Corn (Zea mays) is a great cereal crop to add to your garden this year. Not only is it delicious, it also offers a wide variety of home and medicinal uses.
If you’ve decided to give it a try but don’t know where to start, we’ve put together some easy-to-follow tips and instructions that will help you along the way!
Keep reading to learn how easy it can be.
What You’ll Learn
Picking Your Corn Variety
Because corn is cold intolerant, you’ll want to choose your variety by zone and plant in the spring in order to yield a strong and flavorful harvest.
Most variations planted in the States today are hybrid. None of these varieties are genetically modified, a tactic widely used in commercial farming to prevent weeds or pests from harming the crop.
The following list includes the most popular, non-GMO varieties of sweet corn grown in the United States. Many of these varieties are available from Mountain Valley Seed Co.
1. Standard (SU)
The standard sugary corn, or SU, is well known for its sweet, creamy texture and should be eaten within a week after harvest for the best taste. The SU type contains more sugar and less starch than field corn, which is primarily used for grain and harvested once the kernels are dried.
The sugars in SU, and other sweet varieties, are the result of a natural gene mutation that controls the conversion of sugar to starch in the plant, making it sweet during the milk stage prior to the plant fully maturing.
2. Sugary Extender (SE)
The SE is an enhanced version of SU, with a higher sugar content than standard sweet corn.
A gene in the SE type causes an increased amount of sugar in the kernels, which also leads to increased tenderness. SE is popular among growers because it retains taste and texture much longer than standard SU types.
3. Supersweet (SH2)
The SH2 is – that’s right, you guessed it – super sweet.
In fact, it has four to ten times the sugar content of the SU type. SH2 has a very low starch content once the kernels have fully matured, making this a difficult seed to establish when planting.
To help start your SH2 seeds, make sure your soil is warmed to 60 degrees and the pH level of your soil is correct. You’ll be rewarded with a crisp, sweet cob that can last in cold storage after harvest for up to 21 days.
Cultivars to Try: Holy Sweet, Jubilee
Take note that every variety is cultivated to grow at specific times of the season in order to allow farmers to plant in 2-week intervals to space out and extend their harvest.
If you have enough space to plant multiple plots at least 100 yards away from each other, then pick a few and plant them a week or two apart.
Urban Farmers has a free online tool to not only check your zone, but to also identify the exact date of harvest for that region, depending on the plant.
Once you find the variety that suits your preference, it’s wise to order your seeds ahead of time – many local and online retailers sell out fast. With seeds in hand, you’ll be ready to plant once spring rolls around in your zone.
The Growing Process
The Perfect Time to Plant
Corn is cold intolerant, so wait until 2-3 weeks after the last frost to plant your seeds.
Make sure your average temperatures in early spring aren’t continuously below 60°F, since you’ll find it challenging to successfully establish seeds in cold soil. If it’s still pretty cool, you can warm the soil of your plot before you plant your seeds with a black earth cover.
If you have ever saved your own corn seeds or have planted them from seed packets, you know that they have a shriveled up, shrunken appearance. They are simply dehydrated and will absorb water once in the earth, before the germination process can begin.
One great way to speed up the germination process is to soak the seeds overnight in tepid water. Allowing the seeds to absorb water before being placed into the earth helps speed up germination and results in a higher success rate.
If you end up with a surprise late frost and your seeds are already in the ground germinating, cover them with garden mulch plastic sheeting or fabric to keep warm. I recommend Warp Brothers mulching film, available from Amazon.
Seeing as each seed will grow to produce only a few ears per plant at best, many farmers choose to plant in 2-week intervals so that they may extend their harvest through the season.
Sweet corn (SU) must be eaten within 1-2 days for the best taste and quality, as the sugars quickly being converting to starch after being removed from the stalk. So planting in 2-week intervals is a great method to always have fresh cobs on hand.
Pick Your Plot for Success
Depending on how much space you have, you can plant different types in different areas of your yard to avoid cross-pollination.
Unless they are the same variety or you’ve staggered out your plantings, each plot should be spaced at least 100 yards apart to avoid any unwanted pollination.
Your plant needs full sun exposure and loamy soil to thrive. Add organic matter like leaves, grass, or compost to your soil to act as an easy fertilizer.
A neutral pH of 5.8-6.8 is ideal. Be sure to water well after planting.
Gardeners generally believe they should plant in a single, long row. But this is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
Corn is wind-pollinated and needs to be planted in large plot grids in order to ensure that all of the plants are pollinated sufficiently. If your space is limited, consider only planting one type so you don’t run the risk of cross-pollination.
