Growing corn is practically an American tradition. Corn has been grown in our country for thousands of years.
And for good reason. Corn is very nutritious containing many vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. You can eat it fresh, cook it, preserve it, and grind it into flour.
If you’ve never tried an ear of homegrown sweet corn, then you’re really missing out. Fresh homegrown sweet corn is delicious in salsa, on the grill, or cooked into main and side dishes.
While growing corn is not difficult, there are a few tricks to making sure you get the sweetest, plumpest ears.
First things first: know what kind of corn you’re growing.
One of the most important factors to consider when you’re growing corn is making sure you get the right kind of corn seed.
Corn is one of the most commonly grown GMO crop in our country. So make sure you understand the difference between heirlooms, hybrids, and GMOs.
Then decide what kind of corn you want to grow. There’s sweet corn for fresh eating and cooking, popping corn for popping, field corn used to make flour and other food items, and ornamental corns.
Also known as dent corn and flint corn, field corn is corn grown for animal feed, corn meal, and corn syrup among other things.
Farmers plant entire fields of this type of corn and harvest it after the plants are dead and the ears have dried.
It can be eaten if picked when ripe and eaten right away, but this type of corn is not as sweet as sweet corn.
The sugars in this kind of corn are linked together in chains forming starches. The long chains of sugars don’t taste as sweet to us, but they are a good source of slow release nutrition for farm animals, and the starchiness is great for making corn meal and corn starch.
A lot of farmers in the US grow field corn that is genetically modified. If this is something that concerns you, make sure you get your field corn from a certified organic grower.
Sweet corn is a naturally occurring mutation of field corn in which the sugars are not linked together to form starches so the flavor is sweeter.
However, the sugars begin converting to starch and the sweetness starts to fade as soon as the ear is picked from the plant.
To combat this, farmers have been breeding sweet corn for higher sugar content and improved shelf life for many years. So a lot of the popular varieties of corn are hybrid varieties.
This is not the same thing as genetically modified. Read about hybrid plants here.
Some varieties are bred to be super duper sweet, some are just super sweet, and some are bred to hold on to that sweetness longer. They’re also bred for improved vigor, production, and disease and pest resistance.
Popping and Ornamental Corn
Popping corn is a starchy corn with a hard kernel shell, and, like field corn, it is harvested after the plants have died and the ears have dried up.
Ornamental corn is a starchy corn that is also grown for its appearance. The corn may be red, purple, striped, or multi-colored. Sometimes the stalks of these plants are also ornamental.
Side note about the different types of corn
Every variety has a different taste and purpose. But any kind of corn can be eaten when it’s fresh and soft, and any kind can be ground down to corn meal when it’s hard and dry. You can even try to pop any dried corn.
The different varieties and types of corn work best for their specific purposes. But it’s really all just corn.
This is not a recommendation to that you start growing field corn for fresh eating. You can if you want to, but it’s not going to taste like sweet corn.
Likewise, if you use sweet corn for cornmeal, be prepared to account for the increased sugar content in the flour.
Tips for buying corn seed
I recommend that you purchase your corn seed from a reputable seed company or at your local garden center.
In seed catalogs, you can easily become overwhelmed with the many types of corn available.
The best advice for choosing the right corn seed for your garden is to know what you need and want, then read the descriptions of the varieties in your seed catalog to make sure that type fits your needs.
You can even use a bag of deer corn for planting, but don’t expect great germination. Deer corn is field corn and may have been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides when it was growing. So keep these things in mind as well.
Some things to consider:
How much space do you have to grow corn?
Some corn varieties make only one or two ears per stalk. Others can make 3 or 4. So you can see it will require several plants to make more than one meal for your family.
Not sure how much corn to plant? My garden planning spreadsheets can help you out.
How long is your growing season?
Corn is a warm weather crop that won’t tolerate frost. Depending on the variety, corn can be ready to harvest anywhere from 60 to 90 days after planting.
How are you planning to use your corn?
Check the descriptions of the corn variety to make sure it will suit your needs.
Do you need disease resistant varieties?
If you’ve grown corn before and had trouble with cutworms, wilt, or smut, try growing a variety resistant to these diseases.
We’re growing Country Gentlemen, an heirloom shoe-peg variety, that can make 3 or more ears per stalk. The irregular kernel pattern on this variety is beautiful, but it’s not a super sweet type corn.
Growing Corn At Home
Now that you have your seed, it’s time to talk about how to grow corn. The first step in growing corn is getting it planted. There are a few tips you should know before you get started.
Follow these tips for planting corn:
Choose a sunny location protected from strong gusts of wind.
Try to locate your corn where it will get at least 8 hours of sunlight per day. Even the knee-high stalks of corn can be laid down by a strong gust of wind, so make sure they are in a wind-protected area.
