Corn is an edible grain stored as a consumable crop, cooked into various dishes, and even made into beer. Corn makes up many snack foods, and whether you plan on making cereal from scratch or want to serve homegrown corn cob at the barbeque, learning how to grow corn from seed is an invaluable skill.
As of July 2021, the United States was the world’s largest corn producer and exporter, with China and Brazil second and third as top corn producers. The acreage dedicated to growing corn is a testament to its importance to the agricultural society. It isn’t comforting to imagine our lives without corn, considering how many non-food items rely on corn or its byproducts.
Whether you enjoy eating popcorn or drinking a sweet juice, it all begins with corn. We’ve all driven past farmlands filled with corn stalks, however, you don’t have to turn your home garden into a corn patch to reap the benefits of this staple crop.
What to Know before Growing Corn from Seeds
The endgame for growing anything is the day you harvest, only second to the day you eat your yield, and planting corn seeds is no different. Before you reach harvest time, there are several essential steps to take, like picking the right kind of corn and knowing how to create an environment for your corn plant to thrive.
The Importance of Corn in America
As much as corn is essential in providing us with so many everyday products and consumable items, corn was critical to the Native Americans. They planted corn with squash and beans in a system known as the Three Sisters.
The purpose of this system involved strong corn stalks providing support for growing beans while the beans fed nitrogen into the soil. The addition of squash supplied ground cover for weed control and kept the earth moist by limiting exposure to the sun’s heat.
This system provides the basis for what modern gardeners know as companion planting. This method maximized the crop yields of Native Americans. Planting corn from seeds has evolved into different forms depending on the corn area and the type of corn planted.
Dent corn, identified by its dented kernels, is field corn with high starch content. Through manufacturing, dent corn is made into food like cornbread, corn chips, and corn-based taco shells. The starch in dent corn produces high-fructose corn syrup, which sweetens and flavors many drinks.
Flint corn or Indian corn is a variety of maize that grows with multi-colored kernels. Indian corn is the preferred corn type when making hominy, a dish made from dried corn kernels. Indian corn also finds use as decorations for Thanksgiving due to its richly colored kernels.
Pod corn is a mutant variety of corn that grows small leaves around the individual kernel. Due to its appearance and growth mutation, pod corn is not grown commercially but is preserved by many for its religious significance to specific Native Americans.
Popcorn is a type of corn kernel that expands when heated. Expansion occurs when the seed’s endosperm (tissue produced inside most flowering plant seeds) turns to steam when heated. This change causes the shell to rupture and grow into the popped corn we know and love.
Flour corn has a soft starchy endosperm used to create corn flour and is grown throughout the United States and South America.
Sweet corn is a variety of corn made with a high sugar content for human consumption. Unlike other types of corn, farmers harvest sweet corn immaturely to eat as a vegetable and not a grain.
There is the option to grow regular sweet corn or super sweet corn within the sweet corn variety; these types of corn come canned for consumption.
When growing sweet corn, some harvest the immature corn for baby corn. Farmers or home growers who want to grow baby corn select a corn variety that produces more ears. While growing sweet corn seed, farmers harvest the second ear from the top for baby corn, leaving the top ear to mature.
What to Know before Growing Corn from Seeds
Part of knowing when to plant corn seeds involves sowing seeds at the right temperature. When to plant corn involves both the air and soil temperature. Corn requires a soil temperature of at least 60°F for seed germination.
Although corn is not a cold-hardy plant, corn plants can bounce back from light frost damage early in their development. When temperatures remain below 28°F for a few hours, though, it damages the growing point of developing corn plants.
One popular method home growers use to avoid frost damage is to start plants indoors, which allows you to grow corn from seeds in a controlled environment, away from environmental threats.
However, corn does not transplant well and transferring developing corn from a pot to the bed in your home garden risks causing severe stress to your plant.
To avoid or minimize this risk, plant corn in a biodegradable pot like peat moss. When your corn is ready to transplant, bury your corn, pot, and all, to allow the pot to break down in the soil.
How to Plant Corn Seeds
When planting corn, especially multiple varieties, growing them according to type is essential. For an extended harvest, sow the seed for a fast-maturing variety every two weeks for six weeks, or plant a combination of early, mid-season, and slow-growing corn together.
Because cross-pollination is common and the results are often undesirable, separate corn cultivars by at least 300 yards or stagger planting in 12-day increments. Spacing is essential to avoid poor cross-pollinations such as supersweet corn and non-sweet varieties that create tough and starchy corn kernels.
We recommend planting in blocks instead of rows because corn requires wind and not beneficial insects to pollinate.
Prepare your garden for corn seed by selecting a sunny location free of weeds and plant debris. Mix at least two inches of organic matter compost into the soil before raking the soil smooth and into four-four-foot rows.
Wait for the threat of frost to pass when the ground is workable and warm. Plant corn seeds three inches apart, one inch deep, and water thoroughly to allow your seeds to germinate in about two weeks.
Once seedlings grow at least four inches tall, ensure sweet corn plant spacing of one plant every 12 to 24 inches. Use scissors instead of pulling seedlings up to avoid disturbing the roots of the plants remaining in the ground.
How to Grow Corn from Seed
Corn requires about one inch of water per week, especially as the tassels form. Skipping water during this time causes stress to the plant and results in ears of corn with missing kernels. Keep corn plants moist while growing and avoid watering the tassels to reduce pollination.
Add compost around your plants when the stalks reach at least ten inches tall and again as tassels appear. Blood meal or a fish-based fertilizer also works well as side-dressing for your plants.
Corn silk, which is thin thread-like fibers, is a sign of your corn developing, and three weeks after they appear, check your ears for ripeness. Pull back a piece of the corn husk and pierce one kernel with your fingernail.
If the kernel produces a milky liquid, your ears are ripe enough to harvest. Ears on the same stalk may ripen days apart, so regularly check for ripe corn.
What to Do While Growing Corn
When growing corn from seeds, they develop flowering tassels on top of each plant. These tassels create pollen which the wind carries to the corn silk on still-developing ears. Individual threads of corn silk attach to a corn kernel, allowing pollen to fertilize the kernels and grow the kernels into plump corn kernels.
Aside from ensuring your corn develops properly through pollination, monitoring your corn blocks for corn problems and signs of pest and disease are crucial to your corn reaching maturity. Some corn seeds come treated with fungicide to prevent fungal diseases from affecting the plant of treated seeds.
Common pests that target corn are caterpillars, corn borers, cutworms, and the corn earworm. To prevent worms from infecting the ears of your corn, drop mineral oil inside the tip of each ear to suffocate the pests.
Corn smut is typical for field corn and infects all plant parts, causing the most damage to the ears. The signs of corn smut are white growths forming on the corn plant. Corn can go bad quickly with corn smut.
This infection is common in areas with dry weather, fields with high nitrogen levels, or after heavy manure applications. Because there is no cure for corn smut, save the rest of your crops by destroying infected plants.
Once you know how to plant corn seeds, you’ll never rely on buying corn from the store again as you discover which sweet corn varieties you enjoy the most. Corn planting is a unique and fun hobby for the family for the reward of having fresh corn on the dinner table all season long.
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