This cereal crop is a heavy feeder and each plant will need some elbow room. When planting a plot of rows, space them about 1 to 2 feet apart. Small gardens can successfully yield 15-20 plants in a 4 x 6-foot bed with proper spacing.
The Best Way to Plant Your Seeds
Once you’ve planned your plot, warmed the earth, and soaked your seeds, you’ll be all set to plant outdoors.
Remember to fertilize at the same time you plant so that the soil is at the optimal neutral pH to aid in successful germination, and allow heavy feeding as the sprouts grow quickly into little plants.
The seeds should be placed in holes 1inch below the surface, about 4 to 6 inches apart.
Water quite heavily after planting and consider adding a layer of mulch to retain moisture as the seeds germinate. Corn has shallow roots, making it susceptible to drought – so it is wise to check your soil for moisture during the first few weeks and water as necessary.
Caring for Seedlings and Mature Plants
Once your plants start to grow, they will grow fast! Depending on how many seeds you plant and how many of them have germinated, you will need to thin them to allow each plant enough space for healthy growth.
Wait until they are almost 4 inches tall and then thin them through so your plants are 12 inches apart in their rows. Space is key, since the stalks need lots of nutrients.
As a rule of thumb, make sure to fertilize once when planting, and again when tassels begin to show about 6 weeks after germination.
If your plants start to turn a light yellow instead of a rich, dark green, then they are telling you something: Feed me! Fertilize throughout the season as needed either using a commercial product or with adequate quantities of compost.
When fertilizing, turn soil with a trowel between each plant and test your pH weekly, or as needed if your plants turn yellow.
Water your plants weekly unless you experience spring showers in your zone. You want to keep your plot well watered, but not overwatered.
As the end of the growing season approaches, pay attention to your plants so that you don’t miss harvest time.
Your hard work will go to waste if you wait too long, since the sugars in the kernels will quickly turn to starch and harden after the period of optimal harvest.
The Harvest Process
There are a few ways you can check your ears for signs of ripeness.
First, examine the silks of the plant. They should be dry and light brown with fresh growth at the base of each.
The husks should feel plump when squeezed, and the kernels will burst with a light milky liquid when pressed open.
If you check a kernel and a creamy white liquid appears, you’ve likely missed the optimal harvest and need to remove ears from the stalk right away. Overripe plants will taste starchy.
If the kernels burst open with a clear liquid, you can rest assured they are not yet ready for harvest. But keep a close eye on them!
When ripe, try to remove the ears from the stalks when they are still cool. Early morning is the best time to do this.
Simply grab an ear with one hand, hold the stalk with the other, and pull down and away while rotating until it breaks free of the stalk.
Remember to freeze or preserve your harvest immediately if you do not plan to eat it right away. Corn doesn’t maintain freshness long after harvest, especially the SU and SE varieties. These will begin to taste starchy less than a week after harvest – in fact, some say they can taste the difference within hours of picking!
Fun fact for you growers: if your cobs are harder than usual to shuck and have thicker husks, prepare for a cold winter!
Other Interesting Uses
You may be surprised to learn that in addition to eating corn, there are various other ways to use your plant after harvest.
For example, the silks on your plant are a common ingredient in various home cosmetics like face washes and conditioners, and they are frequently used in home remedies as a diuretic, anti-inflammatory, or even treatment for high blood pressure and diabetes.
If you allow your kernels to dry they can be ground into cornmeal.
In addition to making delicious homemade cornbread, you can mix the ground grain with a little borax and – ta da! – you’ve made an inexpensive, highly effective carpet cleaning solution.
The traditional open pollinated varieties that were allowed to dry on the cob and used in meal and animal feed were collectively known as “dent corn.” These are rarer nowadays as almost all commercial farmers have switched to patented hybrid or GMO cultivars.
Ready, Set, Grow!
Now that you have all the information you need to easily and properly grow sweet corn in your own backyard, you can pick out your favorite type of seeds and head outside to get your hands dirty!
If you’ve had success growing this superb cereal crop or have any tips for a new grower in your region, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Don’t forget to Pin It!
Photo credit: Shutterstock.
The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.
About Casea Peterson
Casea Peterson is a writer and screenplay adviser specialist for businesses in the outdoor industry. She has been writing personally and professionally since 2009, but when she doesn't have her pen in hand, she can be found somewhere in the woods hiking, hunting, or exploring the Pacific Northwest.