Corn is one of the most versatile and fast-growing crops around. Thanks to the many ways that you can corn in the kitchen, it’s a wonderful plant for backyard gardens.
While many think that you need acres of space to grow these crops successfully, that’s simply not the case. All you need is a plot of well-draining soil.
That said, corn does have some unique challenges. During my first attempt at growing corn, my harvest ended up tasting very bland and starchy. It didn’t have that iconic sweetness the crop is known for.
I wanted to take full advantage of what corn had to offer in the kitchen, so I did some research to learn how to grow corn the right way. I’m glad I did because corn has become one of my go-to spring crops.
What is Corn?
Corn is an annual crop that is, technically speaking, a part of the grass family! It grows in large stocks that can rise up to 12 feet tall depending on the variety. Like other types of grass, corn is self-pollinating. The stalk produces both male and female flowers, allowing the plant to pollinate with the wind.
This crop has a very long and industrial history. Originally, corn came from the Americas before quickly spreading throughout the globe. Today, it’s one of the most important crops in the world. It’s not just something people eat whole.
Corn plays a pivotal role in many different industries. It’s used to create feed for livestock, made into corn syrup for sugary sweets, and even milled into ethanol for fuel! Over 1,099 million metric tons of this yellow crop was produced globally in 2018 alone! Needless to say, it certainly has a place in your backyard garden.
The Benefits of Growing Corn
For most of us, corn is just a delicious crop to enjoy in many different ways. Typically, it’s considered a vegetable. However, it’s technically a vegetable, fruit, and grain all in one! As such, there are tons of ways you can utilize corn in the kitchen.
Toss it on the grill for fresh corn-on-the-cob. Or, remove the individual kernels from the ear to make fresh salads. You can even dry the kernels to have your own supply of home-grown popcorn! Corn is very easy to freeze and preserve as well, so you can easily stretch your harvest out throughout the year.
When you eat corn, you’re taking advantage of much more than just the great taste. The vegetable has a bevy of great health benefits.
Not only is it chock-full of fiber, but corn also has several vitamins. Vitamin C can protect your body from free radicals while giving your skin a boost of collagen. Meanwhile, the minerals and nutrients may work to lower your blood sugar and keep your cholesterol in check.
What are the Different Varieties Available?
When most people think of corn, they picture that sweet yellow vegetable that’s readily available at the grocery store. While sweet yellow corn is the most common when it comes to cuisine, there are tons of varieties that you can grow.
These varieties vary based on their sugar and starch content. They all have different uses as well. Corn cultivars are split up into several distinct varieties. Here are some of the most common options you’ll come across.
Sweet corn varieties are usually the ones that gardeners will utilize. When harvested, this corn has a higher sugar content because the plant hasn’t had time to convert the sugars into starches just yet. The resulting harvest is creamy and packed with flavor.
This variety can be separated even further into several subcategories. They include normal sugary corn, enhanced sugary corn, and supersweet corn. As you might have guessed, the differences lie in the sugar content.
- Golden Bantam
- Ambrosia Hybrid
- Jubilee Hybrid
- Stowell’s Evergreen
- Honey Select Hybrid
While sweet corn may be popular for cooking, dent corn is the variety that’s grown the most in the United States. Sometimes referred to as “field corn,” this variety is grown en masse throughout the country because it’s used for industrial purposes. Farmers will harvest these varieties for animal feed, ethanol, corn syrup, and more.
Dent corn gets its name from the physical appearance of the individual kernels. They have a slightly sunken appearance, which is made more noticeable after drying.
- Reid’s Yellow
- Tennessee Red Cob
- Jarvis Gold
- Silver King White
- Floriani Red
- Hopi Blue
- Candy Red
Flint corn has many of the same uses as dent corn. However, it has lower water content and is more resistant to freezing. It’s popular in Central America and is often reserved for animal feed. Though, it can be popped and eaten as well.
