This year I found myself with extra room in the garden to plant whatever my heart desired. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at growing corn, but never had the space or the right seeds. Corn is one of the most commonly grown GMO crops in our country, which makes finding truly GMO-free seeds difficult. After coming across packets of these elusive seeds at a local market, I knew exactly what I was planting in my extra garden plot.
I bought two types of seeds: Painted Rocky Mountain (an ornamental) and Sweet Corn (for eating). After doing a bit of research, I felt ready to venture into my new endeavor. Corn seemed easy enough to grow – pop some seeds in the ground and in a few months reap the rewards! Right? Wrong… corn is a bit more complicated than that. Being a newbie to corn growing I learned quite a few things. Here are the top 5 lessons I learned growing corn. Enjoy!
1: Plant more seeds than needed.
There’s an old farmer’s rhyme about planting corn seeds: “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the soil and one to grow.” Although it’s not necessary to plant four times the amount of seed that you actually want to grow, a little extra doesn’t hurt (if only to ensure good germination). As for the blackbird and the crow, they may be tough to beat in large cornfields, but there are a few ways to outwit them in the home garden. I initially had a problem with birds eating my seeds. Then I figured out if I planted 3-4 seeds in each spot, encouraged my dog to chase the birds, and placed a solar owl overlooking my garden that I would have at least some corn successfully growing.
2: Corn thrives on consistent watering.
Corn needs about 1 inch of water a week, particularly when the stalks begin to tassel. Water stress during pollination will result in ears with lots of missing kernels, so don’t skip watering your corn patch. Apply water at the soil surface by using a soaker hose or drip irrigation. Avoid spraying plants from above, which could wash pollen off the flowering tops. I used drip irrigation around my sweet corn and a soaker hose around my Painted Rocky Mountain corn.
3: Corn needs to be pollinated by hand (if you live in an area like I do with light wind).
I live in an area of California that has wind, but is not windy enough to adequately pollinate corn. Corn pollination here requires a helping hand (literally). Fascinating fact about corn – in order to produce kernels, wind must deposit pollen from the tassels (plant tops) onto each of the silks on the ears. Every unpollinated silk results in an undeveloped kernel. If you’re planting only a single or double row of corn plants, you can improve pollination by transferring pollen from tassels to silks yourself. Collect pollen as soon as the silks emerge from the ears and the tassels have a loose, open appearance. Wait for a morning when there’s no breeze, and shake the tassels over a dry bucket or other container to release the pollen. Collect pollen from several plants. Immediately transfer the pollen into a small paper bag and sprinkle the powdery material onto the silks of each ear in your corn patch. Repeat once or twice on subsequent days for best results.
Here is some of my Painted Rocky Mountain corn that was wind pollinated (note the missing kernels).
And here is some of my Sweet Corn that I pollinated by hand (note the full set of kernels).
4: Aphids LOVE corn silks.
Aphids. I was not expecting aphids to be such a problem when growing corn. I don’t have much of an aphid issue elsewhere in the garden, but when it comes to corn…oh my. In a matter of a few days I went from finding a few small bluish aphids (commonly referred to as corn leaf aphids) on the silks to having thousand covering the stalks. Corn leaf aphids begin feasting early in a plant’s development, feeding on the whorls of corn. In large infestations they can stunt the growth of the plant and curl the leaves. As these aphids feed, they excrete sticky honeydew that attracts black mold. I ended up removing several heavily infested stalks and spraying the others with an insecticidal soap. Lucky for me a family of lady bugs hatched shortly and helped patrol the corn.
5: Harvest corn when the silks are dry and have turned brown.
I was so excited to pick my corn. Each time I opened a husk it was like finding a treasure of kernels inside. At first, it was a bit tricky figuring out when my corn was ripe (it’s not a like a tomato that tells you by turning red). I learned corn has several easy indicators it is time to harvest. First, the silk should be brown but the husks are still green. Second, the corn is in the “milk stage.” To check this, gently peel back a small amount of husk and puncture a kernel. If milky liquid comes out, it’s ready. If clear liquid comes out, the kernels aren’t quite ready. If there is no liquid, you’ve waited too long.
I hope this post inspires you to grow something new in your garden! There is always a new lesson to be learned which is part of the fun of gardening. 🙂