When it comes to different corn varieties and how they taste fresh picked from the garden, there is no substitute. Adaptability to the garden climate and flavor are the biggest considerations to keep in mind when you’re deciding which corn variety you want. You can choose from standard corn, supersweet corn, synergistic, or sugary enhanced corn varieties to eat. Here’s how these popular corn varieties differ:
Standard corn is the older variety that your grandparents grew, and it has a very tasty flavor profile. This category includes a range of open-pollinated and heirloom corn varieties, and they’ve been around for decades. Standard corn is best planted in cool soil as low as 55°F, and you should rush it to your kitchen and eat it within a few hours of harvesting it for the best taste.
Sugary Enhanced Corn
Sugary enhanced corn, as the name suggests, are hybrid corn varieties that will keep the sweet flavor for up to three days after you harvest it. The growers also have a three-day window to harvest once it ripens, and the harvest time is another thing to monitor closely to ensure your corn is as sweet as possible when you pick it. You won’t need daily monitoring though for this category, but you do have to hit that three day window for harvesting. It needs soil temperatures around 65°F, or 10° warmer than standard corn to grow.
This is another hybrid corn variety, and they offer the sweetest flavor profile of all. They’re even sweeter than sugary enhanced varieties, and their harvest window is between two and three days. This category can be very demanding when it comes to care requirements. For example, the soil can’t dip below 65°F, and it requires that you pre-warm the soil before you plant it by covering the soil with black plastic. It also is much less vigorous in growth than sugary enhanced or standard corn varieties.
This category combines the genetic traits of supersweet, sugary enhanced, and standard corn all in one cob. Each kernel will have different trains, and you’ll end up with a slightly sweeter ear than standard corn that is hardier than the sugary varieties. You don’t have to isolate it from other corn varieties either, and it can tolerate mechanical harvesting.
Choosing the Corn Varieties to Plant
The categories listed above are very broad, and each has different maturity dates, size, and sweetness to them. If this is your first time planting any corn variety, you want to touch base with your local nursery, gardening friends, or community garden coalition to figure out which varieties are the most successful in your area. Consider how much space you have, your growing season length, and your taste preference too.
For fresh eating, you’ll want to plant between 10 and 15 plants per person in your family. If you want to extend your harvest, you’ll sow an early-maturing corn variety every two weeks for six weeks. You can also plant early, mid-season, and late corn varieties all at one time. To avoid any cross pollination, you want to separate different cultivars with 400 or more yards between them and make sure you plant them so they tassel roughly two weeks apart. This goes doubly for supersweet corn varieties.
Corn is a very tall crop, so you have to carefully consider where you’re planting it to avoid shading other parts of your garden or flowers. The varieties have a huge height difference too. For example, some early season cultivars will only get four or five feet tall at full maturity while later season cultivars can easily reach or exceed seven feet.
Sweet corn will mature between 60 and 100 days from seed. You can find your maturity time on the seed packets. Seed packets and garden catalogs will also give you zone charts to help you understand how long the growing seasons are for different corn varieties.
Water Availability and Needs
Corn will grow the best when the soil keeps the same moisture levels between the 50% and 75% range, and this works out to roughly one or two inches of water every week. Some corn varieties can survive light droughts, but any variety you plant should have plenty of water when the cobs start forming. Adding a straw mulch layer around the base of your corn when the weather gets hot can help trap the moisture by the soil. The following will help you ensure your corn variety gets enough water:
- In order to thrive and grow as best they can, your corn plants will need roughly 1 ½ inches of water each week. Drought conditions can ensure you end up with small cobs and stunted plant growth.
- Water your corn in the morning so that the sun has time to dry out your plants to prevent water from staying on the ears and causing mildew growth.
- It’s better to do one long soak a week instead of several shorter watering sessions because the plants take nutrients and water through the roots.
- Consider the local rainfall when you water. Too much water can also stunt your corn variety’s growth because it compacts the soil and reduces the nitrogen content.
- Continue adding mulch throughout the growing season, adding more layers as the plants start to grow and mature to help suppress weeds and retain moisture.
