Monthly Archives: March 2014

How to Avoid the Mistakes I Made Growing Corn

Hopefully this post can keep you from repeating the mistakes that lead to my failures with growing corn.

Hopefully this post can keep you from repeating the mistakes that lead to my failures with growing corn.

Corn is my favorite vegetable and I have wanted to grow some since I started gardening in 2011. Unfortunately I have yet to grow any corn that has made it to the table. There were a number of small problems, and one big one with where I was planting my corn that I failed to recognize after the first year and again after the second year and once more last year, even though I tried something new.

Year One
The first year I tried two 5×6’ patches of corn, one which ended up being my western square foot garden; which you can read about an upcoming post. The other was planted directly behind our house with full southern exposure, and a slightly higher temperature than most other areas of the yard since it is close to the siding which radiates heat.

At first everything seemed to be going fine for both patches, the corn came up fast from seed and grew to a foot tall relatively quickly. After a while, the corn behind the house just stopped growing and weeds and grass eventually choked the patch on the west out.

On the west side where I put the raised bed, all I did was put down some landscape fabric over the grass with the bed on top of it. This worked fine for a while but eventually the quack grass, which our yard is full of, pushed its way up through and choked out the corn. The worst part was that I couldn’t even remove the quack grass because every time I tried it would pull up the landscape fabric; I had to just give up and let it grow. The corn really didn’t like that and only grew about three feet tall without producing a single ear.

The next spring I dug out the quack grass and covered the area under the raised bed in newspaper and planted it as a square foot garden. I won’t grow corn there again, not because it wouldn’t do well, but because I really like all of the variety I get from the SFG on that side.

The southern patch the back of the house took me a lot longer to diagnose the problem. The first year I thought perhaps it was just a bad year for corn as I had a friend who was growing some and also had no luck. Since I saw no other problems, I thought that this was the case here so I never looked into it anymore and left it as it was for the next season.

Year Two
In 2012 all I did was replant the same way I did the year before the made sure I was more vigilant with the watering that I thought I might have been lazy about in 2010. Unfortunately it turned out that watering wasn’t a problem so I got to thinking maybe it was fertilizer, but it was already too late in the season by the time I thought of that, so I just let the corn die back.

Year Three

At the end of the 2012 season I noticed that I was missing a good 2 inches of soil from the 6 inches of Mel’s Mix that I had put into the raised bed in 2011. This led me to topping up the bed with Mel’s Mix before planting the corn in 2013, and it tricked me into thinking that was the entire problem the year before. It turns out I was wrong again and the 2 inches of missing soil was nowhere close to the problem, but I was getting closer to it.

I thought maybe I wasn’t giving the corn enough fertilizer the year before, but I didn’t want to over fertilize as I had read that corn can be picky when it comes to that. To help me achieve this I decided to look into companion planting.

I had learned back in college that legumes make nitrogen available in the soil for other plants to use, and since corn is a grass, I knew that nitrogen would be the main part of its nutrient needs. What I decided on was to modify myself a Three Sisters garden like the Native Americans used in the early days of North America.

The Native Americans would plant corn, beans, and squash together because they knew that they grew better together than apart. This had to do with the beans giving nitrogen to the soil, which the squash and corn could use for leaf growth. The corn would grow tall and provide a natural trellis for the beans to climb up, and the squash would cover the ground with a heavy leaf layer that would keep the weeds from growing. These types of plants obviously grow great together so I decided to use peas to fix the nitrogen in the bed, and pumpkin to replace the squash since I wanted to grow my own Jack-o-lantern.

I decided that the pumpkin would be at the back of the bed closest to the house, so that it could vine out in the area between the house and planting bed. I planted the corn mostly as I had the years before in the 8 inch grid; the only change was that I never planted it too close to the pumpkins or the watermelons. I planted the peas within the grid of corn with one pea between each of the corn plants going from north to south, and on the south side of the bed I planted two watermelon plants. If I were to do this again I would plant one pea in between four corn plants, as the peas eventually tried to take over the bed at the rate I planted them.

A tray of corn seedlings that have a lot of roots sticking out the bottom

As you can see, those roots are much longer than six inches. For reference, the plant above the tray is about six inches tall.

I started my corn and pumpkins in the house early and grew them in a makeshift plastic greenhouse tent that I had bought at Canadian tire for the start of the season. This gave the corn in 2013 a jump-start over the corn planted in 2012, as it was 6 inches tall when it was planted at the same time that the seed was planted the years before. The root system on the corn should have indicated to me that the problem was with the soil underneath my Mel’s Mix but I hadn’t figured that out quite yet.

