NGA Articles: Make Room for Corn

Make Room for Corn

By: Jack Ruttle

Corn has a reputation as too big a plant for most gardens. Certainly most of what a person sees varies from pretty tall to gigantic. The original sweet corns, however, were small plants, between four and six feet tall, just the right size for a garden. There are plenty of modern varieties that stay short and still yield hefty, full-sized ears.

Shorter corns are better in smaller gardens because they don't shade nearby crops and are less susceptible to being blown over in a wind, a phenomenon called lodging. New varieties have exceptionally strong root systems and resist lodging. When you fill a raised bed with diminutive plants like these, you can interplant with something like cucumbers. Follow early corn plantings with any of the fall vegetables to get double use from the space.

Another barrier to planting corn, especially for new gardeners, is the baffling number of choices. It used to be that all a gardener had to decide was whether he or she wanted an early or late one, and then what color -- yellow, white or bicolor? Today, there are three distinctly different kinds of sweet corn, sugar enhanced (SE), supersweet (sh2) and normal. Deepening the "cornfusion factor," the catalogs warn us to keep the supersweets far away from all the other kinds or risk ruining the whole crop.

I suspect that many people resolve the issue by not bothering with corn any more. That's an unfortunate choice because corn really isn't hard to grow. It's a classic of the American garden, and if you grow your own you get to experience flavors and textures that you won't find at the local farmstand.

The Mini Corn Patch

There is no minimum size for a patch of corn. You could grow just one plant if you wanted. Four or five of the minicorns in the chart would fit in hal a whiskey barrel. But the standard recommendation that corn should be planted in blocks at least four rows wide is based on the fact that corn is wind-pollinated. If you want to grow a single plant or a single row, you should plan on hand-pollinating your plants.

In a small planting, hand-pollination is not much work at all. Slip a paper bag over the tassels and shake out the pollen. Do this in the morning after the temperature reaches 65&deg F. Then spread the silk below and sprinkle the pollen over it. Repeat this for three days in a row. Each silk reaches a single kernel-to-be, so needs to get pollen to make a full ear.

If you garden in raised beds, you can fit three or four rows across a four-foot-wide bed, depending on whether your rows start six or 12 inches from the sides. Space the plants about a foot apart in all directions. So a four- by four-foot bed would yield nine to 16 ears of corn; a four- by twelve-foot bed would yield two to three dozen. Most of the time you'll get good pollination from the wind, but for maximum yields, hand-pollinate plants on the edges of small plots.

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