I noticed many folks buying sweet corn seed at local garden centers recently. I also noticed that the most popular variety still appears to be Silver Queen. When I was a kid, everyone planted Silver Queen corn, which is a late season variety. The problem with late season varieties is they take about 90 to 95 days to fully mature. If you get a late start to planting (especially with all the rain), then this means you will be harvesting sweet corn toward the end of July and are much more likely to have damage form corn earworm caterpillars.
Many home gardeners are unaware of the advancements in sweet corn breeding in recent years. Older varieties such as Silver Queen, Golden Queen, and Merit were great sweet corn varieties in their time. These varieties are known as “normal sugary” or “su” hybrid sweet corn. Su sweet corn is known for its creamy texture and mild sugars. However, sugars in these cultivars are rapidly converted to starch if not cooked the same day they are harvested. Unfortunately, the quality of these varieties declines rapidly.
Newer sweet corn varieties have “sugary enhanced” or “se” genes, which have increased sugar content and a creamier kernel texture compared to the standard varieties. Another advantage is that se sweet corn types maintain their quality longer. Examples of se varieties include Silver Princess, Silver King, Bodacious, Ambrosia, Honey Select, Sweet Chorus, and Peaches & Cream. These varieties do not have to be isolated from standard varieties if you are concerned about cross-pollination issues that affect quality. This means you can plant popcorn in the same garden or live next to a farm with field corn and still maintain your se sweet corn traits.
Another category of sweet corn are the “supersweet” or “shrunken-2 (sh2)” gene varieties. They derive this name from the appearance of the dried kernels, which are smaller than other sweet corn types. Supersweet hybrids have a crunchier kernal, are sweeter than su and se cultivars, and will delay conversion of sugar to starch, extending their shelf life. Because they lack a creamy texture, sh2 cultivars will actually stay crispier if canned or frozen.
Supersweet corn must be isolated by a distance of 500 feet to avoid cross-pollination from field corn, pop corn, or other sweet corn hybrids. Failure to isolate these cultivars will result in starchy, tough kernels. Supersweet varieties used to be considered less vigorous and would require warmer soil temperatures (70F degrees or higher) to germinate. Recently, sh2 cultivars have been improved and germination is now comparable to other sweet corn types.
Many newer varieties contain two or all three types of genes. These may be called by several different terms including multi-gene, superior eating quality, triplesweet, and extra tender, among other names. All of these should be isolated in the same manner as the sh2 varieties. Some examples of these cultivars include Mirai, Passion, Temptation, Obsession, and Serendipity.
Finally, don’t forget there are early, mid, and late season varieties to choose from. Some early season varieties will mature in as little as 65 to 75 days. If you’re searching for an early variety to avoid damage from corn earworm caterpillars with the best characteristics, you might want to consider planting Bodacious (se), Silver Princess (se), Ambrosia (se), Sweet Chorus (se), or Mirai 130Y (sh2).
If you have a preference for color, some varieties have yellow kernels, white kernels, or bicolor kernels. If you can’t make up your mind, go with a bicolor such as Ambrosia, Sweet Chorus, or Mirai 301BC and get the best of both worlds! For more information, check out our free UGA Extension publication on “Growing Home Garden Sweet Corn” online or stop by the Extension office to get a copy.
Paul Pugliese is the Extension Coordinator and Agricultural & Natural Resources Agent for Bartow County Cooperative Extension, a partnership of The University of Georgia, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Bartow County. For more information and free farm, lawn, or garden publications, call (770) 387-5142 or visit our local website at ugaextension.org/bartow.