While I’ve tried (half-heartedly) to grow corn in the past, each harvest has been less than exciting. You reap what you sow… and in this case it is true in the literal sense: Each ear had so few kernels that I didn’t even think they’d be worth the effort to cook! Ever had that happen? When I further researched the problem, I think I see why I’m not the first novice corn-grower to run into it.
Corn can have problems with pollination
Corn is pollinated a little differently than most flowering plants we’re familiar with. Most plants that we grow have a pollen-producing stamen and a pollen-receiving pistil both inside of a single flower. With the help of insects, pollination is almost a sure thing.
Corn, however, is a grass relative, and doesn’t flower in the “normal” way. Instead, it has its male and female reproductive parts in two separate places on the plant. The pollen-producing tassel is at the top of the plant, and the ear-shoot with pollen-receiving silks much lower on the plant.
Most corn pollination occurs simply by pollen moving through the air. Planting too few plants or rows of corn can mean more pollen has a chance of blowing away before reaching the corn silk. This is what happened to my corn! I simply planted too few plants for the ears to become properly pollinated. My lesson learned was simple: Plant corn generously!
Each strand of silk represents the potential for one kernel of corn. If every strand of silk gets pollinated, we get really good corn! Lilly Miller recommends at least 4 rows of 6 or more plants for proper pollination to occur.
Dealing with space and location issues
Many home gardeners have somewhat limited space. So what do you do with a mass of corn that takes up quite a chunk of room? And corn, being such a tall plant, can pose another problem… shade. Both issues can make location a potential problem.
If you’re like me, you may not have a place that large in the north corner of your yard where your corn won’t shade shorter plants when it reaches its full height. The only place large enough for my corn was in a south corner.
If you’re in the Northern hemisphere and you’re stuck with corn in the south part of your garden… bummer… but don’t sweat it too much. You can still plant directly North of the corn plot. Just plant crops that can harvested early in the season before the corn shadows become a problem. I’m going to plant lettuce and spinach on the Northern margin and I know they’ll be eaten up long before the corn gets tall.
Can you start corn in pots?
My answer, in short, is “Yes!”
I live in Oregon where many years provide a really short growing season. Because of this, I like to start as many plants as possible in my greenhouse. While I’ve been told that starting corn in pots not a good idea because they don’t like to be transplanted, I thought I’d give it a try anyway.
As it turns out, my corn sprouted very well in starter trays (better than when I planted seed directly in the ground) and didn’t bat an eye at being transplanted to the garden when it was about 4 inches tall. Of course, some varieties may not react this way, so if in doubt, maybe start early and try both ways.
Good luck with your corn… and now it’s time to see if I can be successful at growing corn armed with my new knowledge!
Update: We’re On Corny Target!
The first post and photos were done on May 1 and it’s now June 17. My corn is now about 16 inches tall and we still have a couple of weeks left until July. I do believe that I’m going to make the fabled target, “Knee high by the fourth of July!” Now let’s just hope that the whole pollination part works as planned. 🙂