- Cateto Sulino
- Paintend Mountain
Finally, there’s pod corn. Pod corn is pretty rare in gardening circles. This is because these varieties are typically reserved for ornamental use. They are considered to be “wild” corns. When fully grown, they are usually much smaller and may have leaves growing around the kernels. The cool thing about pod corn, however, is that they come in a wide range of exotic colors.
When is the Best Time to Plant?
No matter which cultivar you choose, it’s important to start your corn at just the right time. This crop is very intolerant to the cold and needs plenty of sunlight to thrive.
The best time to plant your corn seeds is 2 or 3 weeks after the last frost in the Spring. There should be no risk of freezing temperatures. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing your entire crop.
Corn does not take long to grow when compared to other vegetables. Depending on the variety you plant, you may be harvesting your crops only 60 to 100 days after planting. If you live in a warmer climate, your plants will grow even faster!
Where Can You Plant Corn?
When the time comes to start planting, you need to choose the appropriate spot and prepare your soil.
Unlike other spring-time crops, we don’t recommend starting seeds indoors. Some gardeners have seen success starting early. However, the tiny seedlings have very delicate roots that don’t take too well to transplanting. To avoid complications, it’s best to wait until the last frost to plant directly in your garden.
Choosing a Sunny and Spacious Spot
First things first, look for a spot in your garden that gets sun throughout the day. The more sun exposure corn has the better. At the very least, these plants need at least 6 hours a day. So, avoid any spot below trees or in the line of cast shadows.
One good way to ensure that a spot is getting plenty of sunlight is to check the temperature throughout the day. Corn seeds germinate best when the soil is 60 degrees Fahrenheit or more.
Space is of the utmost importance as well. Unlike other crops that can be grown in rows, corn needs to be planted in blocks. The blocks should be made up of at least 4 rows of plants. This improves the chances of wild pollination, which will ultimately result in more ears per plant.
Prepping the Soil
After you’ve chosen a suitable spot, it’s time to prepare the soil! Your soil should be nutrient-rich and very easy to drain. Corn is a notoriously thirsty plant. They will require a ton of watering. A nice sandy loam soil that drains relatively quickly is best.
As for the soil quality, it’s always good to enrich the garden before you start planting. Ideally, the pH balance should be somewhere between 6.0 to 7.0. For the best results, we recommend working in some aged manure or compost. You can do this a few weeks before planting. However, letting the manure or compost work its magic over the winter is best. So, get started early if possible!
How to Plant Corn in the Garden
Planting corn seeds is a relatively straightforward process. That said, spacing is key to increase your chances of a successful harvest.
Start by tilling the soil about 6 to 8 inches deep. This will oxygenate the dirt while getting rid of any weeds or large clumps.
Now, place seeds about an inch and a half below the surface of the soil. Each seed should be 4 to 6 inches apart. Plant in small rows until you have a large block. The rows within your block need to be roughly 30 to 36 inches apart so that you have plenty of room to navigate between them.
At this point, you can choose to fertilize the soil to kickstart the growth process. This step is optional. You will need to fertilize the corn plants later on, which we’ll get into soon. However, corn seeds tend to germinate and grow fast. If you’re confident with the soil quality, you can skip this initial fertilization.
Growing in Cooler Environments
Corn is not very tolerant of the cold. So, if you are expecting a surprise frost or live in a generally cooler area, you might want to take advantage of some plastic sheeting to insulate the seeds while they germinate.
You can run a sheet of clear or black plastic over the soil after watering. Not only does this help to retain heat, but it prevents evaporation as well to keep the soil moist. Cutout circular holes above the seeds so that growth can get past the plastic.
How to Take Care of the Corn Plant
Getting your seeds into the soil is only the first step in the process. There are several things you will need to do as your corn grows to help the plants reach their full potential.
Thinning the Herd
As we mentioned earlier, corn plants grow very quickly. After only a couple weeks, you’ll have seedlings that are several inches tall! When they reach about 3 to 4 inches tall, you need to start thinning the herd to make sure that the plants aren’t fighting for resources.
