Poor Stands and Plant Vigor in Fresh Market Sweet Corn

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Growers are reporting issues with stands and vigor in sweet corn fields in 2023, especially in early planted fields. There can be many causes for stand loss and weak seedlings: surface compaction and crusting, birds, soil insects, slugs, cold soils that delay emergence, soil diseases affecting seeds or seedlings, wet soils, fertilizer injury, deep planting, and herbicide injury are just a few examples.

Seedcorn maggot damage to sweet corn in 2023 has been significant. David Owens, UD Extension Entomologist recorded a YouTube video discussing seedcorn maggot which can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDhj8QTz8hw.

When checking sweet corn fields with vigor and stand problems, it is important to dig up seeds and affected plants and examine the seed remnants, roots, and mesocotyl (stem that pushes the seed leaf to emerge above the ground). Corn seedling survival and early vigor is directly tied to a healthy seed kernel and mesocotyl from planting through the six-leaf stage. Any damage to the seed or mesocotyl during this period can lead to stunted or weak seedlings, and in severe cases, seedling death. This is because the corn seedling depends on the seed for food to grow for several weeks after emergence until sufficient leaf area has been produced and nodal roots have become established. The seed kernel provides the means for early roots to grow and these food reserves are also mobilized and transported through the mesocotyl to grow the first stalk and leaf tissue. The mesocotyl also serves to transport water and mineral nutrients from the seedling roots.

Sweet corn is more susceptible to stand loss and poor vigor problems than field corn because the seed has less food reserves. Shrunken types (supersweet, sugary enhanced, augmented shrunken, synergistic varieties) have even less stored food than “normal” types and therefore are more susceptible to stand problems.

I have looked at sweet corn fields with stand loss and vigor problems (uneven growth) over the years. Often, when digging up the seedlings and examining the seed remnants and mesocotyls, the kernels will be disintegrated and there will be darkening at the mesocotyl attachment. This means that the seeds deteriorated prematurely and the full content of the food reserves in the seed were not available for seedling development, leading to the stand and vigor issues. Premature seed deterioration and/or poor vigor seedlings can be due to diseases that cause seed rots, seedling blights and/or root rots. Soil insects can cause seed deterioration by feeding on seed contents or creating entrance wounds for disease organisms. In addition, certain soil insects and slugs can feed on the mesocotyl causing seedlings to collapse. Sweet corn that takes more than 10 days to emerge is at great risk of injury due to insects and diseases as seed treatments dissipate.

Cold stress and cold soils are common stress factors leading to poor stands. Often growers are pushing the limits and are planting sweet corn very early. While field corn will start to germinate at 50°F, many types of sweet corn need much warmer soils. This is especially true of supersweet varieties and other shrunken types, which perform best at higher soil temperatures (above 60°F). When soil temperatures are below 55°F, germination is greatly extended. Food nutrients are mobilized in the seed but are not being utilized rapidly by the plant. The seed then becomes a perfect food source for many soil microorganisms. On a positive note, many of the newer sweet corn varieties have much more cold tolerance and emerge more rapidly in cold soils.

Stand issues are often related to the inherent poor vigor of sweet corn. Work with seed suppliers to obtain their best lots with the largest seed sizes. Obtain varieties that perform better under cold stress. When possible, obtain reports from sweet corn trials to assess which varieties are the most cold tolerant. Request seed treatment information and select treatments with the best protection potential. There are in-furrow fungicide options; however, research is limited with sweet corn in our region.

Growers often face the decision on whether to keep plantings with poor stands. This is most often a marketing decision based on the need for and value of early sweet corn for that farm. An estimate of potential marketable ears will be based on stand counts of full vigor plants from 20-40 sites throughout the field. This stand count information then can be used to estimate the value of the field as is versus the value of a later planted full stand crop.