Every spring, my granddaddy watched the oak trees. When the leaves reached mouse-ear-sized — I’m still not sure what size that is — he planted his corn patches. Silver Queen or Country Gentleman went at the end of the drive. Golden Bantam grew next to the house. About two weeks before harvest, he cleaned his rifle. The week before harvest, he set up a lawn chair and a box of bullets in the blind beside the corn patch.
Normal people scatter hair clippings to deter corn-loving critters. Serious gardeners build fences. Manic ones install 6″ high electric fences and dare anything to cross it. Insane gardeners guard it all night with a loaded deer rifle. Considering my genes, I’m lucky I’m just manic.
Every year, his garden filled four 20+ ft3 minimum. He planted enough for his kids, their kids, and any local nieces and nephews. After he fed the family, my grandmother opened the phone book and started calling churches.
As a kid, his corn meant hours in the hot Georgia sun weeding, fertilizing, hoeing, standing it back up after storms, and picking and shucking marathons. It was a ton of work for a mountain of corn that my grandmother and mother would heap on my plate five days a week, sometimes more. By age ten, corn and I had a love-hate relationship, mostly hate.
After he passed away, I watched as a seemingly endless stream of people stopped by my grandmother’s house with stories about hard times and how he helped them keep food on the table. Most came months, sometimes years, after the funeral. It took me sixteen years to understand what his corn really meant — community, family, and, above all, love.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.
- Corn is heritage. It’s my grandmother’s cornbread — no sugar or white flour — Mrs. Beatrice’s hominy made with wood ashes and a large wooden spoon, creamed corn, and grits.
- Corn is work. See the hoeing mentions above.
- Corn is fragile. Strong winds and hail can break the stalks off below the ear, destroying most of your crop. It’s called stalk lodging and is a bane of home gardeners, market growers, and megafarms alike.
- Corn is delicious, especially the first fresh ears of the summer. Unfortunately, the local raccoons and your chickens will like it, too. Pen up the chickens before you start harvesting.
- Corn is like a cantankerous old lady. County extensions and universities study corn and create guidelines. However, when your corn plants turn pale green, bugs invade, or the crop fails, seek out a local expert. You’ll likely find them standing in their head-high corn patch with dirt on their pants and a hoe in their hands. When you run into problems, your best source of information is your neighbor who’s grown corn for the last twenty years.
Types of Corn
There are six primary types of corn:
- dent corn,
- flint corn,
- pod corn, also known as wild maize,
- flour corn,
- popcorn, and
- sweet corn.
If you’ve ever driven past a cornfield with drying stalks stretching as far as the eye can see, this is most likely yellow dent corn destined for animal feed, ethanol production, or tortilla chips.
Flint corn, also known as Indian corn and calico corn, and flour corn are both old types cultivated by Native Americans. Traditionally used for hominy, colorful flint corn is most commonly seen today as fall table decorations. Although both flour corn and dent corn are ground and processed via nixtamalization, there is a subtle difference in the taste and texture of cornbread made with these two corn meals.
Choosing a corn type for home corn meal production is a matter of your traditions and personal preference.
Sweet corn and popcorn are the most common types found in the home garden and at farmers’ markets.
Some seed producers categorize sweet corn by sweetness, designating each type as normal sugary (su), sugary enhanced (se), and supersweet (sh2). Sugary enhanced hybrids taste a little sweeter than sugary varieties. However, they offer longer harvest windows and storage periods than sugary varieties. Supersweet, also known as shrunken-2, have the best shelf life.
Here’s the catch. If you grew up eating varieties like Silver Queen, Country Gentleman, and Golden Bantam, a cob of supersweet corn tastes like you boiled it in sugar water. The texture is also softer than what you expect. I don’t plant supersweet because no one in my family wants to eat it, myself included. I stick with my granddaddy’s favorites: Golden Bantam and Silver Queen.
Site Selection and Preparation
Select well-drained soil. If you anticipate heavy rains, use raised beds.
Consider planting a fall/winter cover crop like winter wheat under-seeded with red clover and strip-tilling your corn field. This adds nitrogen and reduces erosion. Note, hilling is not compatible with strip-tilling.
Till or loosen the soil with a broad fork. Ensure the bed is weed-free.
Corn requires 1-1 1/2″ of water every week. Even if you believe you’ll get enough rain, run drip irrigation lines just in case.
The recommendations below are generic. Please check with your county extension office. As corn is a common cash crop, many states have county-level fertilizer recommendations available.
Apply 50-60 lbs/acre nitrogen, 50-60 lbs/acre of phosphorous, and 70-90 lbs/acre of potassium during pre-planting.
After your corn acquires six leaves — about a hand shorter than knee high — apply 90-100 lbs/acre of nitrogen. Depending on your soil, weather, and area, you may require additional applications.
Corn talks! If it doesn’t have enough nitrogen, the tips of the leaves turn yellow. If it needs phosphorous, the leaves turn light green almost like the color is drained out of the plants with some yellow. If you encounter these or other problems, check Kansas State’s https://www.bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/c560.pdf for pictures that will help you diagnose the problem.
Corn grows in most agricultural zones. There are even reports of successful corn crops in Alaska. Depending on whether your area experiences extreme heat or extreme cold, you may need to adapt your growing methods.
