How to Grow Sweet Corn, Popcorn or Dry Corn in Your Garden
Who doesn’t love sinking their teeth in to fresh corn on the cob, or the aroma of corn bread hot out of the oven? The most popular choice for home gardens is, of course, sweet corn. This is the type you’ll grow if you want corn on the cob, or fresh corn kernels. Sweet corn varieties come in white, yellow or bicolor. For a little variety, try some dry corn! Flint corn and dent corn come in a wide variety of colors and can be used as autumn decorations before processing them for meal, flour, polenta or hominy. Popcorn is another fun choice. Grow your own traditional yellow or multi-colored corn for popping!
If you have enough space, plant several varieties! Unless you plan on saving seeds from your harvest for planting the next year, it’s ok to mix and match. You might also plant multiple varieties with different lengths of time until harvest, so that you can enjoy an extended season of fresh corn. Check out our video on How to Grow Corn, Tricia shows you how she grows corn in her garden.
Types of Corn to Grow
- Sweet Corn–available in white, yellow or bicolor
- Dry Corn
- Dent Corn–when dry the kernels have a small dent. Varieties include Hopi Blue Dent and Bloody Butcher.
- Flint Corn–when dry the kernel has a thick, hard outer coating (endosperm) and is more rounded. The ears tend to be long and slender. Varieties include Floriani, Glass Gem and Japonica.
- Popcorn– Varieties include Tom Thumb, Cherokee, Dakota Black, Neon Pink and Spectrum Red Husk.
Growing Requirements for Corn
No matter what type of corn you choose, it is all planted and grown in the same way.
- Full sun–Because it grows so tall and dense, consider what you will be planting nearby which may be affected by the shade it makes.
- Planted in a cluster or a block for adequate pollination. Instead of planting one long row, you should plan on planting a patch of at least three closely spaced short rows.
- Don't plant too close, final spacing should be about 1 foot between stalks.
- Prepare your garden bed for planting by adding plenty of organic matter.
- Corn is a “heavy feeder” that needs high nitrogen fertilizer such as alfalfa or blood meal. Another excellent way to fertilize your corn is to plant a legume cover crop in the fall, and turn it under a few weeks before planting.
When is the Best Time to Plant Corn?
- Wait to plant your corn until at least two weeks after the last frost date.
- The soil must be warmer than 60°F for the seed to germinate.
- Corn does not transplant well, but if you season is so short that you must start it indoors, plant in biodegradable pots to avoid disturbing the roots when transplanting. A better solution is to help the soil warm faster before seeding outdoors, by using black mulch in your garden beds.
- Soak the corn seeds overnight before planting to help them germinate quicker.
- Plant them at a depth of 1 inch, with 2 seeds per hole.
- Once they’ve germinated, keep the best seedling, and remove the others by snipping them at the base. Don’t pull the unwanted seedlings, because it could disturb or damage the shallow roots of the one you want to keep.
Caring for Your Corn
- Protect new sprouts–To prevent your corn sprouts from being eaten by hungry critters such as birds, fence them in and cover them with bird netting or lightweight Agribon (AG-15). Agribon also helps to prevent corn rootworm, which are the larvae of cucumber beetles.
- Feed them–When your corn is knee-high, dig a furrow next to each row of corn and fertilize in the furrow with high nitrogen fertilizer.
- Keep them weeded–Keep up with weed control throughout the season. Mulch your corn well once it’s a few inches tall. If you decide to pull or hoe out the weeds, be careful not to disturb the corns’ roots.
- Water your corn sufficiently, especially once the tassels form, because if allowed to dry out it could cause the kernels to develop unevenly. Using drip irrigation or a soaker hose will help ensure even watering and reduce weed growth too.
Lots of Pests Love Corn as Much as You Do!
Prevention is the best remedy.
- Keep out larger pests such as deer by fencing your garden in.
- Raccoons can strip a corn patch overnight: keep your corn safe by tying a paper lunch bag over each ear after it’s been fertilized (this also keeps birds off).
- Corn earworms, corn borers and other caterpillars hide in ears and eat up the kernels from the inside. Using a clothespin on each ear tip once silks form can prevent caterpillars from crawling inside; or you can spray your corn with Safer Caterpillar Killer starting when silks emerge.
When is My Corn Ready to Pick
With good care, your corn will produce 1 or 2 ears per stalk.
- Sweet corn is ready to harvest about three weeks after the silks appear. At this time, check for ripeness by pulling back part of the husk and piercing a kernel with your fingernail. If the juice is milky, it is ready. If clear, check again in a few days; if pasty, it is overripe.
- Pick the ears by bending and twisting them toward the ground.
- Once picked, sweet corn ears should be left in the husk until you eat or preserve them.
- If you will not be eating them within 3 days of harvest, blanch and freeze the ears or the kernels for the best flavor.
- Dry corns should be left on the stalk to dry until the first hard frost.
- If dampness is a problem in your area, you can cut the ears before the rainy season and stack them in a cool place until dry.
- Removing dry corn can be difficult, try using a Hand Corn Sheller. Then use a grain mill to turn it into flour, meal or polenta. If you want to make hominy, do not grind the kernels, keep it whole and store in a dry place until ready to use.