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Gardening: Corn popular, productive crop in Inland Northwest

UPDATED: Thu., June 10, 2021

Corn plants sit in a muddy farm field on June 30, 2014, near Dallas Center, Iowa.  (Charlie Neibergall)
Corn plants sit in a muddy farm field on June 30, 2014, near Dallas Center, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall)
By Pat Munts For The Spokesman-Review

Corn is probably the second most popular vegetable for home gardeners to grow behind tomatoes. Who can beat a fresh ear slathered with real butter, salt and maybe some chili powder? We have a good climate for growing corn in the Inland Northwest if it matures in under 75 days.

Corn has a long history as a food crop. It was first cultivated by the native people of southern Mexico at least 9,000 years ago. Over many generations they took the wild teosinte grass which had large seed heads and developed the dozens, if not hundreds of varieties, of corn that were spread across North America and South America to become a staple food.

When the first European explorers came, the native people shared their corn with the Europeans and it was spread throughout the rest of the world.

Today, more maize – as it is known in many parts of the world – is grown than rice or grain as a food crop. There are six major types of corn/maize: dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, popcorn, flour corn, and sweet corn. While we are most familiar with sweet corn, the other varieties are used to produce corn flour, corn oil, corn ethanol, animal feed, corn starch, alcohol (bourbon whiskey) and corn syrup. Corn is also a component in biodegradable plastics.

Corn needs heat to grow well and that is why we need to plant shorter season varieties. Our spring soils don’t warm very quickly so that corn seed planted too early in cold ground will rot before it germinates. The soil needs to be at least 60 degrees several inches deep for good germination. We don’t generally get that kind of heat until the end of May and early June.

To grow, corn needs a sandy or loamy soil enriched with compost. It is planted an inch deep with 6 to 8 inches between seeds and 2 feet between rows. Because it is pollinated by the wind, it needs to be planted in a block rather than a single long row. A block of at least four rows provides enough close contact for the pollen grains to be moved from the top tassel to the ends of the silk at the top of the ear. The pollen grains then find their way down the hollow silk strand to become an individual kernel. If you end up with an ear of corn with few kernels it is because it wasn’t properly pollinated.

Corn is considered a heavy feeder so it will need a 16-16-16 fertilizer worked into the soil at planting. After that, fertilize when it reaches 4 inches tall and again at knee height. Watering is crucial because it grows fast, so plan on at least an inch to an inch and half of water each week, maybe more if it’s hot and windy. Water deeply as the corn gets taller so it reaches the deep roots. Corn is ready to harvest three weeks after the silks begin to dry out.

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Pat Munts can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com

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