How To Grow Corn Easily: Our Comprehensive Guide
Put simply, corn is fun and easy to grow in your home garden. Corn is so common in our grocery stores, that pretty much everyone recognizes it. It is relatively easy to grow, and its fast-growing stalks make for a dramatic growing experience. Even in a home garden, the resulting ears look just like the perfect grocery store item. Eating fresh-picked corn from the cob is an entertaining experience that reinforces the adventure of growing your own. If you are planting a garden this spring, we highly recommend at least a row or two of corn. So much so, we decided to write this guide on how to grow corn.
What's There to Know about How to Grow Corn?
Some Background to Teach the Kids
Corn originally comes from Southern Mexico and was called Maize (pronounced like the month May with an “s” on the end: /mays/), a name that the Spanish adopted when they colonized the area. Though we commonly group it with vegetables, it is technically a cereal grain.
Fast Forward to Modern Times
Modern corn is a worldwide staple. People grow more corn than any other staple crop, including rice and wheat. There are six major types of corn: sweet corn, flour corn, popcorn (yes, it is its own category), pod corn, flint corn, and dent corn. Most corn is used to feed farm animals (like cows, pigs, and chickens) and for industrial products ranging from ethanol (used as a gasoline additive) to food products including corn meal, corn starch, corn oil, and corn syrup. Most of the corn on the cob we eat is sweet corn, which is sweet because it has more sugar content.
Parts of the Corn Plant
Though we commonly group it with vegetables, corn is technically a cereal grain like wheat and rice. Corn was originally multicolored, with red, blue, purple, and white kernels. Modern farming favored the yellow-kernel variety for its flavor, sugar content, and robust growth characteristics. The major parts of a corn plant are the stalk (which can grow up to six inches a day), the ear, and the seeds (which are commonly called kernels). The ear grows inside a protective leaf-like “husk” that must be removed in a process called “shucking” to access the kernels. There is also a hair-like tassel that grows out of the top of the husk. De-tasseling the ears is an important part of learning how to grow corn.
Which Type of Corn Should I Grow?
When first learning how to grow corn, we recommend consulting other growers in your area for recommendations on which varieties work best in your growing conditions. Many areas have a “Cooperative Extension” service that can provide a wealth of information.
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Sweet corn is best when freshly harvested because the sugar converts to starch as soon as an ear is picked. Plant breeders and seed companies create “supersweet” and hybrid corns designed to stay fresh longer, but these varieties are not as tough and sometimes disappoint in the home garden. For a home garden, it is easy enough to pick it right before you cook/eat it. If you have space, it is also fun to experiment with a row of popcorn or flint (decorative) corn. These thrive in similar growing conditions and provide variety and an entertainment factor to learning how to grow corn.
When and How Should I Plant My Corn?
Corn seeds germinate when the soil is consistently reaching 60 degrees Fahrenheit. An unexpected frost will kill the new plants. Unfortunately, corn plants do not transplant well. Pro tip: If you live in an area with unpredictable spring weather that requires transplanting, you can work around this by sprouting the seeds indoors in biodegradable pots that can be placed directly in the ground without disturbing the roots. Additionally, some growers harness the sun by spreading black plastic over the planting area to warm the soil.
How Many Plants Should I Plant?
Assuming that you will be eating directly from your garden, corn experts recommend at least 12 plants per person. You can stagger plantings every two weeks to create an extended harvest. This is far enough apart to prevent cross-pollination between the staggered blocks, which can ruin the kernels.
Corn grows best in a sunny area that is shielded from the wind. It also loves nitrogen.
If you are just learning how to grow corn, invest in a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. More advanced gardeners will rotate nitrogen-producing crops (like beans or clover) or use a compost pile to provide the nitrogen. A rule of thumb is 25 lbs. of fertilizer per 100 square feet of soil.
How to Grow Corn by the Numbers
Corn needs to pollinate to produce ears and kernels. To facilitate this, avoid long rows (we know; this seems counterintuitive) and plant in three-row by three-row squares. The depth at which seeds should be planted depends on when you are planting. Your earliest seeds should go one inch deep. As the spring warms into summer, go two inches. Space the seed holes about seven inches apart, and place three seeds in each hole to accommodate for the fact that not every seed will sprout. It takes about six to 12 days for seeds to germinate. Once seeds sprout, thin the plants to one every 14 inches.
Ideally, corn should have about one inch of water weekly. This ensures the max pack of kernels on each cob. It is best to water with drip irrigation or a soaker hose on or close to the ground. Be especially careful not to spay higher on the plants during pollination (when there are tassels), as this can suppress the ever-important pollination process.
Weed or You Won’t Be Eating
Weeds steal corn’s nutrients, so pull weeds regularly, especially for the first 30 days. After that, spread mulch around the stalks to prevent weeds but protect the corn’s wide-growing but delicate roots.
Fertilize As Corn Grows
As your corn stalks pass the half-foot mark, it is time to add more soil nutrients. Spread fertilizer (fish-based is best) around the area. Repeat this again at the one-foot growth point. Be careful not to disturb the roots or any offshoots stalks that may be springing.
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Consult Local Experts for Pest Control
There are a number of insects that attack corn plants. These include Corn Earworms, European Corn Borers, Cucumber Beatle Larvae (aka Corn Rootworms), and Seed-Corn Maggots. These tend to have different territories in the U.S., so it is best to consult your local experts as to which you need to defend against and what the best methods are.
Besides the little pests, corn has larger enemies. Birds love corn kernels at both ends of the growth process: the ones you plant and the mature kernels growing on your young cobs. Raccoons and their brethren love ripening cobs. Time to create a scarecrow or use some old CDs on strings to fend off birds. This is also an area where you should consult local experts on what critters to watch for and how to scare them away.
Pollinating by Hand
Corn requires pollination to produce the kernels we love to eat. It typically pollinates via the wind. However, that requires wind. To help corn along you can move pollen from the tassels (top of the plants) to the silks growing from the ears. Each silk, when pollinated, creates a full kernel. It is best to pollinate early in the morning when there is no breeze. Use a paper bag wide enough to catch the pollen that falls (think snow) from a tassel as you carefully shake the tassel. Collect pollen from several stalks. Once you have collected enough pollen, narrow the bag’s opening and sprinkle the pollen onto the silk from each ear of corn. Repeat this for several mornings.
Finally, the Harvest
Conclusion: Getting Close to Nature
Besides getting to eat the freshest corn you can get, growing your own corn teaches you about the effort required to put food on the table. Repeated growings year-over-year will advance your expertise, as well as introduce new challenges such as the importance of crop rotation and planting more varieties to expand your meal offerings. We also find that knowing how to grow corn connects us to our history as humans, cultures that came before ours, and the blending of ancient and modern technologies that feed us. Even in that bit of profundity, we cannot help but smile at the thought of smearing a pat of butter across a still-steaming, fresh-boiled ear of corn and laughing as we bite in to appreciate our handiwork.