Corn: Sow and Grow Guide

Corn: Sow and Grow Guide

Corn conjures memories of summer barbeques, warm evenings, and gatherings with friends and family. Because it's such a common food, you might think you know all about it. But there are several different types of corn-for eating fresh, popping, ornamental use, and for flour. If you were wondering how to grow corn from seed, you've come to the right place!

General Information

Five types of corn:

There are five major types of corn: SWEET CORN has the most sugar; it is the kind that we eat and are most familiar with. FLOUR CORN is high in starch; it is ground to make cornmeal and flour. FLINT CORN, also known as Indian corn is very hard, and comes in many colors. It is grown for livestock feed, and for its ornamental use. Popcorn is a type of flint corn with small, hard kernels that retain moisture which, when heated, expand until they explode. DENT CORN is so named because of the dents on the outer facing edge of the kernel. The kernels are hard, but not as hard as flint corn. It is used for livestock feed and as an ingredient in many commercial foods. POD CORN, or tunicate maize, has a husk covering each kernel. It was formally thought to be wild ancestor corn, although scientist have found its unique form to actually be a genetic mutant.

Three types of SWEET CORN:

1.) Sugary (su) is the original type of sweet corn with higher amounts of sugar than field corn. For best flavor, su corn should be enjoyed within a couple of hours of harvesting as sugars begin to convert to starch very fast. 2.) Sugary enhanced (se) types were first developed in the 1970s. They have higher amounts of sugar and are more tender than su types. The conversion of sugar to starches after harvest is slower, and ears retain their eating quality for a couple days after harvest. Heterozygous se types have 75% su kernels and 25% se kernels. Homozygous se types have 100% se kernels. 3.) Shrunken (sh2) gets its name from the appearance of the dried seed kernels. They are also called Supersweet because the kernels contain high sugar levels and hold their sweetness the longest in the field and after harvest. The seed is less vigorous and prone to rotting if sown in cool soil. Newer types of sweet corn such as synergistic, augmented, and other trademarked types have different mixes of the three main genotypes.

General Sowing

How to sow

Sow 2 seeds 1"–1 1/2" deep, 12" apart.


Once seedlings are 4" tall, thin to 1 seed per space. Cut the extra seedling off below the ground; unlike other plants it can grow back if only the top growth is removed.

Optimal Growing Conditions

corn on plant


Corn grows best in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter, and tilled to a depth of at least 10"


Corn needs a significant amount of water-1" per week. It is important to keep plants watered when tassels emerge and silks appear and during ear formation for best ear and kernel development. For corn types harvested when dry (popcorn, flour, dent), water should be withheld once kernels begin hardening.


Choose an area with full sun (6 or more hours per day).


Incorporate a well-balanced, slow-release fertilizer into the soil at sowing time. Corn is a heavy feeder. It benefits from the addition of fertilizer during the growing season, if soils are deficient. Corn needs all three macro-nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium/potash) to be successful, but it needs more nitrogen that the other two. Nitrogen is the first number in the series of three numbers separated by dashes listed in fertilizer analysis, so look for a higher first number, indicating a higher ratio of nitrogen. Liquid fertilizers are taken up by plants more quickly and can be applied more regularly (see fertilizer instructions). Slow-release fertilizer should be side dressed (scratched in around the base of the plant) 4 to 6 weeks after seedlings emerge.


Keep plants well weeded, as weeds compete for nutrients and water.


Corn is a grass, and like other grasses, it is wind pollinated. Tassels, which carry pollen, emerge from the top of the plant, usually just ahead of the silks, which emerge lower on the plant and look like long, silky hairs. Each strand of silk needs to be pollinated to become a kernel in the ear of corn. Poor pollination results in "skips" in the ear of corn where a kernel did not form, and leaves a blank space. Once both tassels and silks have emerged, you can ensure good pollination by shaking plants or snapping off a tassel and brushing it against the silks of up to 10 plants, using a new tassel for additional plants. Read Corn: Pollination for more information.


