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Is Corn Worth Growing on Small Plots?

 
Posts: 32
Location: Oregon
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I have perhaps 25 sq yards in my urban lot that I was hoping to allocate to some sort of field crop, and corn comes to mind. However, I'm not sure the yields of 2 ears a stalk are good enough for it to be worth my time, especially since corn is a heavy feeder and I have no idea if my soil will be able to support them year after year. The soil has been primed by cover crops of clover and pea, so I'd assume it's fairly ready to go for something more intensive now. My original plan was a 3 sisters type setup with adequate spacing to have each corn plant yield its fullest, and enough sun for the squash and beans. Now, I'm not so sure.

Also, I intended to plant sweet corn only.

I am very low budget, with no more funds for compost or chips. I was hoping to mow the clover right now and place cardboard over-top cutting holes for planting my trios. I was not going to till at all. I simply don't have much time or resources available. I'm afraid corn will cost too much in manure/compost, water and space to yield a good return. Thinking about just broadcasting beans or tomatillos, as both seem like easier, more efficient fruiters. Thoughts?
 
pollinator
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Remember that the original Three Sisters design and it's relatives mostly assume corn, beans, and winter squash being grown for dry, storable yields of dry corn and beans and mature squash.  Often the entire plot is left till first frost and all the produce harvested at once.  The bean and squash vines tangle everything together and it becomes a dense, weed-suppressing jungle.  This method of stacking crops has several advantages, but they might not be the things you want to grow.  Something like sweet corn or pole beans (for green beans) or summer squash would require repeated easy access to the interior of the plot.  You could lay out pathways for this, but then you will then lose more precious space.  I would not just broadcast anything, especially over sheetmulch or without any tillage.  A small area is best managed intensively for good yields.  Salad crops, other vegetables, and root crops might be your best bets.
 
gardener
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I think it depends on how much you love corn, and how much you want to avoid the problems of store-bought corn.  For me, it's totally worth it, even being a heavy feeder.  I love sweet corn and non-sweet varieties, but in limited space I focus on sweet corn and buy my dried cornmeal ground and pre-sprouted.

My husband and I love a little fresh sweet corn every year. It's like strawberries to us, a lovely fruit that has no substitute.  We usually eat it fresh, rarely cooked.  I don't understand the point of cooking it. I also greatly enjoy and use the corn silk, the dogs like to chew the cobs, the guinea pigs eat the corn husks, and finally I pull the whole plant and give the guinea pigs who devour the leaves and stems. Every bit of the plant gets full use.  If I got an edible smut growing on it, I'd be tickled pink and eat that too.  The smut is called huitlacoche, or Mexican truffles, and is a fungal delicacy.

Here's an article on eating corn smut, and a quote from it that is very interesting:

Corn Smut -Huitlacoche -on Green Deane's Eat The Weeds

The Aztecs intentionally inoculated their corn with spores by scratching the base of corn stalk with a soil-smeared knife. In Midwest America hail scratches corn plants allowing spores to enter. The fungus can live up to three years in the soil. The intentional infection is usually manifests itself ten days to two weeks later.   - Green Deane, Eat the Weeds



And a picture from Green Deane's site:


So I supposed the question of whether it's worth growing in small plots depends on taste.  :-)  It's another "strawberry" to me, as in something so amazing fresh (versus store-bought) I don't want to miss it.  A friend of mine whose family was from Illinois told me that her grandfather used to tell her:

Go pick us some sweet corn for dinner.  Run back.  If you trip and fall on your way, drop'em and go back for others.



I suppose that was both a testament to the great taste of really, really fresh sweet corn, and also to the fact that it does not store!  The moment it's picked, supposedly the sugars start turning into starches... I haven't tested this though.  We always eat it too fast to find out.

 
master steward
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When I was something like 14, and my brother 17, I was exploring Microsoft Encarta (like wikipedia or an encyclopedia, but on a CD) and ran across pictures of corn smut. It looked so gross, that I decided that I should make my brother come see it, too. Of course, I had to be sarcastic about it, to lure him over to my computer. I also had never heard the word "smut" before, and figured he never had either. So, I went over to his room and told him "You gotta come over to my room and look at my computer. I just found the most amazing, beautiful glorious thing ever. It's called smut! You must see it!" He gave me the weirdest look, so I figured I needed to up my sarcasm and continued enthusing about how lovely and amazing this smut on my computer was and he really needed to come and see it. He finally, warily, came over to my room (probably very concerned for his little sister's sanity) and saw the corn smut on my computer. He then proceeded to tell me what smut ALSO meant. My poor, poor brother!

