Master Gardener Nancy Crowe has some corn-y ideas about how, when and why to plant corn.
People on both coasts tend to think of Indiana as a patchwork of cornfields (with a race track in the middle, if they’re thinking of us in May). An old tourism slogan proclaimed, “There’s more than corn in Indiana,” but, really, if there’s one thing you can reliably find in this state, it’s corn. Lots and lots of corn.
Though I have spent most of my life in Indiana, I was well into adulthood before I found myself at the edge of an actual cornfield. It was autumn, the corn was tall and the quiet was almost eerie. Only then did I take a close-up look at the green stalks with the long, floppy leaves and see that each plant produced only one or two ears of corn. Good grief, I thought, no wonder farmers have to plant so much of the stuff.
Indiana is the fifth-leading corn producer in the United States, according to Indiana Farmers Feed US. Most of what you see as you whiz by on interstates or county roads is not the kind of corn you munch from the cob or heat up from a can or frozen package. It’s feed corn for pigs, cows and chickens that don’t care about butter and salt. Well, who knows, they might if they were asked.
Other corn trivia from Indiana Farmers Feed US:
• Farmers today grow five times more corn than they did in the 1930s and on 20 percent less land.
• Seventy-five percent of all grocery items contain corn in some form.
• Indiana ranks second in the U.S. in popcorn production, producing 269 million pounds annually.
Home gardeners can and do grow sweet corn (the kind we humans eat). However, from what I’ve read and observed, you need a pretty big plot (read: a nice big yard) to do it justice. My neighbors here in the city grew some very nice-looking corn stalks in their back yard. I don’t know how much of a yield they had for eating, but good for them for giving it a go.
There are different types of sweet corn based on sugar concentration and shelf life, according to Jung Seeds. Normal sugar varieties have to be eaten (or frozen) right after picking, or their sugar will be converted to starch. Sugary enhanced varieties are a bit sweeter and more tender; supersweet varieties are bred for long shelf life; and synergistic hybrids combine the two. (As always, read the seed packet.)
Then you have to be very careful about planting different corn types together — cross-pollination occurs and the poor little corn genes don’t know what to do. Often, they get crabby and produce tough, starchy corn you would never want to admit growing yourself. Normal sugar and sugary enhanced corn varieties can be grown side by side. However, if you plant a supersweet variety, it should be planted at least 25 feet from a normal sugar or sugary enhanced variety. I asked the folks at Jung what they would suggest for urban/suburban home gardeners; they recommend any of the sugary enhanced varieties because these have good flavor without the worry of cross-pollination.
At this time of year, of course, you also see a lot of ornamental (read: not for eating) corn in all its multicolored, autumn-hued glory. There’s even a green-and-gold variety Jung recommends for Packer fans or John Deere enthusiasts.
Whether you want sweet corn or ornamental corn, if growing it at home doesn’t appeal or doesn’t work (it happens), there are plenty of options for getting it fresh and local at area farm markets. Then, the only cross-pollination you have to worry about is if a freshly buttered corncob rolls off a plate and into your lap at the dinner table. That happens, too.
Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.