I’m sure you know corn can grow here in Texas because you’ve probably passed by a field or two (or twenty) whenever you drive through a rural area. But did you know you don’t need a wide open field to grow your own little ears of corn? You can do it right in your backyard, even in a small garden space. Your one constraint may be sunlight, and we’ll talk about that in a bit.
Corn is basically the one grain you might be interested in growing in a vegetable garden. If you’ve grown your own fruits and veggies, it’s time to give grains a try—they’re no more difficult, but they do have specific needs.
Let’s look at our corn growing season here in Texas Hill Country and then how you can set up your space to produce your own delicious little kernels.
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WHEN TO PLANT CORN IN CENTRAL TEXAS
There’s an old saying about growing corn: “Knee-high by the 4th of July.” This is a reminder to farmers that plants should be in the ground early enough so that they’re adolescent by early July and have plenty of time to mature before the first early frost of the season. This only applies to much colder climates than ours. Here in Texas, we actually have two windows to grow corn, and neither of them involve Independence Day.
Corn is a warm season crop, so it won’t sprout and grow if the soil temperature is too low. The best time to sow corn seeds is about 1 to 2 weeks after your last anticipated frost of the season. Here in the greater Austin area, our last frost is around mid-March, so we’d wait till the end of March to feel safe about planting our corn outdoors.
If conditions are ideal, we can expect to harvest kernels from those plants around the end of June. (There will obviously be some variation based on which type of corn you’re growing.)
We have a second chance to grow corn for a fall harvest (just in time for Thanksgiving decorations!). We can sow corn seeds from late July to mid-August for a harvest around the end of October. This gives us plenty of time to make sure all the cobs are mature and remove the plants from our gardens before our first chance of frost in mid-November.
THE 4 DIFFERENT TYPES OF CORN
Here’s something most people don’t know until they look into growing their own corn. There are actually four different types, not just the yellow cobs you find in the produce section.
Let’s look quickly at the different types:
- Dent corn – This type of corn is typically grown to feed livestock or to be ground into cornmeal. Also called field corn, it’s super starchy and develops a little intention on each kernel when dried, thus the name.
- Flint corn – This is a fun type to grow in your garden! Flint corn, AKA Indian corn, has a hard outer shell and kernels that grow in all different colors. You can eat flint corn, but you’ll also see it used a lot as fall decor because it’s so pretty.
- Popcorn – Popcorn is a type of flint corn that’s got lots of moisture on the inside so that it will burst open (pop!) when heated. While other types of dried corn might explode if enough steam builds inside each kernel, popcorn was bread to be the most, well, pop-able.
- Sweet corn – This fresh type gives us delicious corn on the cob. The outside is often yellow and the inside is soft and starchy and filled with natural sugars. These kernels won’t pop; the ears are actually picked when they’re still immature and tender and so, so sweet!
THE BEST CORN TO PLANT IN TEXAS
There are many different varieties of corn you can grow at home. Don’t limit yourself to the yellow sweet corn you always find at the grocery store! Here are some of my favorites:
- Glass Gem Flint Corn – This is, hands down, my favorite variety of corn to grow. Each ear of corn is a kaleidoscope of jewel-toned kernels and almost too pretty to eat. Colors include royal blue, lavender, purple, red, bright orange, and so many more—all with a glassy appearance.
- Strawberry Popcorn Corn – This popcorn type grows beautiful red corncobs that are great for decor (they way the kernels come out from the cob, they really do look like strawberries!) or for homemade popcorn. Plants are small, at just 4′ tall, and each cob measures only 2″ to 3″ long. Each stalk produces two ears, which is the perfect amount for one popcorn bowl.
- My Fair Lady Sweet Corn – There are lots of sweet varieties to try. This type grows about 5′ tall and produces extra-tender ears.
- Robust Pop Popcorn Corn – If you like kettle corn, then you gotta grow this type. Kernels pop into that dense, round shape characteristic of commercial popcorn, instead of the “butterfly-shaped” corn typical of most popcorn varieties you pop at home.
- Tom Thumb Popcorn – This is a dwarf variety that grows just 3′ tall. What’s interesting is that many dwarf varieties of crops like tomatoes and squash produce fruits that are the same size as normal varieties. Tom Thumb corn plants actually produce petite ears just 3″ to 4″ long. Since everything’s smaller, you get corn in less time, just 85 days.
WHERE TO GROW CORN AT HOME
Think of a corn field. It’s big and flat so it can fit lots and lots of corn plants. That’s good because each little plant only produces a couple of ears. This is a grain, remember? Not your super productive cherry tomato vine.