Aaaanyway, this is my first year growing corn, since my son wants to grow some. Who am I to tell my four year old he can't grow corn? Of course, I don't really have garden bed space ready, so I tried double digging a bed...only to find a  power conduit wire the previous owner had buried only 8 inches deep. So, now I've got to find another place to grow corn!

But, I do think it's worth it to grow corn, even if you only have 20 or so stalks. Growing up, my mom would have three or four rows, about 4 feet wide, of corn. Probably not more than 30 stalks The only time we ever ate corn, was when mom grew it, and it really was delightful to eat her marvelous corn. Though I wasn't intending to grow corn, I'm rather hoping I succeed, so I can enjoy some fresh corn on the cob!
 
gardener
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For good pollination, you need to plant at least two rows, and preferably 3.  It grows best when you've got a critical mass of plants, brushing up against one another and spreading pollen all around.  Thus, it's going to take up space.  Further, if you want an ongoing crop of corn throughout the summer, you'll need to continually plant every week or so.  Our family LOVES sweet corn, so I plant about 14 to 20 new plants every week from April till June.  We continually harvest it throughout the summer.  If you don't have that kind of space, then it's probably smarter to just buy a couple of ears of corn at the store every couple of days.
 
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Try 16 plants laid out in 4 rows of four. Space them 2ft apart. You will probably only get one ear per plant but should be fine. When harvested either do another 4x4 in a different place or have a break from corn for 6mths.
 
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Kim Goodwin wrote:
So I supposed the question of whether it's worth growing in small plots depends on taste.  :-)  It's another "strawberry" to me, as in something so amazing fresh (versus store-bought) I don't want to miss it.  A friend of mine whose family was from Illinois told me that her grandfather used to tell her:

Go pick us some sweet corn for dinner.  Run back.  If you trip and fall on your way, drop'em and go back for others.



I suppose that was both a testament to the great taste of really, really fresh sweet corn, and also to the fact that it does not store!  The moment it's picked, supposedly the sugars start turning into starches... I haven't tested this though.  We always eat it too fast to find out.



Now, I know that the seed saving ethos favors open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, but it should be noted that the above is the reason for the preponderance today of hybrid sweet corn. The "Sugar Extender" hybrids, for instance, are designed to retain their sugar content in transport and storage. What comes down to is: are you a seed saver, or do you buy your seeds new every year? Hybrid seeds cannot be used in a seed saving system; but those who buy their seeds new every year need not avoid hybrids per se.
 
steward
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My experience with corn, is that it produces a tremendous amount of biomass. If you remove the biomass from the land, then soil fertility will suffer unless it is replaced. If the stalks stay where they grew, then they contribute a lot of fertility to next year's crop. It's looking like the older landraces of corn may be providing good growing conditions for nitrogen fixing microbes.

I expect 225 cobs of corn from 25 square yards. I recommend a spacing of 2.25 to 2.5 square feet per plant, which is around 90 to 100 plants in that space.

My strategy for creating a continuous harvest of corn, is to plant the succeeding patch, when the previously planted patch is 3 inches tall.

Corn is a tall vigorous plant that thrives with minimal weeding. Beans and tomatillos don't compete as well with weeds.
Growing sweet corn would produce about 22,000 kCalories of food, and 800 grams of protein.
Growing pinto beans would produce about  9,000 kCalories of food, and 600 grams of protein.
Tomatillos are perishable. I don't have a clue how I would eat, bottle, preserve, sell, or give away that many tomatillos.


