10 Tips for Growing Corn in the Pacific Northwest

Yes! It is possible to grow corn in the Pacific Northwest!
Happy Day! We have CORN!

Yes – YES! We DO have corn! Here at Barbolian Fields, we are doing the Corny Happy Dance.

HOW – you may ask – did we manage to get corn to grow in this questionable of all seasons?

Because you are my friends, I will divulge 10 secrets for growing great corn in the northwestern corner of the Pacific Northwest.

But first, a caveat. I can’t say I’ve grown a lot of corn in my time. They tend to be space & fertility hogs that require just-right conditions – but oh, as anyone can say who goes out and picks their own & eats it right then and there – or drops it immediately into a pot of boiling water or tosses it onto a grill – there is just nothing like it.

Despite websites out there that say, “Anybody can grow corn!” (probably written by somebody in Nebraska), growing corn in this neck of the woods is a gamble. Last year, we had amazing heat, but winds so strong, many of the shallow-rooted stalks were blown right over. We still had a good harvest, but you just never know.

Should you accept the challenge, here are my 10 tried-and-true tips for growing corn under adverse conditions:

1) First, prepare your plot. Corn likes to grow among friends in a square, meaning several short rows rather than a couple of long rows. It likes lots of space, sunshine, food, and water. If you’re gonna grow corn, you gotta grow a bunch. I turned over a clover/rye/vetch-mix cover crop in about a 12-ft square area and let it rest a couple of weeks. I had previously grown garlic in this plot; I knew the soil was decent.

2) Next, pick a short-season variety. This sounds easy, but it’s not. Last year, we grew two “sugary enhancer” type corns: Bodacious, a yellow corn that is known to do well, and a red variety called “Ruby Queen.” I mean, who can pass up something called “Ruby Queen?” And what is all this “sugar-enhanced” (SE) stuff about? I admit I succumbed to the hype and fancy descriptions – but SE sounds a little too much like genetically engineered. Someone identified the sugar gene, then they figured out the sugar enhanced gene, and now we have the ultimate “super sweet” gene, which produces the sweetest corn of the them all. After you’ve gone the high-sugar, super-sweet route, can you go back to “standard sweet?” Doesn’t sound very sweet, does it. But here’s the hitch: each step up the sweetness ladder requires a little warmer soil for germination. Also, the sweeter the corn, the less the food reserves in the kernel, which means it needs adequate water and warmth to get up and growing.

Thinking it would be unlikely we would get two hot summers in a row, I went for a short-season type advised by our local feed and seed store: Precocious. It is an SE variety bred for cool soils (available at Territorial Seeds), “superior flavor” (which is what they all say), and “easily the earliest yellow corn.” I figured it was a step above hog feed and a step below cotton candy.

3) Learn about heat units. According to Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades: The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening, varieties of corn are not described by days to maturity but rather in “heat units” (HU). This is the number of hours per day that the temperature is above 50 degrees F, multiplied by the number of degrees above 50. And according to the Washington Climate Series, WSU Cooperative Extension, the average HU here in Sequim, WA, is 1288 (measured from March through October). This is interesting, because marketers have gone through great extremes to promote “Sunny Sequim,” where the sun shines every day. We are “the Blue Hole,” because all the clouds are on the other side of the Olympics. Guess what? Sequim has the absolute lowest HU on the list! Vancouver, WA, on the other hand, tops out at 2404.*

So what does this mean? In terms of growing Precocious corn, it translates to 60-75 days to maturity on the package. But now get this: my corn took DOUBLE that amount. I kid you not. I planted on June 2 (in the greenhouse – see below), transplanted June 16, and it is now September 28. Although I picked a few ears a week ago, some ears on the stalks could still use more time. So that kind of tells you how the number of “heat units” (or rather, the lack thereof) in a cool spring and summer can translate into corn maturity (or not).

4) Start your seeds in flats. Yes, as crazy as it seems, pre-start your seeds. Corn likes around 60 degrees to fully germinate, but obviously, that was wishful thinking. By June, I figured if I waited until the nights were consistently above 45 to plant, the corn wasn’t going to happen. But a lightbulb went on when I started seeing 6-packs of corn starts in the garden stores, and instead of thinking whoever buys these things must be nutzoid, I started thinking, “Hmmm…maybe they’re on to something.”

How many seeds will you need? It always surprises me how much math there is in gardening. 12 feet of space, rows 2 feet apart = 6 rows with a 1-foot border (that’s five 2-foot spaces between rows plus two 1-foot borders). Seeds 8 inches apart in 10 feet of space (1-foot borders, remember) = 120 inches/8 = 15 plants + 1 for the end. 16 plants x 6 rows = 96 seeds. Plus add a few more to make up for those that don’t make it.

