Growing Corn in Small Spaces


By Charlie Nardozzi

There's nothing better than eating fresh sweet corn harvested from your own garden, boiled up within minutes of picking. The combination of the sweetness and corn flavor makes this vegetable the quintessential summer treat. But sweet corn has a reputation of being a space hog. When we think of growing sweet corn, most of us think of vast fields of plants. The impression is that sweet corn needs lots of room to grow. But you can grow sweet corn in a small backyard garden, a raised bed, or even a container. It's just a matter of selecting the right varieties, having fertile soil, and making sure the corn gets pollinated properly.

Here's how to grow sweet corn in a small space in your yard.

Sweet Corn Varieties

There are several types of sweet corn and many varieties to choose from. Heirloom sweet corn varieties have an old-fashioned corn flavor but lose their sweetness quickly after harvest. Newer sugar-enhanced and supersweet varieties have a good combination of sweetness and corn flavor, and they hold their sweetness longer after harvest. However, they can be more finicky about their growing conditions.

The key to growing sweet corn in a small space is to grow blocks of the same variety close together. You can start with shorter varieties that mature early and then experiment with taller, mid- and late-season varieties to extend the harvest season.

Here are some good varieties to try:

'Ambrosia Hybrid' - (75 days) This sugar-enhanced (SE) variety produces 8-inch yellow and white ears on 6-1/2-foot-tall plants.

'Celestial Hybrid' - (87 days) An 8-1/2-inch, white-eared supersweet corn with good disease resistance. The stalks grow 6-1/2 feet tall. 'Improved Golden Bantam' - (80 days) This heirloom variety features sweet, golden kernels on 8-inch ears. The plant only grows 5 to 6 feet tall.

'Jubilee Hybrid' - (81 days) These 7-foot stalks produce 8-1/2-inch ears with super sweet yellow kernels.

'Silver Queen' - (88 days) This popular, late maturing, heirloom grows 7-1/2 feet tall and produces sweet, white kernels.

'Sugar Buns Hybrid' - (72 days) This very early sugar-enhanced sweet corn variety grows 6 feet tall and produces 7-inch yellow ears.

'Trinity Hybrid' - (70 days) This bicolor sugar-enhanced variety has 8-inch ears and the stalk only grows 6 feet.

Getting a Jump on the Season

Sweet corn is in the grass family and loves heat and moisture. Don't be in a rush to plant sweet corn in the garden or in a container. If you're growing old-fashioned varieties, wait until the soil temperature is at least 55 degress F to plant seeds. For sugar-enhanced and supersweet varieties, wait until the soil is at least 60 degrees F.

You can get a jump on the season, especially if you're growing in a raised bed or container, by laying black plastic over the soil two weeks before planting to hasten the soil warming, or by presprouting seeds indoors. To presprout, soak seeds in a moist paper towel overnight and then plant in the garden. You can even start corn plants indoors in pots and when the seedlings are a few inches tall, transplant them into your plot. Just make sure you protect these early seedlings from cold nights by laying a floating row cover over plants on chilly evenings.

Small Space Design

When growing corn in a small space, think short thick rows. Each kernel of corn is connected to a corn silk. These fine hairs help transport the corn pollen to the kernel for proper development. The pollen drops down onto the silks from the tassels at the top of the plant. In order to have properly filled out corn ears, pollen needs to fall on all the corn silks. If you plant in short rows close together, it's more likely proper pollination will occur. Plant 4 to 5 plants in a container or plant in beds of at least 4 rows, no more than 4 feet long, spaced 1 foot apart.

Growing Corn

While growing corn in short rows close together helps pollination, to insure success consider hand pollinating the ears. Here's how. In the morning when the corn tassels have fully extended, slip a brown paper bag over a tassel and shake the pollen loose into the bag. Spread out the silk on each individual corn ear and sprinkle pollen on the silks. Repeat this process three days in a row.

For proper growing, keep your corn well watered, weeded, and fertilized. Spread compost in small beds before planting and side-dress with 3 pounds of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet before tasseling. Keep containers well watered and fertilized every few weeks with a balanced fertilizer.

Your biggest pest may be an animal. Keep raccoons out of the patch with an electric fence, or cover each ripening ear with a paper bag sealed with tape.

About Charlie Nardozzi
Thumb of 2020-06-04/Trish/0723fdCharlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He's the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.
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