Sweet Corn

Sweet corn is ready about 3 weeks after the silks appear. Harvest when the silks are brown, but not dried, and the husks are dark green; ears should be plump and rounded rather than pointed at the tip. To test for ripeness, gently pull back the husk and pop a kernel with your fingernail; the liquid should be whitish; if it is still clear, ears are not quite ready.

Once harvested, enjoy as soon as possible, as sugars quickly convert to starch making the freshest corn the sweetest and most tender. If you would like to store ears, dunk them, with husks intact, in ice water for 1 to 2 hours to cool, to slow sugar loss. Drain excess water. Store ears in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator in husks, in a container or plastic bag for up to a week.

corn robust

Dry Corn (flour, dent, popcorn)

Let the ears dry on the stalks. They are ready for harvest when the kernels are hard and you can no longer leave a mark on them with your fingernail. Before the first fall frost, give each ear a twist until it breaks off. Peel back the husks, then hang the ears in a cool, dark, dry place for 4 to 6 weeks to cure. This is important to prevent mold. To strip off cured kernels, twist the cobs back and forth to loosen them (gloves are recommended).

Common Pests and Diseases

Corn Earworm, also called tomato fruitworm, is one of the most destructive agricultural insect pests in the U.S. Adults are tan moths that lay white, round eggs on corn silks and the undersides of leaves; larvae are 1"–2" long caterpillars, light yellow, green, pink, or brown with white and dark stripes along sides. The larvae feed on the ear tips of sweet corn and the pods of green beans, burrow into ripe tomatoes and peppers, and feed on a wide range of other plants.

There are several ways to control corn earworm. Attract beneficial insects that eat earworm eggs and larvae, such as lacewings, ladybugs, and parasitic flies and wasps, by interplanting pollen and nectar plants. Sweet alyssum is particularly attractive to parasitic wasps. Inspect your developing corn ears for signs of infestation. Two to three days after silks have fully developed and are just starting to turn brown, apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) mixed with vegetable oil to the tip of each ear. Neem or spinosad may also be used in place of Bt; be sure the formulation is approved for use on corn. Alternatively, you can apply a few drops of mineral oil just inside the ear about 5 days after silks appear.

Corn Comparison

Variety Sub-category
Heirloom/ Hybrid Height Days to
Disease/ Pest Resistance Noteworthy Add to Cart
chart image 'Glass Gem'
Flint/Popcorn (snowflake shape) 6'–10' 100–110 Multi-colored; no two are alike
chart image 'Robust Pop R400MR' Popcorn (mushroom shape) Hybrid 6'–7' 95–100 Goss's wilt
chart image 'Strawberry' Popcorn (butterfly/ snowflake shape) Heirloom 4' 100–105
chart image 'Striped Japonica'
Ornamental/ Dent Heirloom 5'–6' 85 Variegated leaves
chart image 'Buttergold' Sweet (se) (yellow kernels) Hybrid 5'–6' 63 Excellent for freezing, cool weather tolerance
chart image Honey and Cream Sweet (su) (bicolor kernels) Hybrid 7½' 84 Resistance to common rust and Northern leaf blight
chart image 'Martian Jewels' Sweet (su)/Flour (white kernels) 6' 80–90 Loaded with beneficial anthocyanins. Good for dehydrated corn use.
chart image 'Painted Hill' Sweet (su)/ Flour (multi-color kernels) 5' 65–80 Germinates in wet, cool soils better than other cultivars, adapted for short seasons. Good for ornamental use.
chart image 'Sugarbaby' Sweet (se) (bicolor kernels) Hybrid 6' 65 Stewart's wilt Good cool weather endurance
chart image 'True Gold' Sweet (su) (yellow kernels) 5'–7' 70–80 Resistant to stalk-lodging (bending or kinking and falling over).
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