Not having 100 containers, I took two bottom trays for plant starts, filled them with a couple inches of seed-starting soil, crammed in the corn seeds, watered them, and put them in the greenhouse. (In retrospect, I should have started them sooner. I will do another post on this greenhouse, but let’s just say we have a love-hate relationship.) Any plant that can survive 40 at night and 115 in the day has got to have a very strong survival instinct. Within a few days, tiny grass-like shoots were peeking above the surface.

5) Prepare the soil for transplanting. Rake it smooth. Dig shallow trenches about 2 feet apart. (Recommended spacing is up to 3 feet apart, but I cram ours together a bit to help them stand up against the wind.) Fill the rows with worm compost or whatever you have. A little lime is good in our area. They like a pH of 5.8 to 6.5. Work it in a bit. Re-do the trenches to make it easier to place your starts.

6) Get your plants in the ground. Don’t wait until it’s “warm enough.” Give them some air and the real UV they’re craving. I admit, I have never transplanted corn in my life. Lo and behold, the roots of the plants had grown incredibly long in proportion to the top growth, extending throughout the shallow tray and tangling with its neighbors. Individual pots would have been nice. I did my best to untangle them and spread them out in the trenches, covered them with soil, watered them in, and wished them luck. Son of a gun. They all made it. Maybe anybody CAN grow corn! But it was already June 16, and I knew if we didn’t get some heat soon, they were doomed.

7) Fertilize. Did I mention that corn is a food hog? Early in the season, I spread a little bloodmeal alongside the rows and gently worked it into the soil. Several times throughout the season, I sprayed them with a mixture of worm tea and liquid fish fertilizer. Corn, being a fast growing plant, seems to immediately respond to foliar sprays. You can feel them standing taller and feeling stronger. Makes you want to straighten up and throw your shoulders back. Posture and attitude are everything.

Precocious corn ears are near the ground
Precocious corn. I’ve never seen corn with ears that grow so close to the ground!

8) Keep the young plants weeded. Growing among neighbors is essential; competing with ravenous weeds is life-threatening. Corn needs all the help it can get. Hoe weeds into the soil where they can add a few extra nutrients, but hoe gently. Corn roots are shallow. Try to keep on top of the weeds early in the season. Later on, try to avoid compacting the soil. (I admit, weeds always get away with me.)

9) Keep them watered. Corn likes lots of water, but not wet feet. Around here, we go from wet muck in the spring to summer drought. The mist moves in off the water and gives us cool, damp mornings; the wind rips through in the afternoons and sucks the soil dry. In small doses, the wind is a good thing. Corn depends on it for pollination. You don’t want to rain down the tassels with overhead sprinkling. Keep the water close to the soil, and water in the morning, rather than late evening, which will only further cool the soil overnight. A light mulch helps keep the moisture more even. A heavy mulch will keep the soil too cold.

10) Last but not least, play music, sing, dance. Radiate joy and sunshine. In the evening hours, I could almost hear them, “Somebody, pleeeze….make her stop!”

*Weather Data for Selected Locations in Western Washington: Comparative Heat Units (Base 50) – from a WSU Extension study looking at the feasibility of growing fruits in the Maritime Northwest.

P.S. That’s my adorable grandson in the photo! 🙂

18 thoughts on “10 Tips for Growing Corn in the Pacific Northwest”

  1. 2 years in a row my corn has looked great but not been sweet. I was told after the first year to try adding lime to the soil. Second year corn is better but not as sweet as local farmers. Any suggestions?

  2. Reading these comments, I saw that someone is using miracle grow for their corn,and maybe all their vegetables. Keep in mind that miracle grow is a synthetic chemical fertilizer. It is not natural nitrogen. It is a nitrate. And I’m sure there are lab animals that have suffered for injesting it. Fish emulsifier , to me is the best fertilizer I can spend my retirement money on. A little messy if not mixed and applied properly, but, oh, the results. Miracle grow is probably o.k. on our flowers and bushes, but then, I don’t eat ornamental flowers and shrubs. Do yourself a favor. Don’t use it on vegetable gardens. Do you have kids??? Think about it.

    • I agreed! (as you can see by my reply). Kelp, fish fertilizer, mycorrhizal fungi, green manures, compost, and mulch are my go-to soil builders. I notice that Home Depot (for one) carries a lot of Miracle Grow products, many of which say “organic.” Personally, I don’t touch them. The organic label can be confusing. Suffice to say, not all “organics” are made alike! Thanks for your comment, Curt. You make some good points.