I inoculated my peas with nitrogen fixing bacteria to make sure the corn would have enough nitrogen. This worked great at first since as soon as the peas started growing I noticed the corn turned a darker green and was growing much faster.

The peas did amazing in the garden, we got a bumper crop but the corn never grew much taller than the years prior. I did bring in one ear of corn to cook but once I removed the husk I found that three quarters of the kernels had not formed properly so it never did get to eat it. I now officially had no idea what was going on with my corn.

The Big Problem

A diagram showing bad conditions for growing corn, and ideal conditions

A cross section diagram of where I tried to plant on the left, and what would have worked on the right.

I was watching a gardening show from the U.K. on YouTube where the host decided to dig up his garden bed and mix in new compost because he had a lot of clay in his soil. He had bad soil and talked about having the same sorts of problems as I had in my corn bed. This led me to thinking that maybe the soil was my problem as well.

I learned quite a bit about soil in college; I took the Land and Water Resources Management course at Olds College. Thinking back I can’t believe how I never thought the soil was the problem, all of the signs were there. I think that most of the problem was that I had put all of my faith into the Mel’s Mix that I had in the bed and thought that the 6 inches of soil would be all that I needed to grow my corn. Even after seeing those long roots when we planted the corn, I never figured it out until I saw a man on the Internet digging a hole.

I decided to go and do what he did; dig up the soil to add the Mel’s Mix along with some new compost down into the soil below, mixing all of it together. I took my trusty garden fork out back and decided to start digging. I regretted my decision immediately.

Not only did I have clay, but I had hard clay that had been packed down in order for a mobile home to be placed on the lot. The same thing happens all around our home near where the trailer sits so that it will not sink if the area around it becomes wet, but generally the clay is only extended a few feet away from the walls.

It took me an hour and a half to dig about 4 inches down in my 5 x 6′ bed and I only got half of the bed done before giving up. This was the hardest soil I’ve ever encountered; I’m a big guy (I weight over 300 lbs) and at times I was standing with both feet on the fork and it wasn’t sinking a millimeter into this clay and if I can’t do that, no way the roots could.

At the writing of this post I have decided that this area is where my greenhouse will sit but initially I had decided that I would fix the clay. To do this I would have incorporated compost, organic matter (probably peat moss or hay), and sand into the broken up clay chunks which I would have smashed up to be quite small. I would’ve also given up on corn in that bed for a few years and just grown plants with shorter root systems like radishes, onions, or more peas since they did well the year before in that spot.

I’m confident that this would have fixed the soil but it would have been a lot of work and a real pain in the butt, though had I not decided to build a greenhouse I absolutely would’ve done it. Who knows? It might have even made all that money I spent on an education that I rarely use worth just it to eat some sweet corn that I grew in soil that I fixed myself.

Another option that I could have gone with would have been to add another 6 inches to the bed to make it taller, and grow the corn in just the Mel’s Mix. This would have worked out fine, I’m sure of it. Although I do wonder how much truth there is to what the Square Foot Gardening book I have says about people often growing corn in their SFG’s that have bottoms on them. Perhaps this can be an experiment sometime in the future, but I am not sure if six inches is enough soil.

One more thing I could have done, and will always do in the future, is to do a “test dig” by cutting a plug out of the area that I want to plant on top of, and examining the soil before I move any further. If done right, you can cut a plug out of your yard and replace it without anyone knowing what you have done. I will do a tutorial on this once the snow melts.

Instead of these options, what I have decided to do is to move the raised bed that I have been planting corn in for the last three seasons to a new spot in the yard. It will now sit just behind the raspberries close to the shed where I grew sunflowers last year. The raspberries are not thick, or tall enough to shade the corn, and the Mel’s Mix will sit on top of some nice black Alberta loam. This will be part of a small garden expansion that will hopefully look good sitting there with my new 4×4 foot square foot garden beside it.

Though I’m not doing it this season, I may plant peas, or at very least beans, with my corn plants again. This is due to the fact that the corn, until that clay hampered them, grew very well thanks to the extra nitrogen from the peas.

I don’t think I will try the pumpkin in the patch with the corn again however as I only have a small space to grow in and the pumpkin takes up a lot of room. This year I will be growing my pumpkin up a trellis in one of my 4 x 4′ square foot gardens, this takes up two squares in the garden, but a lot less room horizontally then growing one normally and I’m excited to see how that turns out.