Common amendments to add to your soil include glass clippings, compost, shredded leaves, straw, dried seaweed, and rotted manure. You can also include other organic materials like peels, chopped corn cobs, husks, spent garden plants, chopped stalks, coffee grounds, peanut shells, feathers, wood ashes, pet hair, shredded newspaper, spoiled hay, and small pieces of wool, cotton, or linen fabrics to help improve clay-based soil.
Bark, wood chips, and sawdust will also help amend the soil, but they’ll deplete the nitrogen content if you apply too much. It’s not recommended to use pine needles to amend the soil unless you also add lime to help counteract the acidic conditions resulting from the conifers decomposing.
Testing the Viability of Your Corn Seeds
Corn seeds are usually only viable for a single year, so you want to plant them the same year you purchase them. The average germination rate for most corn varieties is 75%, but you can increase this by testing your seed’s viability using the method we outlined below:
- Start by counting out some seeds. The more you use, the better your experiment results will be, but you don’t want to waste a lot of seeds you could grow.
- Soak the seeds for a minimum of four hours to overnight
- Put the seeds on a coffee filter or paper towel and close it with a rubber band or a bread tie.
- Wet the paper using a spray bottle until it’s fully saturated but not dripping wet.
- Pur the seeds and paper inside a clear plastic bag and close it. A glass jar or plastic container also works well for this process.
- Leave it be for three days before checking it and seeing the number of seeds that have a good root system started.
- Remove any sprouted seeds and close the coffee filter or paper towel before putting them back into the container.
- Make sure your paper stays damp but not soaked. If it’s dry, you’ll want to use a spray bottle to mist it again.
- Repeat this process every other day until no more of your corn seeds sprout. For most corn varieties, this will be between 7 and 10 days.
13 Corn Varieties to Consider
The following are 13 popular corn varieties that are good for eating, animal feed, or for use as fall decor items if you dry them out. They include:
1. Blue Hopi
This is a heirloom corn variety that produces five foot stalks with ears of corn that are seven inches long and very dark blue in color. This makes them extremely decorative. Traditionally, it is believed that if you ate this corn before you began a long journey, you were guaranteed to have a safe return. So, if you’re planning on going on any long trips in the near future, this could be a good corn variety to try.
You’ll get mature cobs in 100 to 100 days, so it does have a slightly longer growing season. It produces large ears of corn that are between eight and nine inches long with a very sweet flavor. You can eat it right when you harvest it or dry it out and use it to make tortilla flour.
2. Dent Corn
Dent corn is also called field corn, and this is a very easy corn variety to spot due to the fact that each individual kernel of corn has a dent in it. It has a low sugar and high starch content to it, and this means that it’s not juicy and sweet like the corn you purchase and eat from the grocery store or your local farmer’s market. Since it’s not meant to eat fresh, you harvest it at a mature stage when the kernels are dry before you process it.
Most dent corn you find growing in the United States is used as animal feed, but due to the soft starch content, it’s also popular to use as a grain in masa or chips. Dent corn is also popular for use in making bourbon or moonshine. The majority of this corn variety grown throughout the United States is yellow dent corn, but you can also find it in a range of colors.
3. Flint Corn
Flint corn is better known as calico corn or Indian corn, and it’s an even harder corn variety than dent corn. If you see a decorative corn or the fall-colored ones with the husks attached, it’s nearly always flint corn. However, flint corn is also a corn variety that has a high nutrient value, and once you dry the grains, you can use them for a range of foods, including corn flour, corn meal, polenta, hominy, and grits.
Flint corn comes with a harder outer shell, and this is what you turn into popcorn. The kernels get dried to a point where they only have a set moisture content left, and when you heat the dried kernels, the moisture turns into steam. This is what causes the kernel to turn inside out or pop. You’ll find this corn variety mostly growing in South America in Argentina. In the United States, you can find it in farmers’ markets or local stores listed as popcorn.
4. Golden Bantam
This is the corn variety that made yellow sweet corn so popular. Burpee first introduced this corn in 1902, but this was a time when people only wanted white kernels because this color signified that the corn was high-quality. However, this variety caught on very quickly since it sprouts very easily in cooler soil early in the spring. The stalks will only get roughly five feet tall at full maturity, and they’ll produce 5 ½ to 6 ½ inch ears. However, if you’re after an old-fashioned flavor, this is it.