      • Raccoons and skunks can wreck havoc in a corn patch, for sure! I, too, am a big fan of fish emulsion and kelp. Others have also told me that raccoons just can’t resist the fish and will dig up any area they smell it. Some ideas I’ve heard for repelling them: installing strong lighting (they prefer to forage in darkness), solid fences (possibly a used dog kennel around a patch?), solar-powered sound emitters used to repel rodents and small mammals – or how about connecting a radio to a timer?, and spreading blood meal, wood ashes, or predator urine around the perimeter of the garden and re-applying after a rain (or maybe all three–I have heard of people getting good results with deer repellent and that it only smells bad right at first, but the animals can smell it long after we can’t). Or stop using fish & kelp and just use compost. Good luck! Thanks for bringing this up!

  3. I loved your article! Well done! Oh, and I am from Nebraska; grew up on a corn and soybean farm, and believe me, in the PNW I would never say “anybody can grow corn”. LOL! Moved here in ’96. In fact, I don’t recommend it to beginning gardeners because it takes so much space, requires so much fertilizer, and is extremely thirsty! Then there are the diseases and pests….
    On our Nebraska farm we were a rare breed in modern farming times…we practiced “dryland farming”. Which means we didn’t irrigate. Yeah, we spent a fair amt of time praying for rain. 🙂 Anyway, just wanted to say I enjoyed your post!

    • Coming from a true Nebraskan, that is quite a compliment! Thank you! Sorry I didn’t take time to respond sooner, because your note seriously made my day! I didn’t grow corn this year for the exact reasons you noted: space, fertilizer, water, pests…and unreliable “heat units.” Not to mention wind. BUT – last year, I traded some seeds with a gardener in Ohio who sent me what I called “magic corn.” I never got around to writing a blog post about it, but maybe I still will, because they were the most spectacular plants in the garden. One visitor said, “Wow. I feel like I’ve been transplanted to Kansas or something!” The variety was “Bloody Butcher.” It grew sky high; the kernels were a gorgeous deep maroon; they can be ground into a wonderful flour or meal; flavor was simply outstanding. (Jeremy, if you are reading this, I was reluctant to plant them, but I am sure glad I did – and I just might make more room for them next year because they were so much fun.) Bloody Butcher Corn - Wow!

      And I have to add, I am quite impressed with the fact that you practiced dryland farming! We could learn a few tips from you!

  4. I grew some corn this year for the first time. When I picked it, it was beautiful, nice and shiny kernels just the way I like it. But then when I cooked it the same way I always do it was tough! I talked to my neighbor who is quite a vegetable grower, he said his was the same. I was so disappointed! He thought it was caused by the very hot weather we had here this year.
    What is your opinion? I would like to try again next year.

    • Hey, Marv – I’m no expert when it comes to growing corn — I would trust your neighbor! Local knowledge is always the best. Where we live (Pacific Northwest), not enough heat is usually our problem, not too much. That said, when I’ve had starchy corn, it was usually because either I waited too long to harvest it or because I didn’t cook it immediately after harvesting. I don’t really have the room for corn, but a friend gave me some seeds to try this year, so I stuck them in the ground. Zowie! The stuff is 15 feet tall! The kernels are red (“Bloody Butcher” is the variety) and are supposed to be dried and ground into flour. Can’t wait! This corn has been a real highlight in the garden. Maybe you should try a different variety? At least with this dried corn, I have more wiggle room when it comes to that “just right” time to harvest it. And we love having fresh cornbread and polenta over the winter. Course, I agree, when you get it right, there’s nothing like good sweet corn that goes from the garden to the cookpot or the griddle! Hope you have better luck next year!

  5. Hi, I live near Seattle, WA. I am a novice at planting corn. Last year my first time. This year planted a few more than last year. I used plants rather than seeds. I do not have a green house and as I live in an apartment not a lot of space. My area for my corn is about 6×6 feet. A little less than two feet between rows. At the west end of corn I have pole beans and watermelon and at the east end I have tomatoes planted. My corn both years has grown so tall everyone that sees it has been amazed. I use a soaker hose early in the morning and spray garden around six PM each day. I fertilize by spraying with Miracle Grow every week or two. I only get a couple ears per stalk and am pondering if this is proper yield or if I need to use different fertilizer. I add lime to soil before planting as well as chicken fertilizer.

    Can you share your experience and or opinion on whether I do or don’t need to changer fertilizer or if two ears per stalk is adequate yield?

    Thanks for your input. Really appreciate your article with ten tips.

    • I confess, I am no expert when it comes to growing corn. In fact, I didn’t even grow any this year–it is such a space, water, & nutrient hog, I consider it more of a luxury crop. You get more heat over there in Seattle (we are often 10 degrees cooler), so you might be able to make it work where you are. But there’s nothin’ like a fresh ear of sweet corn picked & thrown right on the grill or in a kettle of boiling water, so I see why even with limited space, we all like to grow it.

      The yields, however, will differ by variety, as well as by how well you take care of it, so I can’t tell you whether that’s a good yield or not. If the seed package doesn’t tell you, you might be able to find out elsewhere online.

