Sanctuary Spotlight: How to Grow Corn

Anasazi corn in one of my raised beds

Anasazi corn in one of my raised beds

When most people think about growing corn, they picture large farms in the U.S. Midwest with acres of corn being harvested by large combines. Yet, growing this crop is not outside the realm of the urban farmer or backyard gardener. You can grow enough corn for your family in a raised bed in your garden with ease.


Although we here in the United States call it corn, the preferred term around the world for this crop is maize (scientific name: Zea mays). The word comes from the Spanish word maiz.

Maize, or  corn, is a grain that was domesticated by the Olmec and Mayan people, probably in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico. By 2500 BCE, corn was grown throughout most of the Americas. European explorers brought the crop to Europe in the 15th and early 16th centuries, and it spread throughout the world from there.

The United States is the largest producer of corn in the world. However, by 2009, 85% of the corn planted in the U.S. was genetically modified (GMO corn).

There are several main varieties of corn, based on the starch content, including:

  • Flour corn
  • Popcorn
  • Dent corn
  • Flint corn
  • Sweet corn

Corn is very high in B vitamins and minerals. Some of the nutrients found in one cup of corn are (in percentage of Recommended Daily Value): 52% Vitamin B6, 43% Thiamin, 30% Niacin, 20% Riboflavin, 53% Magnesium, 40% Manganese, 37% Selenium, 35% Phosphorus, and about 25% each of iron, zinc, and copper.


Corn should be planted well after the last frost when the soil temperature is at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant  in well-draining, loamy soil with a pH of 6.0-7.0. Corn is a very heavy feeder, and especially needs a large quantity of nitrogen. It’s a great idea to plant your corn in a spot where beans, hairy vetch, or clover has grown previously. Or, you can add 20-30 pounds of compost per 100 square feet of soil. Another good soil additive is to mix into the soil an inch thick layer of fresh grass clippings or aged manure compost along with alfalfa meal, soybean meal, or other high nitrogen fertilizer.

Follow the instructions on your seed packet for planting depth and separation; but generally, corn is planted an inch deep, 6-12 inches apart. However, do not plant corn in long, single rows. Because corn is wind pollinated, it should be planted in blocks of at least three rows that are no more than two feet apart. My raised beds are four feet wide; I plant one row down the middle and the other two rows along the edges.

Unless you have a large piece of property, it’s best to grow only one variety of corn to avoid cross-pollination by the wind. Corn varieties need to be separated by at least 700 feet. (Some sources I read stated they should be separated by a half mile!)

Corn germinates in 7-10 days and grows quickly. It has shallow roots, so be careful when weeding. Mulch your corn bed well to decrease weeds and to increase organic matter.

Be sure your corn receives at least an inch of water per week, especially when the tassel forms. Water from below, not above, so you don’t wash away the pollen that will give you those succulent ears of corn!

When the corn is about six inches tall, you will need to feed it. Side dress the plants with blood meal or fish emulsion. Feed again when the stalks are knee high.

Anasazi corn ear

Anasazi corn ear


The time to maturity of corn depends on the variety. Generally, about three weeks after the silks appear, the ears of corn should feel plump. When they do, you can start checking for ripeness. Pull back the husk a little and pierce a kernel with your thumbnail. If a milky liquid squirts out, the corn is at the perfect ripeness for harvesting.

It’s best to harvest corn in the morning, when it’s cooler in the day. Pull the ear off the stalk and eat or refrigerate right away. (To preserve a large harvest, blanch the kernels and freeze.) Ears on the same stalk will usually ripen a few days apart.

It’s important to harvest the corn at its prime ripeness for the best flavor and tenderness. If the silk is completely dry or the husk is yellow or faded green, the corn is past its prime.

Harvesting popcorn is different. Popcorn is left on the stalks until the ears are dry. If the weather is going to be wet, harvest the ears and let them finish drying in a cool, dry place indoors.

If you want to save your corn seed, you will have to plant an open-pollinated (non-hybrid) variety. For corn seed, allow the ears to dry on the stalk until the husk turns tan. Harvest the ears, pull back the husk, and allow the ears to continue drying indoors in a dry place safe from insects and rodents. The kernels are dry enough when a few kernels fall away as you twist the ear between your hands. Store the seed in a cool, dry place for one to two years.


I don’t think I’ve met anyone who doesn’t like corn – fresh, cooked, ground as corn meal, etc. There are so many ways to use this versatile crop, I had a difficult time choosing just three recipes to share with you.

Cream Corn

Corn Chowder

Oven Baked Polenta – Serve with marinara sauce or other topping, Italian style!

If you’d like more information about corn meal for grits or polenta (and knowing the difference!), see my article, “A Yankee and Her Grits.”

This year, I planted Glass Gem popcorn, and I’m looking forward to harvesting my very first popcorn crop. Even more so, I can’t wait to see the variety of colorful ears I will get.

Are you growing corn this year? If not, why not give it a try?




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