10 Tips for Growing Corn in the Pacific Northwest
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.
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: http://maritimefruit.wsu.edu/HeatUnits.html – from a study looking at the feasibility of growing fruits in the Maritime Northwest.
P.S. That’s my adorable grandson in the photo!