Tips for Growing Your Best Corn Ever!

Corn ready for harvest
Small garden corn, ready for harvest

Follow these tips to get a great corn harvest! Corn is one of those plants most people imagine when they think of gardening. It is a fast growing plant, and needs special care and attention, but is really worth the effort at the harvest.

Preparation for growing corn:

To grow the best corn, there needs to be some advance preparation. Think of corn as a big, fast-growing grass plant that needs a lot of nitrogen in the soil to develop its stalk, leaves and ears of corn.

To help put nitrogen into the soil, plant a green cover crop in the fall where you are going to plant corn in the spring. Some good cover crops are buckwheat, oats, clover, rye, winter wheat or vetch. They add nitrogen to the soil through their root systems. Turn the cover crop under to let it decompose before planting your corn.  Also add compost, so the corn patch has lots of organic material to absorb and hold water.

Be sure not to plant corn in the same plot two years running, because the nutrients in the soil will be used up after the first year.

Planting Corn:

Plant corn in the first week of March and again in September and early October.

Plant in spring about a week before the last expected frost.  In Zone 9, this is around March 15, so plant your corn the first week of March. It won’t sprout if the soil temperature is below 50 degrees.

You can plant repeated plantings (every 2 weeks) for a continuous harvest. You can also plant (at the same time) early, mid-season and late sweet corn varieties, which will mature at different times, extending the harvest.

In a small garden, plant a square of corn, with each plant 8-10 inches apart. Interplant with winter squash and climbing beans (the famous 3 sisters companion plants). Each plant will help the others.

Corn is pollinated by wind blowing pollen from one plant to the silks of another. Planting in squares of at least 3 rows will help with pollination, as opposed to planting in one or two  long rows.

I have had problems with crows pulling up the just-sprouted plants to eat the seeds. To prevent this, I use row covers to cover the sprouting seeds until they are about 8-12 inches tall.

Mulch heavily after the soil is warm and the corn is growing. I use hay to suppress weeds and prevent erosion. Weeds will use up the nutrients the growing corn needs.

Hill up dirt around the growing corn when it is about knee high, and every two weeks. This will help support the corn, as it has a weak root system. A trick I use in our windy area is to use tomato cages to help support the corn. Otherwise, the strong winds blow the young plants over.

Keep the corn plants well watered.  They need lots of water to grow and produce good ears of corn.  Also, in hot summer weather, corn can lose up to a gallon of water per day through the leaves.

Side-dress the plants with liquid plant food twice during the season. Once when the plants are 8 inches tall, and once when they are knee-high. You can also side dress with about a tablespoon of 10-10-10 fertilizer per plant at those times.

You can make your own plant food as follows:

Manure tea is made by placing several shovelfuls of manure into a burlap or cloth bag, and suspending this in a 5-gallon bucket of water.  Cover, and let this steep for several days. Pour 1-2 quarts of this mixture into another 3 gallon bucket.  Add water until the mixture is the color of weak tea. Pour this dilute mixture around the base of the corn plants. Refill the 5-gallon bucket and let steep again.

Keep the corn plot weed free. If you have planted the 3 sisters, the squash will help keep the weeds down. Depending on the variety of corn you’ve planted, it should be 60-100 days until harvest.

Corn Pests:

Common pests are Corn Rootworm, which gnaws on the roots and weakens the plant. Control this worm by rotating the corn plantings with soybeans each year.

Corn Earworm eat the developing corn kernels.  You won’t see this pest until you open the ear of corn. Control with a few drops of mineral oil on the silks after they turn brown. If you put mineral oil on the green silks, it will interfere with pollination. Earworms are my most troublesome pest.

Corn Borers eat their way into the stalk. Control this pest by manual removal, by ladybugs, which eat the Corn Borer eggs, or by using BT. Destroy corn stalks after the season to prevent overwintering of the pest.

Harvesting Corn:

Harvest corn 18-20 days after pollination.  How do you tell when corn is ripe? The best way is to puncture a kernel with your fingernail, and check the juice. If it is too early, the juice will be watery. Just right, and the juice will be milky. Too late and the kernels will be doughy.

Other tips for ripe corn are: dark green (not yellowed) husks; brown, but not brittle silks, and well-filled ears. The end of the ears should feel blunt, not pointed.

The Second Crop:

In Zone 9, the growing season is long enough to allow a second crop to ripen before the winter. If you decide to grow a second crop, choose a fast growing variety of corn. Plant the corn in September; this will allow 90 days until the first frost, which should be plenty of time to get a harvest. Follow all the recommendations above, but remember to add some extra time for slower growth in the cooler temperatures.

Cooking methods and Recipes:

Okay, now that you have grown and harvested a good crop of corn, how do you prepare it? Share your methods and recipes with the community by leaving a comment below!

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