Learn how to grow corn like a boss this year so you can enjoy summer BBQs, fresh corn on the cob, winter nights stringing popcorn garland for the Christmas tree and so much more!
How to Grow Corn in Your Backyard Garden or Homestead
Growing corn in my backyard garden has long been one of my favorite plants because there are so many lovely varieties. Like eggs, corn comes in all colors – rainbow corn, rich green, vibrant orange, lovely blue.
Unwrapping an ear of corn is like opening a present! I’m always astounded by the beauty of corn.If you’d like to grow corn too, here are tips that will help you maximize your harvest, regardless of the type of corn you grow.
How to Grow Garden Vegetables Series
What to learn how to grow all the garden vegetables? Check out my How to Grow Series and learn to garden like a champ! More posts coming soon!
- How to Grow Carrots from Planting to Harvest
- How to Grow Corn in Your Backyard Garden or Homestead
- How to Grow Brussel Sprouts
- How to Grow Rhubarb – Tips and Tricks for a Good Harvest
- Growing Snap Peas, Shelling Peas, and Snow Peas
- How to Grow Lettuce Like a Champ
- Growing Potatoes the No-Dig Way
- 11 Secret Tomato Growing Tips
- Beginner’s Guide to Growing Garlic
- How to Grow Broccoli from Planting to Harvest
Types of Corn
Corn is actually a type of grass with lots of different varieties. Depending on the type of corn you grow, you can expect that it will reach 4 to 12 feet tall. Corn generally bears one to two ears of corn per stalk, but some types of corn do grow more ears.
It bears mention that there are a lot of different types of corn. Here are some of the most notable types of corn for eating, popping, grinding, and ornamental uses.
Field corn is what you see when you drive around midwest states in the summer. In 2018, 92% of all field corn grown in the US was GMO, or GE as they’re calling it now, according to the FDA. Field corn is used for animal feed, ethanoyl production, and is also deconstructed and turned into grain alcohol, high fructose corn syrup, etc.
Popcorn is a lot of fun to grow – just be careful about cross pollination. Popcorn takes longer to germinate than sweet corn, and most varieties require 90-120 days to grow.
Some of our favorite popcorn varieties are:
Flint corn also a lot of fun to grow. This type of corn is most often used for grinding into cornmeal or flour. It’s also a lovely ornamental corn. I mostly grow flint corn in my garden, leaving the sweet corn to my farmer neighbor. I’ve grown and love: Striped Japonica, Atomic Orange, and Green Oaxacan corn.
Sweet corn is as varied as the rest of the corn types. It’s also worth noting, that most sweet corn is NOT genetically modified, with several favorite hybrid and heirloom varieties.
When to Plant Corn
Corn is best planted directly in the soil once the ground is nice and warm. You want your nights to be a steady 60 F or warmer for good germination.
Corn will tolerate a light frost as long as it is fewer than about two inches tall, but it won’t germinate until the soil temperature is around 50 F.
In my zone 5b garden in Iowa, I start watching the weather in early April to hopefully plant corn by mid-to late April. According to the Iowa State Extension, the corn planting window with near 100% germination rate is between April 15 and May 10.
You can start your corn sooner by adding black plastic to the ground to help warm the soil. Once you have your soil warmed you can begin planting but by adding a low tunnel you can get a little bit of a jump.
Just beware that if you have a frost and your corn is too tall, it can die. Corn IS frost sensitive.
Don’t waste corn seeds planting it in cold soils. Corn will rot in the ground if it isn’t warm enough. Make sure to test your soil temperature to determine optimum planting time.
How to Plant Corn
Corn needs to be planted in full sun, well-drained soil. Sow corn seeds about one inch deep and 6-8 inches apart. I usually plant two corn seeds together and then thin them out to 8 to 12 inches apart once they germinate. Soils with a pH of 5.8 to 7.0 will make your corn the happiest.
Plant your corn in squares. Do NOT do a long row as you won’t get a good harvest. Corn is pollinated by the wind. Corn stalks need to grow side by side so every tassel is pollinated and you get plenty of kernels on each cob.
Corn is a heavy feeder and it grows well in the same spot beans grew the previous year. I’d cut the beans off at the base leaving the roots and the nitrogen nodules to break down in the soil just waiting to feed the corn next year. I also put compost on the beds once the corn was around 6” high.
