Corn is the biggest U.S. grain crop and you can grow it, too!
Fresh from the garden ears of sweet corn, heated, and then topped with butter, salt, and pepper, well, life just doesn’t get much better than that! Now, we are not talking about the corn used to feed livestock. That brand is called grain corn. Sadly, I wasn’t particularly happy with my Indian corn crop experience, either. It may have historical merit, but the kernels were tough and very starchy. Call me spoiled, but I prefer my corn with fat, sugar-filled kernels that burst on my tongue with every bite.
History of corn
For anyone who has had the opportunity to explore Mitchell, South Dakota, you know there’s a lot to be said for corn. Corn, or maize, was domesticated by people in what is now Mexico nearly 10,000 years ago. Early corn plants only grew 1-inch long cobs, and only one cob per plant. Selective breeding brought us to cobs of several inches in length and plants capable of producing multiple cobs on each plant. One of the three most genetically modified crops, nearly 90% of the U.S. corn harvest is of GMO corn. In addition to being eaten from the ear, or as grits or meal, corn (Zea mays) is also used as a sweetener (high fructose corn syrup), biofuel, and to make plastics, fabrics, adhesives, and liquor. There are six types of naturally occurring corn (and 142 GMO types, as of 2015). Those six types are dent corn, pod corn, flour corn, flint corn, popcorn, and our beloved sweet corn.
How corn grows
Being a member of the grass family (Poaceae or Gramineae), corn is cousin to bamboo, rice, and your lawn. Corn grows a hollow stem that is wrapped with leaf blades. Each corn plant produces both female and male flowers, but they are not self-pollinating. This is called monoecious. These flowers both start out bisexual (referred to as ‘perfect’ in the world of botany), and then develop into one gender or the other.
Corn kernels are actually female inflorescences, or flower clusters, that turn into fruit. These fruits are protected by tightly wrapped leaves that we call husks. At the top of each stem (or cob) is a male inflorescence (tassel) that releases pollen onto the wind. The silks we work so hard to remove are actually elongated stigmas from the female flower. There is an ovary at the end of each silk thread that must be pollinated for fertilization to occur, allowing a kernel to develop. Since pollen is carried on the wind, corn must be planted in blocks, rather than rows.
How to grow corn
Corn needs lots of nutrients in the soil, so be sure to prepare the beds ahead of time with plenty of aged compost. Corn does not transplant very well, so wait a couple of weeks after your last frost date before planting. Seeds should be planted one inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart. Soil needs to be at least 60°F for germination to occur. Once your corn seedlings emerge, thin them to 8 to 12 inches apart. Corn plants have very shallow roots, so proper irrigation is important. In the heat of summer, your corn plants may need an average of 5 gallons of water per square yard each week. Since each microclimate is different, you will have to make your own adjustments. Just keep in mind that insufficient irrigation can reduce the number of silks that emerge and that means less developed kernels on your ears of corn. One way to give your corn seedlings an extra boost of nitrogen is to use the Three Sisters Method and plant corn with beans and squash. The beans ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to nearby plants, and the squash produce large leaves that shade the soil.
Corn pests and diseases
We are not alone in our love of corn. An old saying tells us, “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the soil, and one to grow.” You may or may not be able to scare away the crows (and chickens) with scarecrows (I use my dogs), but nothing can stop a determined raccoon. It is the smaller pests, however, that will probably cause you the most problems. These generalists include: armyworms, aphids, spider mites, thrips, wireworms, cutworms, flea beetles, cucumber beetles, and grasshoppers. Corn-specific pests you might see are leafhoppers, leaf miners, seed-corn maggots, and corn earworms. Corn is also subject to fungal and bacterial diseases, such as smut, soft rot, fusarium root and ear rot, maize dwarf mosaic, pythium stalk rot, seed rot, and damping-off disease. Of course, corn smut really is delicious, so don't panic if it shows up.
Sweet corn loses its sweetness soon after harvesting, so pick it as you will be eating it. Corn is ready for harvest when the tassels turn brown. If your harvest is bigger than you can eat, corn freezes well.
If you have a patch of ground, give corn a try!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!