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Few foods are as tasty as fresh-picked sweet corn. A key to getting that exceptional flavor is knowing when to harvest the corn. Seems every gardener has an opinion on when sweet corn is ripe for the picking. Well, I'm going to add my two cents to that bank of opinion.

As a general rule, corn is ready for harvest about three weeks after the silk first appears. That period may vary depending upon weather conditions, that is, a little quicker when days and nights are very warm and slower during cool weather. At that point, the silk becomes dry and brown, and the ear fills the husk tightly to the tip. To verify its full development, feel the ear ... uh, not yours, but the one attached to the corn stalk. If the corn is ready for the picking, the ear will feel firm, not soft or spongy, and the husk will fit tightly like a glove. I'll also squeeze the tip of the ear. If it feels blunt, it's ripe. If it feels pointed or tapered, the corn is not yet ripe. Do not rely on the size of the corn ear as a sign of ripeness as it is not a reliable factor since small ears may be just as ripe as large ones.

When fully ripe, corn kernels will be plump and filled with milky juice. It's often recommended that peeling back a portion of the husk and pricking a corn kernel to check for the presence of the milky juice is the best way to determine ripeness. Nevertheless, I don't think it's a good idea as that will only invite corn-craving birds and insects to invade the ear.

The best time of day to harvest corn is early in the morning. This is when its sugar content is highest. Otherwise, harvest just before cooking. Corn that will not be used soon after harvesting should be wrapped in a damp paper towel and stored in the refrigerator, but only for a few days at most since the sugar content is rapidly converted to starch after the corn is harvested. However, some of the so-called super sweet or sugar enhanced varieties tend to hold their sugar content for a longer period. So even if you don't become skilled in the technique of harvesting corn at the peak of maturity, you'll still be able to enjoy the delicious taste of sweet corn.

A LITTLE GARDENING ADVICE

For a taste of gardening in August, here are some hot tips:

• Try to maintain an even level of moisture in the soil around tomatoes. Allowing soil to remain dry for a week or more and then applying large amounts of water can lead to cracking or splitting of the ripening fruit. Heavy rains following long dry spells have the same effect. Ripe or near ripe tomatoes with cracks or splits should be harvested immediately since they are likely to rot if left on the vine. Maintaining even soil moisture around other vegetables is also a good plan in order to sustain continued growth since August can be very hot and dry. Morning is the best time to apply water. Evening applications are not advisable, especially if using a sprinkler or spray, since wetting the leaves tends to encourage diseases.

- Tour the vegetable garden daily — preferably in the morning — to check for vegetables ready for harvest. Letting a mature vegetable go just a few days beyond peak ripeness will reduce its nutrient value and storage quality. While you're touring, pick off any over-ripe, dead, diseased or damaged portions of each crop.

• Wait until the tops have died down before digging up potatoes. Fully mature potatoes will keep longer when in storage. However, if your taste buds long for some fresh spuds, it's OK to carefully dig under a few plants and pull up a few large potatoes.

• Don't let the need for harvesting and preserving vegetable crops lead to neglecting weeds in the garden. Many annual weeds are now flowering and will soon be producing seeds. Removing weeds before they set seed will reduce weed problems next year.

• Dig, divide and replant bearded iris, daylilies, phlox, poppies, lily-of-the-valley and other perennials that have completed their bloom.

• Make a final fertilizer application of the season to roses. Fertilizer may be a general-purpose garden one, such as 10-10-10, or simply apply compost or decomposed animal manure around by not against the base of each plant.

• Apply a mulch, e.g., partially decomposed wood chips, around trees and shrubs planted earlier this growing season. Mulches should be no deeper than 3 inches and should never be piled against the trunk or stems of these plants.

• Make plans now to construct a new lawn or renovate an existing one. The first step is to get the soil tested. This will help determine what adjustments to soil pH and nutrients will be necessary before sowing grass seed. For information on how to collect a soil sample and where to send it, visit the website for the UMass Soils Lab at ag.umass.edu/services/soil-plant-nutrient-testing-laboratory.


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