Sweet Corn Vigor and Stand Issues

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;gcjohn@udel.eduand Emmalea Ernest, Associate Scientist – Vegetable Crops; emmalea@udel.edu

Each year we see sweet corn fields with stand and plant vigor issues, especially in early planted fields. There can be many causes for stand loss and weak seedlings: surface compaction and crusting, birds, soil insects, 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.

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 stand loss and poor vigor problems than field corn because the seed has less food reserves. Shrunken types (supersweet and sugary enhanced 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. Fungal disease organisms such as Pythium, Fusarium, Rhizoctonia, Aspergillus, and Penicillium are common in soils and many can even be carried on seeds. Fungicide seed treatments are critical to control these diseases. Problems occur where seed treatments are not adequate, where disease organisms are at very high levels, or where soil conditions are too cold and seeds remain in the soil for extended periods before germination and emergence. The risk of seeding infection increases as germination and emergence is extended and protecting 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.  In 2014 we have had a cool spring which further stressed early sweet corn. While field corn will start to germinate at 50°F, many types of sweet corn need much warmer soils. This is especially true of supersweets 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.

Soil insects can cause seed deterioration by feeding on seed contents and causing entrance wounds for disease organisms. Seed corn maggots and wireworms can feed on the seed directly causing stand losses. Grubs feed on seedling roots causing stunting. Wireworms and certain grubs will also 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 as seed treatments dissipate. In fields with heavy infestations of soil insects seed treatments may not be adequate. Addition of manures or other organic matter sources just prior to planting, no-till plantings into killed cover crops, or planting into high residue can lead to heavy seed corn maggot populations that overwhelm seed treatments.

Stand issues are often related to the inherent poor vigor of sweet corn. Work with seed suppliers to obtain their best lots for early plantings with the largest seed sizes. Obtain varieties that perform better under cold stress. The University of Delaware has several years of data on fresh market and processing sweet corn varieties that were planted early under colder conditions to assess varieties for cold tolerance. Results can be found at http://extension.udel.edu/ag/vegetable-fruit-resources/vegetable-small-fruits-program/variety-trial-results/.  The following fresh market varieties had good emergence in our mid-April planted trials: Celestial, Mattapoisette, Silver Duchess, Frosty (white kernels) and Obsession, Temptation, Temptation II, BSS0977, Xtra-Tender 274A, and Xtra-Tender 2171 (bicolor kernels).