Go through the individual rows and start removing the baby plants until you have seedlings that are about 8 to 12 inches apart. Be extra careful when you’re doing this. You don’t want to damage the roots of the plants you’re going to keep. Just use your hand to pull up the seedlings you’re going to remove.
During this time, you can also remove any pesky weeds you see popping up. Weeding should be done regularly. Like thinning the herd, your goal is to make sure that the plants aren’t competing for water or nutrients.
Generally, corn plants will need about 5 gallons of water per square yard.
Don’t skimp on watering. We recommend doing light waterings pretty regularly using a drip hose. Whatever you do, don’t spray these crops from the top. Doing so runs the risk of washing away pollen. The male flowers are located on top of the plant.
Referred to as the tassels, these flowers will extend above the plants to fertilize the female corn silks below. This is done naturally by the wind. If you were to water the plants from above, you’ll just wash the pollen away before it has a chance to do its job. The number of kernels your ears of corn will have depends on the number of silk strands that are fertilized. So, be extra careful when watering.
If you live in a particularly hot area, mulch can do a lot to keep your plants hydrated. A fine layer of natural mulch over the soil will prevent water from evaporating. Plus, it’ll stunt the growth of pesky weeds.
When you apply mulch, make sure that you’re leaving some space around the stalk of the corn plant. Piling it on the stalk will lead to stunted growth and disease.
You can fertilize your corn plants a few times as they grow. Doing so will help the plants reach their full potential. It may result in more ears of corn that are plump and juicy.
Many gardeners will fertilize their plants twice before the tassels even appear. This usually happens when the plant is 10 and 18 inches tall. You can give this a shot if you’re not too confident with the soil quality.
The most important time to fertilize is when the tassels appear. Just side-dress the plants with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Be careful not to apply the fertilizer directly to the plant, as this can cause burning.
How to Harvest and Store Corn
There are many ways to tell that corn is ready for harvesting. The tassels and silks will become dry and dark brown. The ears will also become very plump. This occurs somewhere between 60 and 100 days depending on the variety.
The goal for harvesting is to pick the ears off the plant before the sugars start converting to starches. This is when the vegetables are at their sweetest and juiciest. Keep a watchful eye on the ears. You can even pull the leaves back a bit to monitor the color as they get close to harvest.
To remove the ears, pull them down and give them a good twist. They should pop right off without any issues.
Want to keep them a bit longer? Sweet corn holds up well in the freezer. Just blanch the whole ear. Then, remove the kernels from the kernels, put them in a container, and place them in the freezer.
What Pests and Diseases Affect Corn?
Like any other crop, corn is not immune to pests and diseases. Corn is favorite among many different bugs. The quality of your crop can be affected by everything from corn leaf aphids to cinch bugs. These insects will leach nutrients off your plant, which can ultimately affect the quality of the ears.
We recommend using some natural pesticides around the area. Again, be careful when applying the product. You don’t want to disturb the natural pollination process.
When it comes to diseases, corn is susceptible to a range of issues. The most common is something called Corn Smut. It’s a pathogenic fungus that causes gray and white spots on the ears. This usually develops in the soil, so you need to make sure that you’re properly preparing the soil before planting. You can avoid it by choosing a new planting spot in the next growing season.
Other potential diseases include corn rust and corn leaf blight. Choose disease-resistant varieties if these are common issues in your area. You can also decrease your chances of encountering the problems with a natural fungicide.
Growing corn can be a very rewarding experience. There are so many possibilities with your harvest, so reaping the rewards of your hard work always feels good.
Despite all of the intricate details involved with growing corn, it’s not hard once you get the hang of things. All you have to do to get started is to decide what variety you want to plant and prepare the soil.
After your soil is enriched and ready for planting, much of the hard work is done! In only a few months, you’ll have some sweet vegetables ready for your next dish!