Corn also grows well using the square foot gardening method. To get the most corn and in the least amount of space, imagine a diamond. Each point on the diamond is 6” away from the point next to it. Drop a seed an inch in the ground at each of those points.
If you want to eat corn through the whole season plant another block a week or 2 later for a continued harvest through the season. I always planted a new block every week. If we were getting tired of it I would just can or freeze for winter eating. Be sure to check how long it takes for your corn to grow.
If you’re growing several types of corn, you will need to be aware of cross pollination, especially if you’re growing sweet corn and popcorn. Plant them too close together and you will end up with some weird popcorn mix because the popcorn genes are dominant.
To avoid cross pollination you can do three things:
- Only grow one type of corn per year (how boring is that?)
- Spread your corn types out, separating by at least 100 feet per variety, but probably further apart would be better.
- Stagger when you plant each type of corn. Take a look at each variety’s dates to maturity and plant different types of corn three to four weeks apart. This is the method I personally choose and it works fine for me.
Corn Pests and How to Avoid Them
Corn has a few pests and diseases but they can be treated and even avoided using trap crops, Bt and/or Nematodes. Some of the more common corn pests you will want to be on the lookout for include:
- Corn earworm
- Corn borer
- Fall armyworm
- Flea Beetles
You’ll know harvesting time is near when the raccoons take over your sweet corn. I don’t know how they know, but they do! To keep raccoons out of sweet corn, get good great pyrenees dogs, use an electric fence, or plant behind some sort of tall Fort Knox fence system. You can also grow extra so when they invariably get some of your sweet corn, you still have plenty to eat.
Companion Plants Corn Loves
Corn LOVES to have cool feet so planting amaranth greens to cover its roots will keep down weeds, give you salad to eat, and will help your corn grow better.
You can also plant a 3 Sisters Garden of corn, pumpkin and beans. The pumpkin will grow through shading the corn’s feet and keeping weeds down. Corn has shallow roots so keeping the weeds down naturally is a great way to avoid accidentally hoeing your poor little corn plants out of the garden.
Pumpkins in corn have also shown to reduce the risk of loss by raccoons due to the pricklies on the pumpkin vines.
The beans will feed everything via the nitrogen nodules. And the corn will provide something for the beans to climb up.
We love growing 3 Sisters Gardens and have a whole post dedicated to the specifics.
Other good companion plants for corn include:
I like to mix my sunflowers in my corn patch especially as it gives birds something to sit on and look for bugs. Sunflowers also hold up the corn stems if they have a tendency to fall over.
When to Harvest Corn
Harvesting corn depends on the type of corn. Sweet corn will be harvested first and you’ll want to harvest sweet corn at exactly the right time. Overripe sweet corn is the worst, in my opinion.
Make sure you write down the days to maturity for the varieties you plant and calculate forward so you know about when to harvest. Keep track of these dates in the free garden planner my lovely blog subscribers can download!
Harvest dates are like due dates…merely a suggestion. But you’ll know the corn is ready once the silks start turning brown and each ear of corn has at least one kernel near the top of the cob.
Flint corn and popcorn dries on the cob so there’s no rush to harvest it. Just let your corn stalks die, then pull off corn ears in the fall once everything is good and brown and dead.
How to Harvest Sweet Corn
You will want to harvest sweet corn first thing in the morning. We always harvest within an hour of the sun coming up as that is when the corn is the sweetest. Harvesting in the middle of the day or even in the evening isn’t good.
If you want to have corn on the cob that evening or for lunch pick it in the morning, drop it into the crisper drawer with a terry cloth towel and add ice cubes to keep that sugar cold and in the corn.
How to Preserve Corn
Corn can be frozen, dried or canned. I prefer to freeze or dry my corn. While you can freeze corn on the cob, I never freeze corn that way. It just doesn’t ever come out the way you want it too. I have a whole guide on the ins and outs of freezing corn.
You’ll want to contact a Ball Canning Guide for how to can your corn. They’re the experts and it’s always a good idea to learn from the best.
To dry your corn spread it out on a dryer sheet and dry at 130* for 8-12 hours. It should be brittle. To check it’s dry enough, grab a kernel and smack it with a hammer. You want it to explode/shatter. Store it in an airtight container.
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Do you grow corn? What is your favorite type to grow? Sweet? Popcorn? Flour?