In cool climates, some growers start their corn in the greenhouse and then transplant it. Transplant corn seedlings when they are between 2 1/2 and 4-weeks-old.
Before planting, decide whether you wish to grow more than one variety or type and verify that these will not cross-pollinate. For example, if you want to grow both Silver Queen and Country Gentleman, stagger their planting times by 3 to 4 weeks. That way, one variety finishes pollinating before the next sets tassels. You can also accomplish this by planting an early maturing and a late maturing variety.
Corn’s isolation distance is 1600 feet. Unless you have several fields, staggering the tassel time is the easiest method to grow multiple varieties of corn that are true to type. In general, sow the second cultivar 12-14 days after the first. However, check the estimated tassle and/or maturity days for each, particularly if you’re planting both popcorn and sweet corn or a supersweet and sugary sweet corn.
Soil Temperature: 60–90°F
Days to Maturity: 80–120 days, depending on the variety
Place corn seed in distilled water with an aquarium aerator stone and soak it for 18 hours. Spread it on a screen and let it dry. Plant immediately. This increases germination from 76% to 95%.
Spacing and Seeding Rate
Corn wind pollinates. If you are succession planting, plant at least three rows of corn for each block. If you use double rows, each double row only counts as a single row.
Row spacing: 30-42″
Seed spacing: 8-10″
Planting depth: 1/2-1“; use 1” for heavy soils.
Final plant spacing: 8-10″
Drill seeding rate: 9-10 lbs/acre (sugary and sugary enhanced); 5-6 lbs/acre (supersweet)
Have you ever asked an old gardener how he keeps his corn from blowing over every time there’s a slight breeze? The answer is an old technique called hilling in.
To hill in your corn, wait until it’s about 3 feet tall. Then go down the middle of the row (where you walk) and shovel or hoe the dirt from the walkway to base of the stalk. You want to raise the soil level at the base as a stalk by at least 3 inches. Firm the newly added soil with your foot or a hoe.
My granddaddy did this whenever he side dressed his corn crop. It still blew over sometimes, but not nearly as often as mine did when I forgot to hill it in.
Okay, it’s confession time. I didn’t forget. The university site I consulted for soil temperatures didn’t mention it, so I bowed to their degrees and equated education with wisdom. I lost about half my corn that year. Never again.
Keep your corn weeded and watch for vining weeds like trumpet vines and morning glories. Morning glories can easily pull down half your corn.
If you’re interested in trying the three sisters (corn, squash, and beans), make sure your corn is at least 8″ high before you plant your beans. See https://modernfarmer.com/2018/06/three-sisters-garden-planting-corn-beans-squash-together/ for more details.
Harvesting, Storage, and Marketing
Warning: Wasps sometimes build nests in corn patches. They favor the middle rows and attach the nest under the leaf where it meets the stalk.
About two weeks after your corn silks, the green silks will dry and turn brown. Pick a full ear and gently tease the husk back. When the kernels look full and plump (about 18 to 22 days after silking), grasp the top of the ear with one hand, steady the stalk with the other, and yank the ear down. Shuck it and pierce a kernel with your thumbnail. If milk-like liquid oozes out, it’s probably ready.
Some people can also tell by the sweet smell.
Once your corn reaches this stage, you only have 1-2 days to harvest it.
Pick your corn either at night or early in the morning and move it to a cool, shaded area.
Ideally, hydrocool your corn like you would lettuce, pack it in ice, or place it in cold storage. Drop the corn’s temperature as close to 32°F as you can without freezing it and set the humidity to 95%.
Sugary corn keeps for 5-7 days. Supersweet corn has a shelf life of 8-12 days.
See https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/postharvest-cooling-and-handling-of-sweet-corn for additional storage information.
If you plan to field dry your corn, consult your local extension office. In some areas, your corn will mold long before it dries. You may need to look into building a solar oven or a corn crib.
Corn Stalk Tips
There is a market for decorative dried corn shocks, i.e., corn stalks. A few weeks before harvest, start contacting local wedding planners, fall craft fairs, and hardware stores and see if you can find a buyer. For more about harvesting and selling corn shocks, see http://www.uky.edu/ccd/sites/www.uky.edu.ccd/files/cornshocks.pdf.
You can use the corn shocks as animal fodder.
If you plan on composting your corn shocks, cut them into small pieces with a machete or run over them with a flail mower first.
At the Market
Since corn is highly perishable, place a sign in your booth announcing when you expect your corn harvest 2-4 weeks before harvesting. If possible, encourage customers to pre-order for a “fresh picked” experience and then call or email them when their corn is ready for pickup. This reduces storage and freshness concerns. A mailing list or bulk messaging service will simplify customer notifications.
Display corn in the husk in a cool, shaded area of your booth.
In the event you do not sell your entire crop, consider offering late afternoon canners’ specials. Some food banks and churches may also accept corn donations.
Corn may be canned or frozen. If you wish to cut it off the cob, use cut resistant gloves and a sharp knife.
To freeze corn on the cob, blanch the corn, blot it dry, and wrap each cob in plastic wrap. Then group the wrapped cobs in larger bags. This will prevent freezer burn.
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