5. Honey Select Hybrid
This is a triple sweet corn variety that will produce hybrid cobs that are always 25% SH2 and 75% SE. So, you’ll get a very sweet and rich flavor that is hard to beat. The ears are between eight and nine inches long, and you’ll be able to start harvesting them roughly 80 days after you plant them. They grow in stalks that get up to six feet tall, and it grows best when you put it in planting zones 3 to 11.
6. Heirloom Corn
There used to be dozens more corn varieties available, but industrial farming took this number and narrowed it down. Today, there are only a few corn varieties commercial farmers will grow. The end users of corn want a consistent selection each year, so this is what the larger-scale operations focus on. Heirloom corn is corn that doesn’t get mass produced, and it’s usually the corn varieties that have all but vanished. Fortunately, there are farmers that are bringing back the heirloom corn varieties that the Native Americans originally grew. It’s not an easy process, and when you think about Jimmy Red, it all came down to a South Carolina farmer and two ears of corn.
As the name suggests, Jimmy Red is a crimson dent corn that has an oily germ that was very popular in moonshine making. When the last bootlegger passed away back in the early 2000s, Ted Chewning, a South Carolina farmer, ended up with the last two ears of corn. He was a well-known seed saver, and he turned those two ears of corn into seed by cultivating them year after year. He gave seeds to other farmers and a few chefs, and this corn now has a cult following.
Famed Charleston chef Sean Brock uses this corn variety, and he has a tattoo of it on his arm. Several other Charleston chefs, including Jason Stanhope and Forrest Parker, use this corn to make grits. Jimmy Red also makes a nice moonshine. High Wire Distilling is a Charleston-based distillery that made two barrels of bourbon using the red corn from a 2014 crop. The 570 bottles then ended up cementing Jimmy Red’s status by selling out in 11 minutes.
7. Nirvana Hybrid
You get the best of various corn varieties with this hybrid. It’s bi-colored with white and yellow while being vigorous, sweet, and easy to grow all wrapped neatly in a husk. This is also a very high yielding variety that is perfect for anyone with a large family. It’s a SH2 corn variety, and the kernels are much plumper than you get with most SH2 cultivars. So, you’ll get a harvest that is much more like the SE, extra-sweet corn. It takes 72 days for the corn to reach full maturity, and it grows best under full sun.
8. Peaches and Cream
If you can’t decide if you want yellow or white kernels, this SE corn variety will give you a high yield of both colors. It reaches maturity between 80 and 83 days, and it tends to stay fresh for much longer than other options on the list. It was originally bred with roadside stands and markets in mind, and it does wonderfully in home gardens. The stalks will produce big eight-inch ears, and it is best planted in zones 3 to 11 in a location that gets full sun for 8 to 10 hours a day.
With so many corn products available on the current market, it’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t know what popcorn is. It’s a wonderful movie snack, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a theater that doesn’t sell it. Popcorn is a type of flint corn, and popcorn kernels have a hard outer shell that protects the soft starches. When you heat it, the outer shells convert the trapped moisture to steam, and this builds up until the kernels pop and expand to give you fluffy white pieces.
10. Ruby Queen Hybrid
This is a SE hybrid sweet corn, and it lives up to the name. As you may have guessed, this is a deep shade of red, and it offers very tender and sweet kernels. It grows well in a sunny spot with fertile, rich, and well-drained soil. You can pick it slightly early when it’s a blush red color to ensure it’s as sweet as possible, or you can allow it to ripen fully to give you that old-fashioned, rich corn flavor profile. The stalks get up to seven feet tall, and it can be ready to harvest in 75 days.
The ears on this corn variety will get up to eight inches long, and they have 18 rows of tender, juicy kernels. It’s recommended that you microwave or steam this corn variety to make the most of the rich color and flavor. As a bonus, the red stalks and tassels you’ll get with this corn make wonderful fall decorations.
