Nothing beats the taste of sweet corn picked fresh from the garden. Trouble is, corn takes considerable space to produce a decent crop, so it's better suited to large country gardens than to small suburban plots. Another potential drawback is that once sweet corn is picked, its sugar changes to starch nearly as fast as you can run the ears inside to a pot of boiling water. Still, many folks yearn for traditional kinds of sweet corn, such as 'Early Sunglow' (yellow, 62 days from planting to harvest), 'Golden Queen' (yellow, 92 days), 'Merit' (yellow, 80 days), and the all-time favorite 'Silver Queen' (white, 92 days). For information on new hybrids that stay sweet much longer after they're picked, see Improved sweet corn (below).
Improved sweet corn. There are two basic classes. The first, called sugary enhanced corn, is about as sweet as or slightly sweeter than regular sweet corn, but the se gene slows the conversion of sugar to starch. Among the top sugary enhanced selections are 'Breeder's Choice' (yellow, 73 days), 'Bodacious' (yellow, 75 days), 'Trinity' (bicolor, 70 days), 'Sugar Buns' (yellow, 60 days), and 'Ambrosia' (bicolor, 75 days).
The second class, known as supersweet corn, contains twice as much sugar as regular sweet corn. It's sometimes called sh2 corn, because the gene responsible for the added sweetness also causes dry kernels to look shrunken. Supersweet corn stays sweet for days after picking, as long as you refrigerate it promptly. Recommended selections include 'How Sweet It Is' (white, 87 days), 'Honey 'N' Pearl' (bicolor, 76 days), 'Early Xtra-Sweet' (yellow, 71 days), 'Illini Xtra-Sweet' (yellow, 85 days), 'Florida Staysweet' (yellow, 87 days), and 'Summer Sweet 7210' (yellow, 78 days).
An increasing number of synergistic (sy) varieties are also sold; they blend sugar-enhanced and supersweet genes. 'Honey Select' and the bicolored 'Frisky' and 'Montauk' selections are examples.
It's perfectly fine to plant sugary enhanced types near regular sweet cornbut don't let supersweet types cross-pollinate with other sweet corn (either regular or sugary enhanced), or the kernels of both will be tough and starchy. Isolate supersweets from other types either by distance (at least 200 ft. away) or by time (stagger plantings so that different types don't tassel at the same time).
Heirloom sweet corn. Unlike hybrid corn, heirloom types are open-pollinated, which means they come true from seed. 'Golden Bantam' (yellow, 78 days) was introduced in 1902 and is still the best choice for small spaces, as its stalks reach only 56 ft.; ripened ears must be rushed to the cooking pot to taste sweet. 'Stowell's Evergreen' (white, 98 days), introduced in 1856, remains in the milky stage a long time and is well adapted to the Upper South. 'Country Gentleman' (white, 93 days), introduced in 1891, is a shoepeg corn (with small kernels that are not arranged in rows) with an extended milky stage. 'Texas Honey June' (white, 97 days) has a sweet flavor reminiscent of honey.
Dent corn. Starchy dent corns (named for the dent in the seed's crown) are well adapted to the Southeast and Midwest; many are heirloom types, dating back to the mid-1800s. They are primarily used for roasting and for making cornmeal and hominy. 'Blue Clarage' (90 days) features solid blue ears (one ear per stalk) and has a higher sugar content than most dents; in the milky stage, it can be eaten fresh. 'Hickory King' (white, 85 days) produces two ears per stalk and is the best for hominy. Drought-tolerant 'Tennessee Red Cob' (120 days) bears red cobs with white kernels, two ears per stalk. It is excellent for cornmeal, and the cob makes an attractive pipe.
Baby corn. Contrary to popular belief, baby corn isn't a miniature variety. It's just corn harvested very early, when the ears are only a few inches long. The tender ears may be pickled or used fresh in salads or Asian cuisine. Plant seeds 12 in. apart; thin seedlings to 4 in. apart. Harvest shortly after the first silks appear, which may be only a few weeks after sowing. 'Bonus' (yellow, 32 days) produces 3-in. ears that are ready to pick when the plant is only 1 ft. tall.
Ornamental corn. Some kinds of corn are grown for the beauty of their shelled ears rather than for eating. Calico, Indian, Squaw, and Rainbow are some names given to strains with intensely colored kernelsred, brown, blue, gray, black, bright yellow, or mixed colors. 'Indian Summer' has brightly colored, edible kernels. Grow ornamental corn well away from sweet corn; mix of pollen can affect the latter's flavor. For ornamental display, grow like sweet corn, but let ears ripen fully; silks will be withered, husks will turn straw color, and kernels will be firm. Cut ear from plant, including 1 in. of stalk below ear; pull back husks (leave attached to ears), and dry thoroughly.
Zea mays japonica includes several kinds of corn grown for ornamental foliage. One occasionally sold is 'Gracilis', a dwarf form with bright green leaves striped white.
Popcorn. Grow and harvest just like ornamental corn. When ears are thoroughly dry, rub kernels off cobs, and store in a dry place. White, red, and yellow kinds of popcorn look like other types of corn.
Strawberry popcorn, grown either for its ornamental value or for popping, has stubby, fat, strawberrylike ears packed with red kernels. Don't plant popcorn near sweet corn; pollen of one kind can affect characteristics of another.