 
Kim Goodwin
gardener
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Jason makes a point above.  Which is why I'd like to plug Baker Creek Seeds, and their heirloom sweet corn varieties.  Here's a link to their current corn listings, where I counted 7 or so sweet varieties:  https://www.rareseeds.com/search/?keyword=corn

They have a gorgeous corn selection...  beautiful varieties with lots of genetics to play with.
 
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I've guerilla gardened one packet of country gentlemen for two years in the same approximate spot. The second year I used seed saved from what I grew in year one. I mowed the weedy grass and punched holes in the ground with a sharpened tree branch and dropped a seed in the hole. Most drops required a little putting to get the seed down the hole. That was it for site preparation and maintenance. I never weeded, watered,  or fertilized. The results were mediocre the first year and very poor the second year. I planted about a foot apart in one foot wide rows. After year one I let one cob dry out and pulled the kernels off by wrenching the cob with my two hands. Got one cob per plant, at best.

Country Gentleman is a white corn with shoepeg kernels, which means the kernels grow scattered on the cob, without any rows. This is the corn used to can white creamed corn. I thought the corn was fairly good, but my wife wouldn't try it. It would have been much better if I'd put a little effort into the project, but I didn't want to make the project look anymore possessive than I had to. It also might have been better if the topsoil hadn't been bulldozed into the foundation of the house that used to be there.

From the stalks grown the first year I tied some to the mailbox post in the fall. My wife was embarrassed. The plants are short to begin with, I think. But these weren't very hardy stalks.
 
pollinator
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I (try to) grow sweet corn every year in my very small urban garden. It can't be bought where I am, so I grow it for love. I have done patches, with varying success, this year am doing some variations on three sisters and also trying some interspersing with rabbit fodder (rye). I'm resigned to assisting in pollinating, since I know I need more plants closer than the 4-per-hill I have.

This is the first year I am using the rabbit manure and so far the results are pretty good. In the past I have planted with half a fish in the hole, and gotten really good results. other years the rain has knocked down my plants, or they've just been spindly and the ears tiny. Right now I have about 18 plants of some kind of early-cold-dirt-hardy hybrid someone gave me in the ground right now, and batch 2 is starting in the seed trays (country gentleman).
 
Tereza Okava
pollinator
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Ok, summer is over and here is the update. The first batch (cool hardy) gave us two HEAVENLY meals of fresh corn and perhaps, uh, an ear I ate in the field. No bugs whatsoever and no controls necessary. I'm talking max 10 ears out of the 20 some i planted. The three sisters was an abject failure, beans did not want to come up with the corn, squash was moldy, things washed off the hills and came up in the darndest places. I eventually replanted everything but I would have done better to plant the beans with beans, corn with corn, squash scattered around the garden like i have done in the past.
Second batch of corn, Country Gentleman, there were no edible ears (out of a good 12 plants), it got too buggy and stayed too small. That was a disappointment. There was heat but the rain was not regular and I was traveling for a few weeks and couldn't irrigate as well as I wanted to.
The third batch is still growing, it is a hybrid from the local feed store. Looks like it might be more dent corn rather than sweet. grew much stronger than the others but the weather has been consistently hotter and rain more regular.
I think the moral of this story is that I like corn too much to stop trying, but that the rabbits actually get to eat more of it than we do. Next year I'll plant on fish. Sweet corn seems to be a win-some-lose-some kind of thing.
 
pollinator
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John Duda wrote:I've guerilla gardened one packet of country gentlemen for two years in the same approximate spot. The second year I used seed saved from what I grew in year one. I mowed the weedy grass and punched holes in the ground with a sharpened tree branch and dropped a seed in the hole. Most drops required a little putting to get the seed down the hole. That was it for site preparation and maintenance. I never weeded, watered,  or fertilized. The results were mediocre the first year and very poor the second year.



