One of the all-time popularity contest winners for the home gardener, farmer’s market business, or commercial grower is the familiar tasseled stalk of Zea Mays –- or, as you may know it, corn. This enduring favorite is a high-yielding, versatile, and delicious addition to any summer growth plan, and its easy maintenance will make you an instant fan.
Choosing the Variety
Your first step is to decide how you plan to use the produce. Corn is an amazingly versatile addition to your garden, and comes in many different shapes, sizes and colors. If your purpose in growing corn is to add fresh flavor to your dinner table, make sure you select a sweet variety, such as Silver Queen. If you are instead looking for an ornamental variety to dress up your front steps for autumn harvest season, there are many gorgeous options with shapes both long and short, in colors including blue, strawberry red, mottled yellow, and more. (You can check out all our strains here.)
Starting the Seed
Although it’s possible to sow indoors and then transplant, corn is almost always directly sown into the garden. Wait for the weather to turn warm; if frosts still threaten, be safe rather than sorry. Cornell University warns that the seed won’t germinate at temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Sow the seeds in rows, with each seed buried about an inch deep and with spacing of 12 to 18 inches between plants. When you plot out your rows, keep in mind that you need to leave enough space between rows for a person to walk through and harvest later on.
Corn loves to see the sun. Plant your stand in full sunlight. If you are planting near other vegetables, make sure that the tall growth habit of your corn patch won’t block sunlight from smaller vegetables planted nearby; planting along an edge can help shade the lawn rather than your companion crops. Don’t let them get bone dry, especially as tender seedlings. Try to keep the soil moist at root-level.
As Cornell mentions in the article linked above, the roots of corn are sometimes visible even above the soil line. Although hoeing is necessary -- particularly in the first few weeks while the baby plants are getting a head start on growth -- hoe with care so as not to slice off the tender and shallow root system.
Pests are usually of the four-legged variety. Raccoons adore the sweet flavor of corn just as much as you do, wild geese may pull out young seedlings for the remaining stub of the seed, and deer love to crop off the tops of growing leaves. If you live in an urban area, you may never encounter those problems; for rural gardeners, you may need to consider a fence. But don’t panic -- wildlife are most attracted to your garden when there’s a shortage of other food sources. Typically by the time corn seedlings start to emerge, the natural spring growth in the wild has already recovered from the winter blight. The Old Farmer’s Almanac also notes that insects such as cutworms or cucumber beetles are dangerous, but these rarely cause significant damage.
Cornell states that you can avoid diseases if you use good management techniques. Don't plant the rows tightly together, the site warns; this blocks air circulation, and extensive, unnecessary watering can lead to molding.
Harvesting and Use
For most varieties, you can expect about 90 days until harvest. If you are growing sweet corn, the silky tassels on the ears will send signals that the ear is ripening. If the ear feels plump and the tassel is just starting to change color, peel a small corner of the husk back just enough to check on the first few kernels. Plump kernels that have filled in gaps between rows are perfect (a “corduroy” effect of row-gap-row tells you that the ear still needs some time to fill out). Don’t let the corn get overripe! The best flavor and texture is lost when the kernels have swelled thick and bulging in a tight mass. (For ornamental corn, you don’t need to worry about flavor, and you can leave it on the stalk until needed, unless the weather turns very wet. Letting the ears dry out on the stalk will often help them keep longer.)
For any gardener who hasn’t yet tried adding corn to their vegetable patch, the ultimate test is in the taste. Once you taste the fresh burst of flavor from freshly picked ear corn, there’s simply no comparison to the blandness of store-bought corn.