How and When to Harvest Corn for the Best Flavor

Use this guide to ensure you pick corn at its peak.

overhead view of freshly harvest corn

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Pairing corn on the cob with a burger and a slice of watermelon is a summer staple. And the best-tasting choice is always homegrown, especially if you know when to harvest corn at its peak. Sweet corn is one of the most popular vegetables that you can grow in your garden. Figuring out when corn is ready to harvest is pretty straightforward, but timing it just right is important for picking the ears at their sweetest flavor. Here's exactly how and when to harvest corn from your garden.

Types of Corn

There are many different types of corn, including flour, flint, sweet, pop, and dent. Corn comes in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. You can even find varieties with blue, red, and even multi-colored kernels. However, not all types of corn are edible; some are just grown for decoration. For example, flint corn that was once grown by Native Americans for food is today typically only used for decorative purposes.

For growing in your vegetable garden, sweet corn is probably the easiest and most rewarding type of corn. Popcorn also can be fun to grow yourself. However, it's a time-consuming crop to grow and then dry, and the quality won't be very different from store-bought options. Corn grown for cornmeal is a type of field corn instead of sweet corn. Field corn includes flint, dent, and flour. Popular varieties include ‘Oaxacan Green’, ‘Nothstine Dent’, ‘Jerry Petersen Blue’ and ‘Bloody Butcher’.

When to Harvest Corn

Depending on the type of corn you're growing, the yield or maturity date can vary a bit. For example, some varieties mature in 72 days after planting the seeds and others 110 days. Make sure to check the seed packet for days to maturity to give you an estimate on when your corn should be ready to harvest.

In addition to the days to maturity, keep an eye on the silks (the fine, threadlike strands on the ear of corn). It takes about 20 days after the silks first appears on the ear before the corn has developed enough. Ears will be ready to pick when the silks turn brown, but the husk remains green. Stalks should have at least one ear near the top before harvesting occurs. It may have ears lower on the stalk, however, they are typically smaller and not ready to harvest yet. These lower ears will eventually mature so watch for when their silks turn brown before picking them. 

Before harvesting, check if the kernels on an ear are in the “milk stage”. This means that when you poke a kernel with your fingernail, the liquid inside looks milky. The milk stage lasts about 18 to 20 days after the silks have turned brown. If the juice in the kernel is still clear, it’s not ready for harvest yet. Wait a day or two and check the kernels again. If there's no liquid in the kernels, then you've waited too long to harvest.

Once you're sure your corn is ready to harvest, pick the ears in the early morning before the sun warms up the ears. As soon as you pick the ears, the natural sugars in the kernels begin to convert to starch, which causes the sweetness of the corn to decline. The warmer the conditions, the faster this process happens. Picking early in the morning translates to the sweetest of sweet corn.

How to Pick Corn

The best way to harvest corn is to hold the ear firmly, pull down, and twist it husk and all from the stalk. The ear should come off easily. At this time, the husk and silk can be removed from the cob, unless you plan to grill the cobs with the husks on. Make sure to place the harvested sweet corn in the refrigerator as soon as possible to slow down the sugar to starch conversion and keep its quality as high as possible. Harvest only as much corn as you can eat unless you're planning to preserve and store your crop. However, make sure to pick all the sweet corn within the “milk stage”.

How to Store Fresh Corn

Like all garden-fresh vegetables, corn tastes best when just picked. Make sure to eat your harvested corn within a week when it's at its sweetest. The longer your corn sits around, the more it will taste like store-bought corn because the sugars have more time to convert into starches. If you don’t plan to eat the corn on the day it's picked, store shucked cobs in the refrigerator in a gallon plastic bag, making sure to cook within two days. To remove moisture accumulation, the cobs can be wrapped in paper towels inside the plastic bag. Storing corn in the freezer is also easy, and provides a fantastic treat in the middle of those cold, winter months when you are dreaming about summer. 

How to Save Corn Seeds

If you would like to save sweet corn seeds from this year’s crop, let the corn mature and dry on the stalk until the husk and stalks become completely paper-like and brown. The kernels should be hard to the touch, dry and wrinkled in appearance. Make sure to save at least 500 seeds to maintain the same plant qualities as a seed can be genetically different if it was possibly crosspollinated by other varieties of corn.

You'll need to dry the cobs further after picking them from the stalk to make sure no mold develops. There are a couple of drying methods to use. One is to pull back the husks, but not remove them, using them as a way to hang the corn. Another method is to remove the husk completely and lay the corn out on a rack or screen. Make sure to place them out of direct sunlight. 

To remove the kernels from the cob, move your hands in a twisting motion to dislodge the seeds. There are also tools available for this step such as a corn sheller if you have a lot of ears to do. Once you have removed the kernels and they are completely dry, store the seeds in mason jars in a cool, dry, and dark environment for planting in the garden next year

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