Fields are also nice and open. That means they get maximum sunset onto every single leaf of every single stalk. Finding a similarly sunny spot is the part that can be hard to achieve in your backyard, especially if you live close to your neighbors or have lots of mature trees.
Corn plants need full sun to produce. That’s at least 8 hours, but really, they’re much happier with 10 or more hours of direct sunlight.
Ideally, the spot you select will also not be exposed often to strong winds. Corn stalks grow like hungry teenagers overnight, which makes them a little gangly.
Corn plants aren’t super picky about soil type, though well drained soil (i.e., not clay) is preferred. If you’re growing corn in the ground, loosen the soil to several inches down and then add compost or worm castings before planting.
You can also grow corn in raised beds or large containers.
How to grow corn in a raised bed
I love to grow corn in my raised beds thanks to the rich soil and good drainage these beds provide.
The ideal raised bed depth for corn is 12″ or more. This gives the roots plenty of room to dig down deep and anchor the stalks.
Since corn plants grow so quickly, they can shade other plants trying to grow nearby. You also don’t want them to have to compete for any sun when they’re younger. With that in mind, it’s best to devote an entire raised bed to corn.
Planting corn in a raised bed
The best way to plant your corn in the raised beds is in little blocks. Picture a 4′ x 4′ square bed. You would plant one to two corn plants every square foot or so to create a pretty dense little grouping of plants. This is ideal for two reasons: One, the plants grow really tall and need other plants around them to help them stay upright, and two, the plants need to be close so that they can be wind-pollinated. (More on pollination in a bit.)
If you’ve got drip irrigation lines installed, you can align each row of corn with the lines so the plants will stay nice and watered.
In just a small bed, you can grow enough corn to harvest dozens of ears. Plants can grow upwards of 6′ tall, so you might need a ladder for harvesting!
How to grow corn in containers
Growing corn in containers is a fun little gardening experiment. I recommend growing the same variety of corn in several containers. That way you’ll have enough plants for good pollination.
Here are the steps to grow your own container corn:
Buy seeds for a dwarf variety of corn. These plants will do best in a small space without sacrificing yield.
Pick a large container. You’ll need something at least 12″ wide and 12″ deep. A round pot 12″ in diameter can grow four compact corn plants. You can grab a 5-gallon bucket or grow bag like this one for pretty cheap. I’ve even seen gardeners use old wine barrels and garbage cans.
Check your container for drainage holes. Plants we grow in our veggie garden don’t like to sit in water, and corn is no exception. If there’s not at least one good drainage hole in the bottom of the pot, use a drill to add one.
Fill your container with a mix of Happy Frog potting soil and good quality compost or soil conditioner such as this one. The addition of compost will keep your corn plants happy and healthy for their first weeks of growth.
Sow corn seeds about 6″ apart going around the outside of your container. Ideally, seeds should be at least 3″ from the edge of the container. Keep your containers close together in the sunniest spot possible.
Check the soil moisture frequently. The soil in a container will dry out much faster than in a raised bed or the ground. As we’ll discuss later, corn needs lots of moisture to grow and stay sweet. You’ll likely need to give your container a good soak every other day or so.
Check out this post for more container gardening tips.
HOW TO PLANT CORN
Corn plants don’t like being transplanted, so it’s best to sow seeds directly in warm soil instead of starting them indoors before your last frost.
Here are the five simple steps to sow corn seeds:
Add add 2 to 3 inches of fresh compost to the soil surface. It’s a good idea to also add a nitrogen-rich fertilizer like MicroLife’s Ultimate Fertilizer. These granules will release nutrients over time.
Use a hori hori or small shovel to dig a little trench about 1″ deep down the planting space.
Place one corn seed every 8 inches or so. If you’re growing a more compact variety, you can space them every 4-6 inches.
Make another row about 8 to 10 inches away. Sow seeds for the same variety in this row. (You can only grow one variety in an area, or they’ll cross-pollinate. Different varieties need to be grown at least 250 feet apart or planted successively so that they don’t throw a pollination party at the same time.)
Don’t stagger seeds in the second row with the first row. Again, you don’t want a single row because the plants need to be in more of a block formation for best pollination. Fit as many rows as possible in your space.
Place all your corn seeds in the trenches before covering them with compost.
Give your seeds a good watering in to tell them it’s time to wake up and grow. You should begin to see little sprouts in about 5 to 10 days.
HOW TO TEND CORN PLANTS
Corn grows really fast. The really fun part about growing your own little “field” is when you can hear the stalks rustling every time a breeze comes through your garden.