Corn is very sensitive to inbreeding depression. Carol Deppe says collect seed from 100 plants absolute minimum, 200 is better.  Maybe that was part of your problem second year.
 
gardener
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Don't know yet if it's worth it or not but I'm taking a bit of a gamble with corn this year. Gave it the prime spot in the kitchen garden. My experience with corn is very limited. A few attempts in TX failed miserably. Reasonable success in TN. Good enough to plant much more corn this year. Roughly 1000 square feet. Most is in the ground already. The first batch (popcorn & dent/flour corns) sprouted a few days ago. Rain interrupted the last of the sweet corn from being planted today. Eight varieties of corn total. Many types of beans in & around the corn. Will plant a few more pumpkins & squash with them soon. Those produce reliably here. Corn MIGHT produce here. Sure hope so!!!

I think in a new garden with unknown soil & limited space it would be wise to determine a few favorite things that are known to grow in the local area & start with those. Observe firsthand what works & what doesn't. Adjust as needed for the following years.
 
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We are on an urban plot with fairly limited space, especially full-sun spaces. We tried corn last year, planting half a dozen plants and getting two ears, total, that weren’t anywhere close (in terms of quality) to what we can buy. Now, we have a farm shop here in the Lehigh Valley of PA that my family calls “the pampered corn stand,” so I doubt that anything we could hope to produce would ever be superior to what we can purchase.

For the space corn takes up, there are just so many things that are more of a sure thing and deliver more produce. By way of example, one eggplant plant takes up little more space than a single corn plant, but can easily deliver half a dozen or more fruits each season. And it’s shorter, so you can plant “north” of it. I love good corn, but I can get 5 bowls of baba  ganouch from the same garden space that one corn stalk offers.

If you have a limited budget, especially when we are talking square footage in the garden, I just don’t think corn is worth it.

If your growing space is near your home, I really recommend picking up a copy of the book Square Foot Gardening, easily found cheaply, just to get your brain working on how you can use space to the absolute max. I haven’t planted following that methodology, but I found it extremely good to think with.

 
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I’ve always had success with corn. Even a few stocks can be hand pollinated. A garden favorite.
 
master pollinator
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I think corn can really make sense for people who have the space and have some animals that need regular fodder. The stalks left over from dry corn are pretty fibrous, but if the stocks are cut immediately after the last cob comes off of sweet corn, it's a real treat for goats or cows or whatever.

You can just toss it over the fence to them or use a stump or other surface to chop it up with a machete. Plant in succession so you have a steady supply of sweet corn and fodder.
 
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Glad I didn't do a search on this.. I had a crazy idea to plant the "3 sisters" in a new 2.5'x10' raised bed I put in the backyard. I am thinking the squash and beans may do well but the corn was a mistake? It looks nice anyway!
 
pollinator
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I don't know I can get at least 12 sweetcorn plants into the space of one squash plant! I think sweetcorn is worth growing as you can't buy decent corn here so the only way to get it fresh is to grow it, in season you can buy it in the shops, but the husks are all brown and dry.
 
Nicole Alderman
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Kali Gardener wrote:Glad I didn't do a search on this.. I had a crazy idea to plant the "3 sisters" in a new 2.5'x10' raised bed I put in the backyard. I am thinking the squash and beans may do well but the corn was a mistake? It looks nice anyway!



My three sister's bed is 10x7. While pollination wasn't perfect, they did grow and I did get corn. Hand pollinating is going to be necessary, but shouldn't be too hard if they're all in a row. I hand-pollinated my corn last year (some stalks were 500 feet from the patch, and they made corn with hand pollination) My son had wanted corn, and so I'd bought him little starts. Only thee of thsoe survived, and I pollinated them with each other, and they still made corn, even though so far from the 7x10 foot bed.

Just hand pollinate, and you should be fine!
 
pollinator
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how wonderfully timely this thread got bumped now. i'm going to grow sweet corn in containers here in my tiny yard in the suburbs, and this discussion is  useful for my first attempt. i have no real expectations, just want to get some 'corn experience'. but all the same, i would love to harvest at least a decent cob from every plant. i think i have enough space for four or five max but i'll sow a dozen or more to be sure (will give away the rest that turn out well in a few weeks).
 
Kali Hermitage
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Well it sounds like I might get something. I really am just doing it for fun this year to see what happens. This side of the yard is east facing and gets nearly full sun, it's always wet and floods in winter so I put a mini swale in back and the raised bed in just a few weeks ago. It's also a semi-hugelkulture inside. I think the beans and squash will do ok. I probably need to think the corn?






