of the shriveled seed, supersweets generally need warmer soil (65|degrees~ to 75|degrees~) and less moisture to sprout.

One trick is to plant the supersweets shallower, from 3/4 to 1 inch deep rather than the typical 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Also, plant in moist, not wet, soil. Both kinds need full sun.

To avoid tough, tasteless corn, isolate the supersweets by at least 60 feet from all other corn types (including other supersweets), so they won't cross-pollinate. Or, time planting so that maturity dates are at least 10 days apart. (If a 69-day variety is planted next to a 77-day type--an 8-day maturity difference--you need to plant the 77-day corn at least 2 days after the 69-day corn.) Sugary enhanced types don't need to be isolated from themselves or other corn, but you should isolate white and bicolor from yellow or they all will be bicolor.


All varieties are heavy feeders. At planting time, till in a high-phosphorus fertilizer (for instance, 10-15-15 or 8-10-8). Then side-dress with the same fertilizer when the corn is 6 inches high and again when it begins to tassel. Place the fertilizer 6 to 8 inches from the stalks and mix it into the top 1 to 2 inches of soil (keep it away from tender corn shoots).

To ensure pollination, plant in blocks of at least four rows and do not overcrowd. Plant seeds 3 to 4 inches apart in rows 30 to 36 inches apart; thin to 10 to 12 inches apart. If you're tight on space, plant two rows a foot apart, with the double rows 3 feet apart. If your soil is heavy clay, plant in raised beds.

Water corn regularly and deeply to encourage deep rooting. Also, be sure to supply plenty of moisture when the ears are forming; if the soil dries out during pollination, ears may not fill completely. Rain at this stage may also cause unfilled ears.


For the best selection of corn varieties, order by mail. Catalogs are free.

Johnny's Selected Seeds, 310 Foss Hill Road, Albion, Maine 04910; phone (207) 437-9294.

Harris Seeds, 60 Saginaw Dr., Box 22960, Rochester, N.Y. 14692; (716) 442-0410.

Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, S.C. 29647; (800) 845-3369.

Stokes Seeds Inc., Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240; (416) 688-4300.

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18991; (800) 888-1447.


ON AN AUGUST AFTERNOON we gathered our jury of "experts" for a sweet corn taste panel.

The group included a food writer, a garden writer, and our head gardener (a corn aficionado raised in the Midwest). Other members were a second corn aficionado from the Midwest and the director of Sunset's test garden.

The jury tasted eight varieties of corn just harvested from the test garden. Three were sugary enhanced varieties ('Breeder's Choice', 'Double Treat', and 'Seneca Dawn'). The other five varieties were supersweets ('Honey 'N Pearl', 'How Sweet It Is', 'Top Notch', 'Phenomenal', and 'Silver Extra Sweet').

After cooking the corn until hot, the hungry jurors dug in. The hands-down winners were the sugary enhanced varieties, with 'Double Treat' and 'Breeder's Choice' the favorites. Four out of five tasters liked their "good corn flavor," which was "sweet but not too sweet," and their "tender and crunchy" texture.

One juror dissented, preferring the "very sweet and crunchy" 'How Sweet It Is'.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; sweet corn
Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Date:May 1, 1993
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