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Sweet corn is easily grown and much enjoyed. The same can be said about field corn.

As with wheat, growing corn isn't as difficult as some people think. If you've enjoyed some success with sweet corn, you can expect the same results with field corn.

Like wheat, corn is a member of the grass family. Unlike wheat, it is native to the Americas. Depending on the variety, it can reach heights of three to 15 feet.

Corn's geographic range is substantial. It was a staple food in Mexico at the same time the Pilgrims reportedly ate Indian corn in Massachusetts. Some varieties of sweet corn can mature in as little as 65 days, although 75-85 is more common. A "short season" field corn, which dries on the stalk, matures in about 90 days, but varieties requiring 120 days are more common (and usually more productive).

Corn varieties are classified under one of seven different types.

Sweet corn is the stuff of great meals and summertime memories. Why are some ears so sweet, while others lack that special taste? In the sweeter varieties, the enzyme that converts sugar to starch is absent or in short supply. Today sweet corn is further divided into normal, sugary enhanced, and supersweet.

Dent corn is so named because of the depression in the center of the kernel. This occurs when the corn dries, and shrinkage causes the soft center portion of the kernel to shrivel.

Flint corn is characterized by its smooth kernel and virtual absence of soft starch. Flint corn tends to be quite resistant to ear rot and seeding blights and is more tolerant of marginal growing conditions.

At first glance, flour corn resembles flint corn in size and shape, but it lacks hard starch. Any starch present tends to be chalky even when the kernels are dried. Some flour kernel corns have an improved amino acid balance, making them a good source of protein.

Popcorn is a popular American snack that is occasionally seen south of the border, where it is known as palomitas (little doves). It comes in rice and pearl types. Pearl popcorn is similar to flint corn, but the kernels are smaller. Rice types are distinguished by a pointed kernel.

While popcorn explodes when heated, the process isn't fully understood. Kernels will fail to explode when they are too moist or too dry. Thirteen percent humidity is considered ideal. The volume of popped corn is around 30 times the original size of the kernel.

Waxy corn is commonly used for cornstarch and as a thickener for gravies and prepared foods. Originally grown in China, waxy corn was first imported to America in 1907.

Each individual kernel of pod corn is enclosed by a husk. It can be found in some seed catalogs as a novelty item.

One more specialty corn to add to the list is ornamental or Indian corn. Commonly seen around Thanksgiving for use as a decoration, these multicolored ears can be eaten just like any of the other varieties. Blue corn, a native of the southwest, has developed a following for use in tortillas and pancakes. Some ornamental popcorns are available from mail-order seed houses. While the vast majority of modern corn varieties are hybrids, many ornamentals are open pollinated.

Hybrids came to dominance virtually overnight. In 1930, less than 0.1 percent of the acreage in America's corn belt was planted in hybrids. By 1943, Iowa's (the leading corn state) entire corn acreage was dedicated to hybrids. Today, however, open pollinated corn is becoming easier to find again, with several seed companies offering such old favorites as Reid's yellow dent.


To grow well, corn needs a mean summer temperature of at least 66 [degrees] F and daily temperatures of 70 [degrees] to 80 [degrees] F. While corn has been grown in semiarid conditions, it does best in areas that have at least 20 inches of rain a year.

May is the month for planting in most of the U.S., but soil temperature is the most important factor in determining the time to seed your plot. The soil should be at least 60 [degrees] F (and preferably a few degrees warmer than that) at planting time. Several shorter rows rather than one long row will allow for better pollination, as corn is wind pollinated. Plant no deeper than two inches, placing individual seeds nine to 12 inches apart. Tamp the seed into the ground. Individual rows should be at least 36 inches apart if you plan to harvest by hand.

The recommended planting rate for normal sweet corn is about 12 pounds per acre; a 1 3/4 oz. packet will plant from 50-75 feet of row. However, seed size varies, so the number of kernels is more important than weight. In fact, field corn is often sold with 21,000 kernels to the bag -- enough for one acre -- rather than by weight.

A small patch of field corn can be planted by hand, using only your usual gardening tools for soil preparation. Larger plantings can be made faster and easier with an old-fashioned corn planter, which drops several seeds each time you poke it into the ground as you walk along the row. (For a simple homemade version, see 82/2:36). Another option is a row seeder, available in many garden centers and seed catalogs. (These come with several planting plates and can be used for a variety of crops.) For an acre or more, a two-row planter pulled by a small tractor or draft animal is advisable. These are widely available in farming communities as farmers switch to ever-larger planters.

Consider planting pole beans with corn. This has a history dating back to early American Indian farming. Gene Logsdon suggests planting bean seeds six inches away on each side of the cornstalk once the stalk is at least six inches tall. This provides maximum output from a small patch of soil, saves you the work of putting up poles for a separate patch of beans, and adds nitrogen to the soil.

If you companion plant, sow the corn thinly, perhaps three seeds every 15 inches.


Control weeds by hoeing whenever necessary. The good news is, hoeing corn is much easier than weeding smaller, more closely-spaced plants, and the fast-growing corn will soon canopy and inhibit weed growth. The secret is getting an early start, before the weeds become too large.

