I saved a draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, and really want to get it out there for my garden buddies who may just be getting started on corn. I wish I’d known some of this stuff last year when I tried growing some flour corn in my tiny backyard garden! I didn’t take the right kind of care of my corn– too close together, didn’t hill it, and interplanted too heavily with squash– so I got only a few ears due to aphid infestation and not enough spacing for good pollination. But I still really loved growing a bit of corn of my own, and the first batch of corn flour was worth all the trouble. The difference between fresh-ground home-grown corncake and stuff made from even good organic commercial flour is amazing.
I can’t plant flour corn in the community garden, as it would mess up everybody else’s sweet corn, so the advice below is mostly about sweet corn. However, except for the staggered-harvest advice, it’s all applicable to flour corn as well!
When planting sweet corn in a small plot, you want 2 – 3 per foot, with about a foot between rows. You also want to plant the northernmost row first (so it won’t shade the rest), and then when those plants have a good start, say a handspan above the ground, put in the next row, and so on. That way you’ll have sweet corn in small batches. This was another case of “reading after planting” on my part– I planted the whole little stand of corn in one shot. Well, I’ll have plenty to share, I hope!
Two corn tips that I’ll be trying this year, courtesy of a very savvy gardener who’s been growing in Sunnyvale for over 30 years. The first is that he has great luck starting carrots, notoriously sensitive to drying out during germination, in his corn patch. The shade from the corn keeps the soil from drying out, and carrots apparently sprout and grow readily. I’ve had really poor luck with carrots, so I’m going to try this!
The second tip is how backyard growers can keep those pesky raccoons from pulling down all your sweet corn. Hold up your hand and look at where your thumb meets the hand. If somebody were to pull down hard on your thumb, ow! That kind of pulling is how raccoons pull ears of corn off the plant. Our local garden sensei uses twine, or sometimes even tape, wrapped around the stem and halfway up the cob: about where your knuckle is on your thumb. Do this when the ears are full size but before they ripen– when all the silk is still green, even at the tips. Without the leverage, the raccoons can’t pull the ear off. They may eat a low ear right off the plant, but won’t be able to ravage through your little corn patch, pulling a pile of ears off and ruining them. I’ll be really interested to see how this works!
My third corn tip is one that I hadn’t known, and that I’m glad our garden coordinator told me. You can’t have both sweet corn and field corn in one garden. They’ll cross-pollinate like crazy, as corn is primarily wind-pollinated. So that’s why I have sweet corn at the community garden, rather than the Mandan Red or Hopi Blue flour corns I had been eagerly waiting to plant there. Because it’s all for one and one for all, when it comes to corn. Maybe I can convince everybody next year to try flour or dent corn, but I kinda doubt it. I’ll have to see if I can tuck in a tiny patch of flour corn again in our backyard, but the way I set things up this year, it doesn’t look good. Dang!
Finally, if you’re growing flour or dent corn, hilling your corn is really worth doing! I’d thought that hilling corn meant planting it on a mound, for drainage or something. OK, good thing ya can’t see me blush! Growing painted corn last year, I noticed the stalks changed color as they got taller, and developed little knobby growths about 20 – 30 centimeters off the ground. Turns out that those are additional roots– that is, if you hill up the corn when they start to show! Pile up additional soil and those roots will dig in, anchoring the corn more firmly against wind, and maybe getting you an extra ear or two!
An easy way to do this is to actually plant corn in a slight trench, and pile up the soil between rows. When the corn comes up about shoulder high, hill it in (and add some nice compost!) by pulling in that extra soil. I’ve gotta try that on my next flour corn planting.