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BLOG: How to Grow Corn the Square Foot Gardening Way

Can you REALLY grow corn in just 6" of growing medium? You bet! Here's how.

As promised, I’ll show you how to plant corn in just 6” of growing medium.

In previous posts we talked about the special growing medium we use in Square Foot Gardening that is comprised of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 coarse vermiculite and 1/3 blended compost. I get my blended compost (made from kitchen waste and waste wood from Veteran Compost in Aberdeen, MD, and mix it with some of their worm compost (vermicompost).

This mixture holds moisture and feeds your crops without needed any additional chemical fertilizer. If I feel that my plants need an extra boost, I make compost tea.

This is easily done by putting compost into an old nylon stocking or a cheesecloth bag and “steeping” it in warm water. When it cools you can pour the “tea” at the base of the plants you want to fertilize. You can usually use the “bag” twice.

Getting back to growing corn ... I usually dedicate a 2’x2’ box for my corn. Send the children out of the room because now we’re going to talk about sex. Corn has both male and female parts on the same plant—called the tassel, where the pollen is made, and the silk that receives the pollen. Each silk, if pollinated, will become a kernel of corn. If the silk doesn’t get pollinated, it won’t produce a kernel.  The first silk you see is attached to the bottom of the corn cob and they work their way up the ear—this is why you sometimes see fewer kernels at the top of the cob.

The pollen is shed from the tassel starting in the middle of the center spike and works its way down to the lower branches of the tassel. Pollen starts shedding about two to three days before the silk starts emerging and keeps going for about five to eight days. The largest pollen shed is on day three. On the other hand, the silk is usually receptive for up to ten days. In general the pollen of one plant doesn’t fertilize the silk of that same plant. So, the male is ready before the female is and he usually goes outside the home to make babies. Hhhhhmmmm!

When you go to the store and pull back the husk on the corn and see a lot of gaps, it indicates that the pollen didn’t shed at the same time as the silk developed. This is a problem. When a silk is successfully pollinated and the “baby” (kernel) starts to form, usually 1-3 days after pollination, the silk will detach from the kernel and start to turn brown and dry up. Unfertilized ovules (kernels) are still white and attached to the silks.  

Since the pollen and the silk don’t mature at the same time and because the pollen from one stalk rarely fertilizes the silk from that same stalk, I give nature a little nudge. 

As I said, I dedicate a 2’x2’ raised bed just for corn. From the plan in the pictures, you see that I stagger my planting. The first week I plant in the very back “row” of the back two squares. Week 2 I plant the front two rows of the back two squares. And so on until Week 4 when all the corn is planted. The benefit is that I can gently bend the stalks and gently shake them so that I pollinate from stalk to stalk in the Week 1 row every day for three days. I can then use the early Week 2 pollen (in the center of the spike) to pollinate the Week 1 silks since they develop later.

Pollinate within each individual row first then use the next week’s corn to pollinate across the rows. This ensures better pollination and should give you more kernels per ear than you would get normally.

Of course your Week 4 corn will receive the least amount of pollen, so be sure to pollinate within that row well.

If you live in a windy area or just don’t trust that the corn will stay upright in 6” of growing medium, you can put a 6’-8’ stakes outside each corner of your raised bed and wrap chicken wire around it to support your stalks as seen in the photo from my friend and fellow Certified SFG Teacher, Mike Baker of Ellicott City.

My next SFG Class will be in Glen Burnie on April 21. SFG 101 10 a.m.–noon and SFG 201 1–3 p.m. Register or contact me online at sfg4u.com. Class size is limited to 10 people so register early. 

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Nancy Corazzi June 23, 2012 at 12:07 PM
Nice. I wish I'd read this prior to planting. Mike is my neighbor so he's given me a lot of great advice. I chose to put chicken wire on top of my cage at a height of four feet, which is what I understood the book to suggest. Now I'm worried that the corn will be stunted as its just now reaching 4'. Any input?
Kim Roman June 26, 2012 at 02:10 PM
You are SOOOOOO lucky to have Mike nearby. The fencing Mel suggests in the book is wider mesh than chicken wire to allow the corn to grow up and through the openings. If you notice the third picture above, Mike puts posts in each corner of the raised bed then puts the chicken wire AROUND the posts to support the corn and protect it from critters.
Janet D June 12, 2013 at 07:33 PM
Is it too late to start planting corn this way? I live is Central Ontario and i think i am in zone 5
Kim Roman June 12, 2013 at 08:56 PM
I believe so. We have an adage here in the States that the corn should be "knee high by the 4th of July". We are in Zone 7 her in Maryland.

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