Growing corn in your garden can provide you with a source for a delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. It can also provide snacks (Popcorn), cornmeal for baking (Indian and Field Corn), and even breakfast fare (grits). Most often people will grow sweet corn in their gardens, because it is what they are familiar with. If you've never tasted locally grown freshly harvested sweet corn you're missing out on one of life's great pleasures!
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I've successfully grown Popcorn and Indian Corn in my garden as well as
sweet corn. If you have a garden, you could be growing corn too. It
takes a bit of effort and care, but it's worth it in the end.
There are basically 4 varieties of corn commonly grown today. All of them come from a common wild ancestor (a grass known as teosinte) that was domesticated by Native Americans of Central America. They were growing corn for centuries before Europeans found out about it. Corn has been selectively bred for various uses over the generations.
Sweet Corn - This is the kind that you eat "on the cob", and is most commonly grown by gardeners. Sweet corn comes in yellow and white varieties, as well as mixed. It generally grows 6 - 8 feet high.
My favorites are "NK-199" and "Incredible" which are both yellow types. Both verietise lend themselves well to freezing. "Peaches and Cream" is a good flavored yellow & white mix variety, but the ears are pretty small compared to the yellow varieties. Sweet corn can be cut off the cob and frozen or canned for eating all winter.
Popcorn - This is the shortest of the corn varieties. Popcorn only grows to 4-6 feet high. You can find yellow, white, red, blue, and black hulled varieties.
Popcorn is classified by the shape of the popped kernel (butterfly, mushroom...), the shape of the un-popped kernels (pearl, rice...), whether or not it has hulls when popped, and occasionally the appearance of the ear (strawberry).
Popcorn is best vacuum packed to maintain it's freshness for longer periods. Living in Indiana, we grow a Purdue hybrid that produces very well. We grew a singe 30 foot row in 2008 that produced 6 quarts of popcorn ready for popping.
Indian (Flint) Corn - This is the multi-colored decorative corn that you see in the fall with the shucks still attached and tied together in bundles of three. It grows TALL - some varieties grow well over 10 feet high.
Indian Corn is a traditional fall or Thanksgiving decoration in most parts of the U.S. but most people don't realize that it has any other use beyond decoration.
We grow some almost every year, and grind it into corn meal. It makes fantastic corn bread and fish breading. I've also ground it more coarsely and screened it through kitchen strainers to make our own grits. The color of the cornmeal and grits is a bit odd (kind of grayish), but not at all unattractive, and the flavor is really nice. In 2008, a single 30 foot row in our garden produced 3 gallons of corn meal (about 25 pounds).
Field (Yellow Dent) Corn - This is the commercially grown corn that covers millions of acres of farm land all across the mid west and central United States and lower Canada. Field corn is used to make corn meal, corn oil, flour, starch, high fructose syrup, livestock & poultry feed, alcohol (bourbon and whiskey), ethanol for gasoline supplements, and hundreds of other applications. There are quite a few heirloom varieties of dent corn that can be grown in the garden, and used for corn meal or to feed a small chicken flock.
Hybrid vs. Heirloom (Open Pollinated) Varieties:
Most corn grown commercially and many garden grown varieties of corn today are hybrid varieties - meaning they have been cross bred to create specific traits like size, flavor, color or resistance to certain herbicides. If you grow a hybrid variety, it means that you can't collect seed corn from your patch and replant the following year and expect to get the same results. Hybrids deteriorate after the first generation.
If you grow open pollinated or heirloom varieties, then you can keep seed corn and use for growing the following year. Vegetable Seeds are becoming more expensive every year it seems, so heirloom varieties are becoming more popular for that reason. The drawback however, is that you can plant only one variety in one location. Make sure multiple different varieties are in totally different garden patches as far away from each other as you can plant then. If you get cross pollinated corn, the results may not be to your liking the following year!
If you are going to be growing corn in your garden this year, don't get in a hurry to get started! Plant corn in the early summer, where it will receive full sun, and only after soil temperatures reach 70°. If you plant it sooner than that, the kernels will germinate poorly, and many will rot in the ground. Plan ahead, because corn can shade out other plants growing next to it. I have grown green beans successfully right next to my corn patch, so it's not impossible to grow other vegetables next to corn, just use some caution.
Plant corn about 1 1/2 inches deep, in rows 2-3 seeds together, about 6-8 inches apart. Rows should be roughly 24-30 inches apart. After they sprout, thin each grouping to a single plant. Corn needs to be grown in a good sized patch to be successful. Grow at least 4 rows, and keep them all together. There are two reasons for this.
First, the friend of growing corn is wind. Corn is pollinated mostly by wind action, and growing corn in blocks aids in pollination. If the ears don't get pollinated well enough, the kernel formation will be poor.
