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Care for Corn Plants

Updated on March 12, 2014

As the seasons shift and late summer draws near, fresh sweet corn becomes a hot commodity here in the United States. Oddly enough though, people aren't looking to their gardens to provide the sweet kernels they crave. Instead, they rely on harvests available at the local supermarket. While priced inexpensively, it's just absolutely absurd to go down the grocery store route when all the sweet corn you could ever dream of can easily be grown in your own backyard! Don't let another season slip away. Come learn how to care for corn plants today!

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Dwarf Heirloom Blue Jade Sweet Corn. Grown in 2013.
Dwarf Heirloom Blue Jade Sweet Corn. Grown in 2013.

Why Grow Corn?

In America, corn is everywhere. It's plentiful and cheap, so what's the purpose of growing your own?

Well, it all comes down to preservation. Although most don't even give a second thought, the corn we're used to today is much different than the corn that our grandparents and even parents grew up around. This phenomena is due to the rapid transition and vast usage of bio-engineered maize in the agricultural industry. During the 2013 season, the USDA estimated that 90% of corn acreage in the United States was of genetically altered origins. With such a prevalence, the genetics of old heirloom varieties are vulnerable to contamination. This however is where growing your own corn takes the stage! No matter how big the patch, by planting and growing your own heirloom corn, you can help keep traditional varieties alive so that they may be enjoyed by future generations.

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Young Blue Jade corn plants.
Young Blue Jade corn plants.

Basic Requirements For Growing Corn -

  • Full Sun - An area that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight on a daily basis will be sufficient to grow corn. South facing plots are ideal as they will provide even longer sunlight exposure periods. East and west facing plots will fair well, but my produce slightly smaller ears due to less direct sunlight.
  • Fertile Soil - Corn is a heavy feeder and needs a soil that can sustain its appetite throughout the season. By amending the chosen plot with compost/aged manure, rock dust, and bone meal before the season starts, you can build a base soil that will provide corn with all the nutrients it'll need throughout its growing and flowering phases.
  • Block Planting - Although a row or two of corn may look pleasing, backyard and small space gardeners should use block planting techniques when growing corn. This style of planting will ensure proper plant spacing as well as provide enough plant density to allow for maximum pollination. Then minimum block size recommended for growing corn is a 4ft x 4ft area. With this configuration, you can easily divide the space into 16, one square foot sections. Plant one corn plant per sections and presto, you've got a functional 16 plant corn patch!

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Click thumbnail to view full-size
Blue Jade corn plants. At this point, the plant are about two weeks old. This photo shows the same Blue Jade corn plants just ten days later!
Blue Jade corn plants. At this point, the plant are about two weeks old.
Blue Jade corn plants. At this point, the plant are about two weeks old.
This photo shows the same Blue Jade corn plants just ten days later!
This photo shows the same Blue Jade corn plants just ten days later!

Did you know. . .

That sweet corn instantly starts to degrade in flavor once picked from the stalk? Yes, it's true! Once harvested, sweet corn begins converting sugars into starches. For the best tasting sweet corn, eat or use the ears within minutes of harvesting from the plant.

