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Xanthe White’s guide to growing corn
Win! A copy of Organic Vegetable Gardening
There are many varieties of corn that can be either harvested fresh or grown for the dried grain used to make flour. It is a great crop for kids and looks fantastic planted with sunflowers against a wall.
Corn can be planted from late spring to early summer, depending on the warmth of your region. In warmer areas you can plant sooner, but use an early variety if you are planting in early spring. Avoid windy sites as the plants can be very top heavy. And give these warmth-lovers plenty of sun. Think also of your other crops, as corn will overshadow them. Keep corn well rotated, leaving a good couple of years between seasons of this hungry crop. Traditionally Native Americans grew their corn in small hills over a dead fish but a generous handful of sheep pellets will do just as well. Kelp will also be welcome, and lime should be applied at the rate of 2 handfuls per square metre. Rock phosphate will also assist growth.
Sowing and planting
Plant seedlings or seeds (the latter 2.5cm deep) in short rows that are about 50cm apart. These clumps will provide shelter for each other as they grow and look great in garden beds as well as ensuring successful pollination. Ideally grow smaller clumps in succession, trying a few different varieties. But if growing multiple varieties keep some distance between crops that will be pollinating (flowering) at the same time, to prevent cross-pollination. A sowing gap of 2–3 weeks will also avoid this problem. In cooler climates you can start your crop out in the greenhouse or under cloches (cut-up plastic bottles will suffice). In warmer regions, direct-sow by preference; if you do plant out then plant deeply to anchor the roots.
Corn performs well with potatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, pumpkin and squash. Melon, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers will benefit from the shade provided by corn in the summer months, while peas and beans help fix back into the soil some of the nitrogen removed by corn. Broad beans can even be grown up the stalks, helping anchor the plants and providing a frame for the beans. Sunflower and corn don’t just look good together but also provide protection for each other — from the carpophilus beetle for sunflowers and the armyworm in corn. Tomatoes should be avoided as corn and tomatoes attract the same hungry earworm.
The soil should be kept moist throughout the growing season. Corn is best watered from beneath, especially after pollination when you must take care not to wet the tassels. Weed beds well but don’t use a hoe as the root system is shallow and delicate. If your water supply is consistent and your soil well prepared you will have little problem with pests. Layer on pea straw, if you have some, to assist water retention and weed control. As the cobs begin to swell, apply a liquid fertiliser to ensure plump, fully developed cobs.
Your cobs should be harvested as they are needed. Like peas, once they are picked their sugars turn to starch. They are ready for harvest when the tassels turn brown. You can check that the cobs are mature by removing a cob and squeezing a kernel. If it produces cream it is ripe, if it produces water it is immature. Sweetcorn is the only corn which can be harvested fresh, with the rest needing first to be dried before being cooked as popcorn or ground into flour.
Contributed by Xanthe White, from her book Organic Vegetable Gardening.
Xanthe White’s guides are presented in association with Dalton’s School of Gardening.
Xanthe White holds free practical gardening workshops on the last Saturday of each month from 2-4pm at Daltons Landscape Supplies, 1 Morrin Road, Mount Wellington, Auckland. Click here for details or to register.