      Personally, I am not a fan of Miracle Gro. It is, in my opinion, inferior to something like basic compost or fish emulsion, which offers organic nutrients that can feed the microorganisms in the soil. When you fertilize, you are actually feeding the microorganisms, which in turn, feed the plant. If you want to grow organically, ditch the Miracle Gro. It is made with cheap synthetics and chemicals. Plus, it is produced by Scotts, a company that does not have a good track record when it comes to labeling and that is in partnership with Monsanto, which I oppose on many different levels. When we buy their products, we are supporting their policies.

      It sounds like you have a really nice garden, though, for such a small space! Good luck, and thanks for commenting!

  6. I live in the Butte Falls area of Oregon. I have great results growing my corn in a raised bed. I start planting seeds directly in the soil about the last week of May and plant a couple rows every week for about 3 weeks. My bed is 4’x4′. We get great results. I buy my seeds and fertilizer from Gurney. Not great science just great corn.

    • I have a tendency to make things too complicated! Maybe I have room for a little corn patch this year after all. I think I could do 4’x4′. You get quite a bit more heat and rainfall in Butte Falls than we do here in Sequim, but with the right varieties and a good year, we can make it work. Nothing like picking an ear of corn and dropping it right into boiling water or putting it immediately on the grill! Mmmm…I think I am hungry for summer! Thanks, Michael, for stopping in to our site!

  7. Hi, I teach homeschooled children a gardening class and I was very interested in you corn growing page, but I’ve looked for this …Washington Climate Series, WSU Cooperative Extension information on HU for different locations in Washington State, that you referenced in your article, and have not been able to find it. We live in Eastern Washington and I believe this information you reference would be very valuable to the organic gardening notebook we are making.

    • Thanks for bringing the broken link to my attention. It appears the link has slightly changed, but I am pretty sure the information I used was based on research for growing grapes, which many people are trying to do over here on the Olympic Peninsula, despite our low HU rating. Try this one: Comparative Heat Units (base 50) from WSU Extension Research. (and I updated the link in the article – thanks again!) Unfortunately, the list is very western-based; it doesn’t go very far east. You don’t say how old the students are, but maybe it would be a good project to calculate the heat units for your area by adding up the differences between the mean daily temperature and 50° from March through October. Perhaps a NOAA weather site would provide those daily means?

      I wrote another post on the 3 Sisters Corn Patch that you might find interesting. As mentioned above, we planted sunflowers as a windbreak; fava beans (rather than climbers) amongst the corn for nitrogen input; squashes as a border; and lots of herbs and flowers around the edges to attract insects. Not the 3 Sisters idea in the strict sense, but still quite effective.

      I used to live in the Okanogan Valley – love that area of Eastern Washington. They definitely get more HUs over there! Teaching about organic gardening and the importance of healthy foods is so important! And this year, with our forecast of severe drought, is perhaps an opportunity to learn about various water conservation methods. Best wishes to you and your students, and thanks for checking in to my site!

    • Hi John – Not sure where you are, but the general recommendation is about 1 to 1 1/2 inches. Some folks plant them in hills; some space them out in rows. For me, I’m not usually very good with transplants, but in the case of corn, I’ve had the best luck with first starting them indoors in a greenhouse. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there are many years that we just don’t get enough “heat units” over the summer to ripen corn. Plus, the soil outside doesn’t warm up very early, so anything direct-seeded has a high risk of rotting or not germinating. One year, I planted about 100 seeds a couple of inches apart in trays in the greenhouse. It’s not much of a greenhouse – but it does the trick of getting the temps up during the day. They really took off! The roots grew like crazy – and even though there was just a little sprout on top, beneath the soil was a long network of roots! It would have been much better to plant them in pots! I managed to carefully pull them apart and put them in the ground about 10″ apart and in rows about 30″ apart (30″ seems like a lot, but it really helps to be able to get in there and hoe, fertilize, & water – amazing how big they get!) I was surprised that almost all of them made it! Last year, I started the seeds near the end of May and transplanted about the middle of June, so it doesn’t take long to get them going if they have a little warmth to begin with. I can’t remember how deep I transplanted them – but up to their necks, spreading out the roots as much as possible. I probably could have seeded them earlier, but we had a really cold, wet spring last year – so I waited. Once they’re growing, though, it’s surprising how tough they are. The corn tends to be rather shallow-rooted, so you have to be careful on how you hoe around them – plus, they have a tendency to blow over in strong winds – and they’re always hungry, so you have to feed them. Last year, I planted a 3 Sisters-type garden with the corn, beans, and squash. I used sunflowers as a windbreak on the west side. I fertilized mostly with blood meal early on, and worm tea and fish fertilizer later in the season. They did quite well, and we were still picking corn late into the season. Ah – I just read over my 10 Tips post from a couple years ago, and I see I just said some of the same stuff. Oh well – hope it’s helpful!


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