Mechanical implements such as the rotary hoe, springtooth weeder and spiketooth harrow are used on large fields when weeds are just beginning to emerge. These tools can be a time-saver for the homesteader who has a fairly large corn crop, but the method can be applied to smaller plantings. Substitute an ordinary garden rake and scratch out the weeds just as they start to emerge. Done with a light touch, the larger corn seeds and seedlings won't be damaged. Most of those that are dislodged or bent will quickly recover. (Remember the farmer's adage about using a rotary hoe: "Put 'er in high gear, and don't look back." The damage won't be as bad as it looks.)

In her book Whole Grains: Grow, Harvest and Cook Your Own, Sara Pitzer offers another alternative. For weed control, she recommends mulch growing. Pitzer spreads a light hay covering over the seeds and a heavier layer over the rows. More hay is added once the corn reaches six inches.

Other growers point out that corn, being a warm weather crop, can be set back by mulching too early, so some experimentation is in order to see what works for you.

Intensive weeding should be done until the corn is knee high. Corn is a voracious feeder, so don't waste water and nutrients on growing weeds. When the corn is knee-high, the root system of the developing corn may be damaged by weeding. But also, the canopy provided by corn at that stage discourages weeds.

Pests and disease

Corn is attractive to birds, rodents, raccoons and deer. In some cases (especially where there are large deer populations), animals may consume a considerable portion of a corn crop. Seed that is treated to be less attractive to birds is available.

There isn't much besides hunting that can be done to keep deer damage to a reasonable level. Human hair, dried blood, urine and many others have been suggested as deterrents. Elaborate fences can be expensive. One widely heralded solution is a spray made of raw eggs and water, applied to the leaves. (This mixture will clog most spray nozzles: enlarge the nozzle, or sprinkle it on the leaves.) This treatment will have to be repeated after a rain.

As for insects, the European corn borer was once considered to be a major threat to corn growers, but new varieties along with disking and plowing of stalks, or crop rotation, has reduced corn borer losses.

Several varieties of rootworms can weaken and even kill plants. Wireworms will feed on young corn roots and seeds. Both rootworms and wireworms thrive in wet soil. Armyworms are an occasional problem, while chinch bugs make their presence very obvious.

If you see thousands of small black bugs in your corn, the chinch bugs have invaded. According to Logsdon, the problem may look worse than it really is. He says chinch bugs usually confine their damage to the outer rows of a corn field.

Wilts, blights and rots occasionally strike, and seed companies are constantly developing more resistant hybrid varieties. There are southern and northern corn leaf blights, northern corn leaf spot, bacterial wilt and maize dwarf mosaic, which is transferred by aphids and stunts the growth of corn plants.

Diplodia rot afflicts stalks and ears and leaves behind a white mold, while gibberella "is toxic to man and other nonruminant animals," according to the USDA. This rot is known by its reddish color.

One corn "problem" deserves special mention. Occasionally you might see a large grey mold form on an ear. It usually isn't worth worrying about, and if you're adventurous you might even welcome that growth. In Mexico this is known as cuitlacoche ... which is considered a delicacy.


Unless weather conditions have been unusual, the corn should be ready for picking right on or about the time of the maturity date for that particular variety. For field corn sold in northern areas this can be as little as 90 days. Higher yields can generally be expected from varieties with longer maturity dates. (This is dry corn, for storage, for animal feed, corn meal or similar uses. Sweet corn for corn-on-the-cob is harvested before it dries, although it can also be used dry for meal.)

The only way to know for sure if the corn is ripe is to open a husk or two and check it. Push your thumbnail against a kernel. If milky liquid squirts out, it's picking time for roasting ears. If the fingernail easily penetrates the ear, the corn needs more time to ripen. Overripe corn will be tough with little or no liquid.

If you're growing field corn or popcorn, the harvest can wait until the plant is brown and dying. If you're picking ears by hand, the drier the corn is, the easier it will be to husk the ears as they are picked.

Husking pegs can make the job easier. These simple devices consist of a metal hook fastened to a leather strap that ties around the fingers. It slashes the husk open and removes it from the ear with less effort than it would take to do the same job with your fingers.

Stalks can be shredded and put back into the soil or in the compost bin, or they can be harvested along with the corn. To do the job by hand, use a machete or a corn knife.

Chop the stalks a few inches from the bottom, bundle them together and arrange the tied stalks in an old-fashioned corn shock. Once a sufficient number of stalks are standing together, the entire shock can be bound together. When done properly, the shock can stand outside for months, protecting the ears of corn from the elements.


Corn can be stored in several ways. Shocking, already mentioned, provides easy short-term storage if weather and animals aren't a problem. The grain will continue drying in the shocks.

Some homesteaders keep their ear corn in a dry well-ventilated place -- a corn crib is the ideal -- and shell it as needed. A small crib can be made from snow fencing, chicken wire, narrow boards with spaces left between them, even poles or saplings. Provide a base to keep the bottom layer off the ground to prevent mold and rot, and cover the crib with a roof or tarp.

Small hand shellers and handcranked models that are suitable for shelling larger quantities of corn are available from Lehman's as well as many small-town hardware stores and other rural retailers.

Shelled corn requires a tight bin, drier grain, and more attention, but less room, and shelling corn can be a pleasant winter activity.

As with wheat, corn stores much longer before it is ground into meal. Most cornmeal sold in stores is degerminated, meaning that the oil and many of the nutrients have been removed. Your home-ground corn will have much more flavor and food value than the stuff that's been sitting for weeks or months on the grocer's shelf.
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Title Annotation:growing corn
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Previous Article:How to choose a grain mill.
Next Article:What can you do with corn?

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