Watering corn plants
Corn plants do need regular watering to grow. You’ll want to keep seeds and seedlings well-watered, and then increase your watering again once you see little baby ears and silks form. Overall, the plants need at least 1 inch of water per week, but really, the goal is to never let plants dry out as they’re growing. Keep this in mind: Sweet corn is only sweet if it gets plenty of water while it’s growing.
My favorite way to deliver deep, consistent water to my plants is with drip irrigation. This is by far the most convenient watering method if you’re growing corn in raised beds. If you don’t already have lines installed, Garden in Minutes has a great kit that’s super easy to install.
Some gardeners mulch around their corn plants with pine straw. I prefer to add several layers of compost throughout the growing season to help the soil retain moisture.
Fertilizing corn plants
I mentioned that corn plants can grow really fast, didn’t I? If you’ve raised teenagers, then you know that growth spurts mean lots and lots of food. Similarly, corn is a pretty heavy feeder.
When young plants are about 6″ tall, add a slow-release nitrogen-rich fertilizer around the base of the plant. Repeat every 2 to 4 weeks. The leaves on each stalk should be nice and dark green. Yellow-green leaves are a good sign that your plants aren’t getting enough nitrogen.
Dealing with pests on corn plants
Your homegrown corn is going to be so yummy that lots of little critters will want to take a bite. We’re growing corn organically, and the reality is that organically grown produce often has a little nibble or two from pests. It’s really nothing to worry about.
The most common type of pest you’ll deal with is corn earworms. These are the larvae of moths. It’s typical to find them when you open up a husk. The good news is that there’s usually just one earworm per ear, and they only eat a couple kernels from the top. Just cut off the tip, give your ear a rinse, and you’re good to go.
If the idea of worms in your food really bugs you, you can prevent them by regularly sprinkling or spraying Bt on the ears while they’re growing.
Supporting corn plants
The idea is that corn plants will support each other in their little block. If any of your plants are leaning or falling over, tie them to a tall stake to hold them upright.
WHEN TO HARVEST CORN
Let’s first talk about the birds and the bees of corn.
When plants are maturing, they form little tassels at the top of their stalk. These tassels produce pollen. Soon after, you’ll notice baby ears and silks (those shiny little threads) forming. Silks need to be individually pollinated by the good stuff from the tassels, or that little baby ear will never turn into a full cob. The matchmaker between tassels and silks is wind pollination.
Ears are typically ready for harvest about 18 to 24 days after silks emerge, assuming they’ve been pollinated. The silks turn golden and then deep brown when they’re ready.
For sweet corn, harvest ears when the silks are just turning a light brown so that the kernels inside will still be tender.
For dry corn (flint corn and popcorn), you’ll give the ears more time to dry on the stalks. Wait until the silks are dark brown and the kernels feel hard. Don’t be afraid to pull back a husk and inspect the kernels. If you can press your fingernail into a kernel without leaving a mark, they’re ready for harvest.
This whole process takes anywhere from 60 to 100+ days, depending on what type you’re growing. I typically count on about 90 days for most types.
HOW TO HARVEST CORN
With luck and good wind pollination, you can get two ears of corn per plant. That might not sound like much if you’re used to picking dozens of peppers at a time, but it’s a good harvest if you’re growing a dozen or more plants. (And a bountiful harvest if you’re growing more than 30 plants!)
The best time of day to harvest is early in the morning when the kernels will be at their sweetest.
Put on a pair of gloves and bring a bucket! To harvest, give each ear of corn a little twist while pulling downward until it breaks off.
For best results, harvest only as much fresh corn as you need for the next couple of days and then come back for more.
HOW TO SAVE AND ENJOY CORN
For sweet corn, leave the husk on until you’re ready to enjoy it. (And it’s best, by the way, to enjoy it as soon as possible.)
To store sweet corn, put the ears, husks on, in the crisper drawer of your fridge. They’re good for a couple days more. For longer-term storage, peel open the husks like a tuxedo, grill the ears, then remove the kernels from the cob. Freeze them in a freezer bag.
For dry corn, you will actually want to remove the husks to prevent mold. Hang the ears up to dry in a cool, dark, and dry place for 4 to 6 weeks to cure them. Once they’re cured, the cobs are ready to be stored, displayed, or popped. Dried kernels are easy to remove by twisting your hands back and forth over the cob. I recommend wearing gloves.
Just a quick head’s up: if you’re super excited to make colorful popcorn, I have some bad news. The inside of every kernel is white. You’re going to end up with white popcorn no matter what fun color the outside is. I know. I was pretty bummed when I didn’t get purple popcorn after my first growing season.
Here’s to great success in your very own little cornfield!
How we can help you garden grow…
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