Second, the enemy of growing corn is wind (too much of a good thing...). A strong summer storm can lay a patch of corn flat to the ground. The more rows you plant together, the more support and protection they can provide to each other. If you have to, plant half rows to form a block (for example: 4 half rows instead of 2 full rows).
Corn stalks can often stand back up on their own after a storm, but not always. It depends on how severe the damage is and how late in the season it happened. When the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through this area in the fall of 2008, many hundreds of acres of local corn fields were blown down, and became un-harvestable. It was a devastating loss for local farmers who depend on growing corn for a living. We got lucky, we unwittingly picked our Popcorn and Indian Corn the day before the storm blew through.
One important thing that you can do to strengthen your corn and make it more wind resistant, is to hill up soil onto the stalks when it reaches about 12 - 18 inches tall. Corn can grow more roots from it's lower nodes (or joints), and hilling it up covers those nodes, allowing those extra roots to form. This strengthens it against wind damage. It doesn't make it wind proof, but it sure makes it more resistant to it. Hills should cover about 8-10 inches of the lower stalk.
Corn is a heavy feeder, so right before I hill it, I'll work in some fertilizer. Urea fertilizer will give you the most bang for your buck, but any high nitrogen fertilizer will work. You can get it at local nurseries, or the local farmers co-op. I Spread 3-4 pounds down each side of a 30 foot row. Use a hoe to work it into the top 3-4 inches of soil. Hill up the corn right after the fertilizer is worked in.
Corn grows surprisingly fast in the heat of the summer. If you go quietly to your corn patch on a calm, humid summer night before it tassels out, you can actually hear the corn growing. I always thought this was an "old wives tale", but I tried it anyway - just to see. It actually sounds like a light breeze is blowing through the corn, when there's no breeze. The more corn you have, the better you can hear it.
Harvest your sweet corn when the kernels are fully mature. When the silks turn brown and dry up, start checking. Peel back the shucks of a likely ear, only far enough to expose some of the kernels. Press your thumbnail into a kernel. When it pops milky white juice, the corn is ready. Keep in mind, it won't all be ready on one day. It may take a week to 10 days for all of the ears to mature. Pick the largest, thickest ears first. If you're not sure about an ear, peel it back and give it the thumbnail test. If you open the shucks on an ear that's not ready, it's not a big deal. Smooth the shucks back over it and leave it for a couple of days. It'll still mature.
NOTE: Be sure to either eat or preserve (can or freeze) corn within a couple of days after picking. Actually, the sooner the better. Enzymes in the kernels begin converting the sugars into starches as soon as you pick it, and the sweet flavor can fade VERY quickly.
Ears of Popcorn, Indian Corn, and Field Corn, all need to be left on the stalks until they have dried. If the weather promises to turn bad, you can pick these when there is still the slightest tinge of green at the base of the shucks. Peel back the shucks, but don't break them off. You will have to hang these ears up to dry in a warm, dry place. I use twine to hang them by the shucks in my garage. Popcorn about 10 ears in a bundle, Indian or field corn 5-6 in a bundle. After 3-6 weeks of drying, you can begin shelling the corn for popping, or grinding.
We have also sold some of the best looking ears of Indian Corn at the local farmer's market for decoration. If you are going to do that, hang it to dry in bundles of three, using ears that look nice together.
If you are planning on growing corn, keep on the lookout for insect damage in your corn patch. Corn borers and corn ear worms are both caterpillars (larvae of moths), that can damage stalks, ears and kernels. Spray with insecticides only if the level of damage warrants it. There are a lot of state regulations on pesticides, and each state is different, so I'm not going to recommend anything here. Speak to a local nursery professional, or county agriculture agent to find out what's legal and effective in your area.
Raccoons, Possums, Squirrels, Deer, Crows, Grackles, and many other mammals and birds, can get a taste for corn. Most of the mammals do their damage at night, while the birds and squirrels work during the day.
One of the easiest (although not fool proof) ways to prevent or reduce damage, is growing corn as close to human activity as possible. These critters tend to shy away from areas where people spend a lot of time (usually, but not always!).
Trapping and relocation of small mammals will work to some extent. I've been told of hanging scented soaps around the edges of your garden to deter deer. I haven't tried it, but a friend tells me that it is effective. I have another friend who grows his corn next to his dog kennel. The dog keeps the animals scared away for the most part, and barks enough to let him know that something is out there.
Here in Indiana, (and I suspect in
many other states), you can apply to The Department of Natural Resources
for a nuisance permit, which allows you to harvest deer out of season
that are damaging crops. If you are suffering deer damage, and like the
taste of venison, this may be an option for you as well. Check your
home state's regulations on harvesting nuisance deer.
corn in your garden can mean far more than just sweet corn. Although
growing your own sweet corn can be pretty rewarding in itself, growing
corn that will allow you to make your own meal, grits, and popcorn gives
you one more tool that can lead you another step down the path to self