How to Grow Corn in Your Garden

Corn isn't hard to grow, but is attractive to pests

Farmer Examining Crop of Corn.
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Corn is one of the most popular vegetables to grow and eat, and all the more delicious when freshly harvested. To get the flavor of fresh corn, you will have to grow your own.

What to Know About Corn Plants

Corn plants (botanical name: Zea mays) grow straight, tall stalks that produce husked ears of tender kernels tufted with silks. Most corn varieties look alike on the outside, but under the husks, sweet corn can be white, yellow, bicolor, and even red. Many modern sweet corn varieties have been bred to mature early in the season, but later maturing types tend to be sweeter.

Although it is easy enough to grow corn in any warm, sunny garden, it is often difficult to successfully bring to harvest because of the competition from crows, raccoons, squirrels and assorted other pests who find corn as delicious as do humans. 

The size of your corn plants will vary with the type of corn you are growing and the growing conditions, but most corn plants average between 6 and 8 feet tall. There are shorter varieties, for gardens with limited space.

To grow well and have the ears fill out, your corn will need a spot that gets full sun. It can take between 60 and 90 days for corn plants to be ready to harvest. 

Growing and Harvesting Corn

Traditional wisdom says harvest your corn the day before the raccoons do. Seriously, look for fat, dark green ears with brown tassels. Squeeze to test for firmness and a rounded, not pointed tip. A final test would be to pierce a kernel with a fingernail. If it spurts milky liquid, it's ready.

Corn is generally direct seeded, after any danger of frost has passed. Because corn is pollinated by the wind, it does best when planted in blocks rather than rows. Pollen from the male tassels needs to make contact with the female silks and close planting means more contact.

Wind pollination also results in easy cross-pollination, so keep different types of corn separated by at least 25 feet or plant varieties that mature at different times.

The soil should be loose, with a neutral pH (6.0 to 7.0). Heavy soils inhibit corn's long tap roots. The shallow roots you will see on the soil surface are predominantly there to anchor the tall plants.

Corn is a heavy feeder, requiring rich soil. Nitrogen is especially important, since corn is basically a grass. An inch or two of compost or rotted manure will also work, as will feeding with fish emulsion. Apply nitrogen fertilizer once the plants are about 8 inches tall and again when they start producing tassels.

Water regularly, especially if you notice the leaves curling and when the cobs begin to swell. It's better to water deeply once a week, rather than providing a little water daily. Keep the area free of weeds that will compete for food and water.

Corn Pests and Problems

Animals will be the biggest pest problem. Corn borers can be kept in check with Bt and by destroying the stalks at the end of the season.

Flea beetles will spread bacterial wilt. Combat that by planting resistant varieties.

Be on the lookout for a grayish black fungus called smut. Although some cultures find it a delicious treat, it can kill your corn harvest. Remove and destroy while young, before the mass bursts and sends the spores everywhere.

Suggested Corn Varieties

  • Early Sunglow: Early and sweet. Good for shorter seasons and small gardens.
  • Silver Queen: Another early producer with pale white kernels, very disease resistant
  • Golden Bantam: An open pollinated heirloom variety, often called the original sweet corn
  • Tuxedo: A "supersweet" variety with extra long ears