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I love corn, and have grown corn in small plots from the time I was little.  I would get a few seeds and propagate it in a few years weeding out the genes I don’t like. Some plots I started with were only about 10 seeds in a 2ft x 2ft plot. Corn is a C4 plant that loves heat and light.  We typically plant 6 types of corn for different purposes.  We always rotate our small plots and leave the fescue to grow something else next year.  After 4 or 5 years of rotation we plant a green chop in the plots to feed chickens and cows for 2 years, then it goes back to corn, sorghum, wheat and edible beans.  This picture is my son planting our yellow dent corn in a 40 X 60 plot last night.  We have 9 of these size plots, and 5, 10 x 10 plots.  If we get to much cross pollination and want pure lines we just pick our seed from the center of the plot.  The 3 sisters works great if I use a fish such as a bluegill in the middle of the mound.  I usually only do this in small scale in the 10 x 10s because of labor.
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Amy Escobar wrote:

I am very low budget, with no more funds for compost or chips. I was hoping to mow the clover right now and place cardboard over-top cutting holes for planting my trios.



compost isn't something you have to buy and manure can be found for free if you ask a livestock owner or pickup deer and elk spoor

unless I misunderstood, you seem to be looking for the minimum amount of effort for your food production. If you have your own land and or don't move much, you could look at trees instead: the thorny black locus tree produces long brown bean pods with large beans inside. You can boil these beans for 1/2 an hour pour, off the water, and boil for 1/2 an hour again (this process removes the tannin) and again pour off the water. After drying you can put the beans in the freezer. You can prepare them the same way you'd prepare pinto beans: they are really mild and can be used in chili (lots of seasoning) or as a breakfast food with agave.

....there's alot more trees out there that don't just produce fruit or nuts

There is also the paw-paw tree.    

....my point being here is, once your trees are full size, you never have to plant again or find cardboard/weed. All you have to do is prune and collect beans. This is a real garden of eden from my perspective.

good luck
 
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I've had success in the past with growing corn in clusters, or spiral patterns (closer to natural formations). My corn does best in natural, undisturbed living soil too.
 
master pollinator
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For my small corn plot I dug pits and filled them with 1/3 rotten wood, 1/3 weeds and kitchen scraps, and 1/3 soil sifted 50/50 with leaf mould from under our trees.  For fertilizer I am making "Stinky Swamp Water" aka Anaerobic Compost Tea.

Helpful video:  Combining Weeding and Fertilizing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TA7kMUDaocA&list=PLc-iSYQchLQ-A0VL314ZSj23U1Y-q0XRn&index=36

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pollinator
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Ha ha! Corn smut... what a name!  
I consider myself pretty open minded about trying new food, I enjoyed eating Haggis in Scotland, but Corn Smut just looks, um, wrong to be a food. If I get a chance to try it someday I will do my best to at least give it a little try. Can't say you don't like it if you've never tried it right?  

I never realized corn could be such an issue to grow in some places! Here in NE Ohio corn grows really well, conventional farmed crops are corn, soybeans, and hay. Seems just about everyone with a little garden grows some corn. My parents always have a few rows of sweetcorn to eat in the summer and then freeze a handful of little baggies of it to enjoy in the winter time. A nice taste of summer during the long dreary winter.

I'm still preparing my garden plots so I am not growing any this year but plan on growing a few varieties next year for sure!

Wishing everyone a successful corn growing season!
 
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This year I have tried a three-sisters plot, that I planted in a spiral.  I took a 2" piece of PVC pipe, wrapped a 10' piece of string around it, tied a pencil to the other end, shoved the pipe halfway into the dirt, then proceeded to unwind the string as I placed one corn seed every foot or so around the spiral.  I didn't get to a full 10' foot radius before I ran out of corn seeds.  The method that I'm using says that I don't plant the beans until the corn is 5" high.  It's not 5" high, and I'm worried that most of my corn seeds aren't even going to sprout.
 
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