You don’t need a huge plot to grow sweet corn. Here’s how to grow the best corn ever in a small space garden.
This is a garden view of a small block of corn.
Corn is my favorite vegetable and it would be unthinkable for me to have a garden without corn. I grew up in a family of avid gardeners and my father’s method for planting corn was to plow the garden, rake down the soil, then stretch out a long string between two wooden stakes. Once he had marked off the long, straight rows, he would make a small planting furrow and plant the corn seeds every 15 inches, two to a spot. He’d move over and plant a second, then a third row the same way. When he was finished, he would have three or four rows of corn, 24 to 30 inches apart and stretching about 100 feet long.
Most gardeners today don’t have the space to lay out long rows like gardeners once did. In my own garden I began experimenting with growing corn in small blocks many years ago. Since I’ve laid out my garden in small raised beds, it makes it simple to grow repeated plantings of corn throughout the summer season.
To be productive, corn needs some very specific elements. The crop must have full sunlight for the entire day. While it grows well in average garden soil with additions of compost or fertilizer in the springtime, corn is a fairly heavy nitrogen feeder. General all-purpose fertilizer or compost is sufficient. And whether the soil is rocky, sandy or loamy, corn is adaptable provided it has regular moisture.
The larger requirement for growing corn is adequate spacing. If you plant it too close together, the pollen from the tassels at the top of the plant won’t be able to fertilize the corn silks on the ears, which is what causes the corn kernels to develop. Conversely, if you plant the corn plants too far apart, the pollen from the top of the corn won’t be able to reach the silking corn. Sound confusing?
Here is what I have found to be ideal for blocks of sweet corn in the home garden. I plant my first planting about two weeks before the last expected frost date. For my area that means planting during the second or third week of April.
I have three planting beds where I grow corn. Two of the beds are 8 feet wide and 14 feet long; a third bed is smaller. I plant three rows of corn, equally spaced, lengthwise in the bed. Twenty to 28 inches between rows is closer than commercial field corn is grown, but for sweet corn, the spacing works well. I plant two seeds every 15 to 18 inches along the length of the row. Once the corn has sprouted and is about 6 or 8 inches tall, I remove any double plants so that I have one corn plant in each space. At that time, I also heavily mulch between the rows using straw. The straw keeps down weeds and holds moisture for the summer months as the corn roots expand and grow.
This block of corn is growing well in June.
A bowl of sweet corn just picked.
In about three or four weeks, I plant a second planting of corn in another block. My first planting will be ready about the Fourth of July and will last about 10 days. The second planting will mature about three weeks after the first. Generally I plant one additional planting near the end of June so I will have a late summer, third corn crop, as well.
Another method that works well is a variation on the Native American method of planting corn in hills. I have one bed that is 4 feet wide and 30 feet long, too narrow to be successful growing rows of corn. Instead, I rake up hills or mounds, about 15 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches across, spacing the mounds about 5 feet apart. Then I plant two seeds in three sections of the mound in a triangle pattern so that the plants will grow on the outside of the mound.
Once the corn has sprouted and reaches 6 or 8 inches tall, I mulch the mounds with straw, and then plant pole beans in the center. The corn stalks are close enough together for the pollen to reach the emerging ears of corn silks, yet there is enough space between each mound for sunlight to reach all of the corn stalks. As the beans sprout and begin to grow, they attach themselves to the corn stalks, which give the beans support. Growing sweet corn is possible even in small spaces (although I don’t recommend growing corn in pots on the patio, there just isn’t enough space for pollination and maturing). Most sweet corn matures in 60 to 70 days (check the seed packet for days to maturity; it is measured from the time the corn emerges from the ground to harvest time). You can plant a few hills or short rows in a small garden space and have fresh, tasty corn for the dinner table throughout the summer by staggering the planting times of your planting areas.
From Missouri Gardener Volume III Issue III. Photos by Jim Long.