Watch the weather
Corn is not tolerant of frost so make sure you plant after the very last chance of frost. Use plastic mulch to increase the soil temperature to a minimum of 60 degrees F if needed.
Don’t plant your seeds too deep.
Planting too deep can make the corn susceptible to cooler temperatures and seed-corn maggots. One inch is plenty deep when it’s cool, two inches if it’s already hot.
Direct seed this crop. Don’t start your seeds indoors.
Starting seeds indoors to get a jump on the growing season does not work well for corn. It simply will not tolerate its roots being disturbed for transplanting.
If you must try it, then make sure to use a biodegradable starting container that can be planted into your garden to minimize root trauma at transplanting.
Plant your corn in blocks for best germination
Plant corn seeds every 12 inches in blocks of short rows. This will facilitate full pollination of your ears.
You know those little hairs that stick out of an ear of corn? Each one of those is connected to an individual kernel of corn.
Every individual kernel has to be pollinated to get a full, plump ear of corn. The pollen is formed in the tassel located at the top of the plant.
Have you ever opened an ear of corn and found missing kernels? That is due to inadequate pollination.
Your corn plant relies primarily on the wind for pollination of the ears of corn. By arranging your corn crop in blocks, you ensure that each ear is surrounded by multiple plants as sources of pollen.
One more note about corn pollination: don’t plant different types of corn next to each other. Pollen from field, popping, ornamental, or even different varieties of sweet corn can alter the flavor and texture of your sweet corn.
Corn plant care tips:
- Corn plants are heavy feeders in the garden. Amend your soil with compost at planting and provide an organic fish meal fertilizer when the stalks are 6 inches and 2 feet tall.
- Corn plants do not like having to compete with weeds, especially in the first few weeks. When removing weeds, be careful not to disturb the plant’s shallow roots.
- When your corn plants are 6-12 inches tall, mound some soil up around the base of your plant. This is called hilling up, and it helps your corn stalk withstand wind pressure.
- When your corn stalks begin to tassel, make sure they have plenty of water. About an inch per week during pollination will help ensure fuller ears. Water at the base to avoid rinsing the pollen off the tassels.
- Don’t prune corn plants.
Commonly found pests when growing corn
Cutworms are a common pest of corn plants. They feed on the leaves and stalk of corn plants making holes and can cause the plant to collapse.
Earworms and armyworms can infest the ears of corn and are often found munching away at the tip of the ear. Finding a worm inside an ear of corn should not be cause for alarm. Just cut off the destroyed portion and eat the rest.
European corn borers will feed on the leaves and bore into the ears, and cucumber beetle larvae like to feed on corn roots.
Growing corn can also attract birds, raccoons, and deer that can munch on your growing plants and ears.
Diseases of corn
You may find that you have to deal with some disease problems when you grow corn.
Corn smut, a fungal disease of corn, causes bluish swollen kernels of corn that are filled with spores. If you find these shiny galls, remove them so they don’t spread the fungus.
In Mexico, these fungal galls are a delicacy known as huitlacoche. I’ve never tried it, but it’s supposed to have an earthy corn-mushroom flavor.
Bacterial wilt is another common disease that causes pale leaves and wilting of your plants.
The best practice for controlling these diseases is crop rotation and planting resistant varieties.
Harvesting and Storing Corn
Sweet corn is ready to harvest about 3 weeks after the silks appear. To test your corn for readiness, peel back the tip of the husk and pierce a kernel with your thumbnail.
If you get a spurt of milky substance, your corn is at the ideal stage for harvesting. Eat it or preserve it as soon as possible to maintain the best flavor.
When the silks are dried and the husk is pale, the corn is past its prime for fresh eating. If you want to harvest it for corn meal, leave the ear on the stalk until it is dried out.
Your freshly harvested corn tastes best in the first 24 hours, so go ahead and have some right after you harvest.
Store corn in the husk in your refrigerator for up to 3 days. Corn can also be frozen, canned, dehydrated, and fermented.
Check out these links for more information about each method of storing corn.
Holy cannoli! Are you still here?!
I know this is a long post, and I’ve talked about a lot of different things. But if you follow these tips for growing corn, I know you’ll get the sweetest, plumpest ears this summer.
- Choose the right variety. Read through the descriptions of each variety in your seed catalog to make sure you’re getting one that works for your growing season and taste preferences.
- Don’t plant different varieties or types of corn next to each other.
- Plant your corn in blocks, not long rows. A minimum of 4 rows of 4 is required for adequate pollination.
- Make sure your corn plants get adequate water, especially after the tassels and silks appear. One inch per week is the recommended amount.
- Plant your corn in fertile soil and/or add fertilizer at least twice during their growing season.
If you have enough space, growing corn is an especially rewarding experience. Leave me a comment below, and tell me about your successes, troubles, and favorite things about growing corn.