Ruby Queen Hybrid by Phuong Nguyen / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
11. Silver Queen Hybrid
SIlver Queen is a popular late-season corn variety that is well worth it to grow in your garden. As the name suggests, this corn is a brilliant white color, and it’s a very productive cultivar with a lot of flavor. This corn can be slightly more delicate that most of the other corn varieties on the list to grow, but it’s a good choice to consider adding to your full sun vegetable lineup. It produces larger ears that are between eight and nine inches long, and they have 14 to 16 rows of white kernels. The stalks will get up to eight feet tall, and they’re ready to harvest in 92 days.
12. Stowells Evergreen
This open-pollinated, heirloom corn variety has a very interesting story attached to it. The name comes from Nathaniel Stonewall, the many who bred this corn. He spent decades developing this corn before he sold two ears to someone he thought was a friend for “private use” for $4.00. This friend went on to make a fortune with the seeds, and he introduced them to the market by selling them for $20,000. It’s not hard to see why this corn variety took off either, and it’s been around since the 1800s.
This SU cultivar is productive and hardy, and it produces white, tender, and very sugary kernels. The ears will also stay fresh in the field for a decent amount of time, and this is where the Evergreen portion of the name comes from. This corn matures slowly, and it needs between 95 and 100 days to harvest. The ears are between seven and eight inches long, and the stalks get just shy of eight feet high. It is best planted in full sunlight.
13. Sweet Corn
As the name suggests, sweet corn has a decently high sugar content. This is why it’s so desirable to eat as fresh corn. You pick this corn variety while it’s immature because the sugar won’t have time to turn to starch. This is called the milk stage. Fresh sweet corn is very juicy, and the juice is how you get the creaminess in cream corn. This corn is available in yellow, white, or colored varieties. If you find it in the grocery store, it’s usually just labeled “corn.” You may find super sweet corn varieties, and this is a cultivar with the sugar content that can enhance the natural sweet flavor.
Corn Variety Growing Tips
Using the following tips and growing strategy, your corn varieties can thrive and produce several ears on each plant:
- Care – It may surprise you to find out that corn is actually a member of the grass family. It requires even and regular moisture, and you’ll want to give it an inch or two of water each week. Put a soaker hose or drip irrigation system near the base of your corn’s stalks and cover them with a straw mulch to help keep the moisture in the soil even. Side dress your corn with aged compost every three or four weeks during the summer.
- Harvest – Start picking your corn variety three weeks after silks appeared for the first time on the stalks. When the stalks turn brown, check the ears to make sure they are filled before you start harvesting them. You can also squeeze a kernel with your fingernail. If milky white juice drips, the ear is ripe. Popcorn should stay on the stalk until the husks dry out.
- Pest Protection – Cover your seeded beds with row covers to lock out caterpillars, birds, and beetles. Handpick any caterpillars or beetles you see on your mature plants. Apply five drops of vegetable oil to the silks on each ear as they start to turn brown to ward away earworms.
- Plant on Small Hills or Raised Beds – Corn prefers to be in a soil that drains well and warms up quickly. In flat beds, you’ll want to turn the soil to six inches deep. Add aged compost to your planting area and dust it with a nitrogen-rich soybean meal or cottonseed meal at a ratio of three pounds for every 100 square feet.
- Planting Bed Preparation – Pick a site with full sun, and pick a site or bed where you can plant your corn variety in two or three-foot blocks or squares. Planting in the block pattern maximizes pollination. It’s common to pollinate corn using the wind as the pollen will fall from the male tassels onto the silks of the female plant. Close and even stalk proximity enhances pollination opportunities.
- Planting Time – Set out small starts or sow the corn when the soil is at least 65°F, and this is usually two or three weeks after the last frost of the spring. You can also use black plastic to cover the soil and prewarm the bed.
- Pollination – When your tassels appear on the ears, you can gently shake the stalks each day so the pollen falls onto the silks. Planting different corn varieties in close quarters will result in cross-pollination. To avoid this, you want to sow different varieties a minimum of 25 feet apart or time the planting so that the different varieties aren’t flowering at once.
You’re now aware of the 13 best corn varieties to grow at home, what to use them for, and how to set them up for a successful season. You can take this information and use it to grow your own small corn crop so you can have fresh corn all summer long.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.