How to Grow Corn -

  • Preseason - With shallow and heavy feeding roots, corn will demand the very best from your soil. To meet these nutrition requirements, till and amend the soil about one month before the first seeds will be sown. By adding generous quantities of high quality compost or aged manure, you'll help to create a soil that will keep your corn plants thriving all season long.
  • Planting - Sow corn seeds one week after the date of the average last frost in your area, or once the soil has warmed to at least 50°F. Super sweet corn varieties should be planted 1-2 weeks later or when the soil has warmed to 60°F. Plant 2-3 seeds in each hole at a depth of 1-2 inches. Thin the number down to one plant after a couple weeks of growth. For block planting, divide the garden space into square foot sections and plant seeds into the middle of each. For standard row planting, space seeds 8-12 inches apart in rows 2-3 feet apart.
  • Watering - Corn plants enjoy moist soil, but will suffer if watered too frequently. The best course of action is to water thoroughly once the top 1-2 inches of soil has become dry. This pattern typically equates to watering every other two days during cooler parts of the season, and about every other to everyday during the hottest parts of the summer.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
At two months from planting, the corn plants were nearing flowering and ear production!Backyard corn plants with tassels.
At two months from planting, the corn plants were nearing flowering and ear production!
At two months from planting, the corn plants were nearing flowering and ear production!
Backyard corn plants with tassels.
Backyard corn plants with tassels.
  • Feeding - If you started on the right foot and amended your soil well, you shouldn't need any additional fertilizers while your corn is growing. If you feel like your corn plants need more nutrition, feed with compost tea twice weekly. At the first sign of flowering (tassels appear), you can work in bone meal around the corn plants. Bone meal is a slow release natural fertilizer that will provide essential phosphorus for the production of full ears.
  • Harvesting - Depending on the variety and climate, corn is ready to harvest 70-110 days after first sprouting. Ears that are ready to harvest will have swelled in size and the silks turned brown. At this point, the kernels should look full and milky. To harvest the ears of corn, twist them in a downward motion towards the base of the plant. They should break free with ease. A lot of the time, the upper ears will be ready for harvest before the lower ones, allowing the gardener to get at least a couple of harvests from each plant.

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Heirloom Blue Jade Sweet Corn.
Heirloom Blue Jade Sweet Corn.

Heirloom Varieties

Name
Type
Days to Maturity
Golden Bantam
Sweet Corn
85
Blue Jade Dwarf
Semi Sweet Corn
80-100
Country Gentleman
Sweet Corn
95-100
Stowell's Evergreen
Sweet Corn
90-100
Blue Hopi
Flour Corn
80-115
Bloody Butcher
Flour Corn
100-125
Strawberry
Popcorn
100
Glass Gem
Popcorn
100

What type of corn do you grow, or wish to grow?

See results

Tips For Growing Corn -

  • Grow One Variety - Although you may be tempted to grow several varieties of corn in your backyard, don't! Since corn plants pollinate through the wind, the chances of cross-pollination are very high in a backyard setting. This cross contamination of varieties can lead to poor quality ears, or kernels that are mediocre in flavor. Unless you're sitting on a few acres, pick one variety of corn and stick with it!
  • Use Sweet Corn Immediately - Once sweet corn ears are harvested from the plant, they immediately start to convert sugars into starches. For the sweetest tasting corn, harvest shortly before you plan to eat or freeze.
  • Corn Borers, Beetles & Worms - If there are known corn pests in your area, you may want to treat your plants so that the ears do not become infested. One sure fire way of keeping these corn eating bugs from destroying your ears is to spray the silks with a 1:1 mixture of light vegetable oil and water. When sprayed, this mixture will run down into the ears and suffocate any unwanted pests and also act as a barrier for any of those trying to get in. By using an organic vegetable oil, you can get rid of unwanted pests and never even come close to a toxic pesticide. *** Take care to spray the silks only after they have completed fertilization and have started to brown at the ends.

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Although eating your homegrown corn will surely put a smile on your face, it's not quite the best part in this adventure! See, now that you're in possession of heirloom corn ears, you can dry a few of them to collect seeds for planting next season. This is by far the most rewarding part! Hang some ears up in a cool dark area and allow them to become fully dry. When dried, the kernels will have shrunk and will easily pop off of the cob for storage. The overall process may take a month to complete, but by the end, you'll have enough kernels to replant your garden and your neighbor's as well! By growing and sharing, we can all help to keep heirloom corn alive! Thanks for reading this guide on how to care for corn plants.

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Although as a child I enjoyed planting popcorn and watching a real corn plant grow from it, I've never really thought about planting corn to eat. You may have planted an idea here! It's also interesting to learn that 90% of U. S. corn acreage is bio-engineered. I'm sure that most people have no idea that the corn they buy in the grocery store is bio-engineered. Thanks for an interesting hub.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      4 years ago from California

      Splendid information. I didn't realize corn was such a heavy feeder. Last time I planted corn it killed the rosebush next to the plot. I didn't like the shape of the rosebush anyway. Holding on to some ears for seed is a splendid idea.

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