Growing corn can be immensely satisfying. Whether you choose old-fashioned varieties, or something fun like popcorn, there’s nothing quite like watching it mature. But did you know that it also grows well in pots? In fact, growing corn in containers is an ideal solution for patios and smaller gardens.
When you think of corn, do you see wide open fields, waving in the winds of Ohio, or Iowa? I know I do. I envision acres of green and gold corn growing tall in the setting sun. That’s basically the ideal environment for growing this fabulous crop. But I don’t have wide open fields, nor rolling acres to plant with corn, do you?
I have an acre of woodland garden, and many gardeners have much less space. With patios and back decks instead of a back 40, can we grow corn without dedicating acres to it? Can we put out a few pots of corn on the patio and still have a successful, small corn harvest?
Yes! It’s absolutely possible to grow corn in pots. It isn’t easy, and container corn yields are significantly smaller and less satisfying. In addition, growing corn in containers can be really challenging. Container corn requires more attention, more work, and more planning—but, it can be done.
Do you want to know how? Whether you’re growing corn for late summer barbecues or autumn decorations, read on. It takes effort, but there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from harvesting your own ears of homegrown corn.
Pick Your Pots
Picking corn-growing containers can be a challenge!
This crop really doesn’t want to be grown in a container, as it prefers open fields. As a result, when you’re choosing a pot for your corn, try to make that pot as welcoming as possible.
Corn containers should have good drainage, width, depth, and stability. We definitely don’t want a flimsy corn pot tipping over as the plants grow tall. Make sure your corn has the space, nutrients, and drainage necessary to grow well. When you’re shopping, keep in mind that a large terracotta pot or whiskey barrel planter is ideal.
Corn is a social plant too. It needs close friends to grow well, and to help it produce healthy corn cobs. In fact, if you can get your hands on an extra-large pot, consider a “three sisters” container garden for ultimate health and yields.
This crop is air pollinated, which means that when the wind blows, pollen from one plant fertilizes those that are nearby. This also means that to grow well, corn needs to grow close together.
When you’re picking your pots, choose one that will accommodate at least 4 corn plants. A round pot measuring about a foot in diameter and about a foot deep will be perfect for 4 plants. For 6 plants, try a 18-20” diameter pot, a foot deep. Large, whiskey-barrel planters can often hold 8-10 plants.
Since pots this size aren’t likely to be moveable, find a very sunny spot to set them up. Corn plants crave sunlight: think of those rolling hills full of corn—no shade there! Find a spot in your garden or patio that gets full sunlight and dedicate that spot to corn.
You can use your corn plants as a privacy wall throughout the summer as well. Corn grows tall quickly, even in pots. If you plant in May, your corn will be screening you from view by midsummer. Corn in pots rarely grows to the full height of field corn (12-15 feet), but it will reach 6-8 feet easily.
Filling the Pot
Corn is what’s called a “heavy feeder.” It’s a greedy plant that soaks up all the nutrients it can find. Farmers often find that growing corn will destroy their soil if they don’t take care to replenish the earth.
When you’re growing corn in containers, you don’t have to worry about draining your garden soil. But, you do have to mix up some rich soil and continue to feed your plants throughout the season.
Start with a fine, loamy potting mix. This mixture should have all the trace nutrients your corn needs. But since corn feeds heavily on nitrogen and phosphorous, you’ll want to boost those before planting.
Boosting the Soil
Mixing in some healthy compost, like well composted chicken manure, grass clippings, and fish emulsion is a great way to boost your potting soil before planting.
Try adding a gallon scoop of compost for a 1 foot diameter pot. Mix the compost well with the potting soil. This will give your young corn plants all the nutrients they need to get started growing.
Varieties of Corn for Container Growing
Not every variety of corn will grow well in containers. Be picky. Seek out a variety that will succeed in small spaces. There are a few great options though. Let’s take a look at them.
Shorter varieties of corn do much better in pots than their larger cousins. These compact options, like Trinity and Sweet Painted Mountain corns requires less space, fewer nutrients, and are bred for tighter locations.
Choosing a short-stemmed variety will give your container corn a much better chance at success. You corn will be less likely to end up stunted and under-nourished too. While short-stemmed corn still requires a lot of attention as a container crop, it is a forgiving option for the patio grower.
A few seed companies are offering specialized, container corn seeds. These varieties have been bred specifically for pots. From Burpee’s On Deck to Gurney’s Utopia varieties, these corn plants are designed with containers in mind.
Unfortunately, the varieties of corn bred specifically for containers are often not compatible with organic or natural gardening. All of Gurney’s corn seeds are treated with pesticides and fungicides, so if you are planning to grow safe, sustainable corn plants, look elsewhere. Burpee’s On Deck seeds are still GMO free and, while not organic, do not seem to be treated.
Choose varieties you trust that are compatible with container gardening, even if they aren’t specifically bred for it. (Check out popcorn varieties too!)
Planting and Caring for Your Corn
Now it’s time to plant!
Plant seeds about 6” apart along the outer circle of your pot. Keep them about 3-4 inches from the edge of the pot as well. Corn should be planted about an inch deep in soil. Now, water your seeds well and let the sun do the rest. Corn will germinate in about 10-14 days in cool weather (55-60 degrees) It can germinate in as little as 6 days in warm weather (65 degrees or more).
Keep the soil moist throughout the growing season. Corn needs consistent water to thrive. Growing corn in containers especially requires great drainage, and plenty of water.
To keep your corn plants from drying out, try mulching with wood chips to hold in moisture. You should be watering the corn pots every other day. In very hot, dry weather and at the time of fruiting, water daily.
Feed your corn plants about 9 weeks after germination. A good fish emulsion is a fantastic option, but any plant food with a 5-10-10 or 10-20-20 make up is going to be just fine. Incorporate the nutrients into the soil well, if using a dry fertilizer. Try to keep the plant food from touching the plant directly as well, to prevent any burning.
Harvest your corn between 60 and 100 days after planting. Most container-friendly varieties are harvested somewhere around 70 days. Most sweet corn varieties don’t produce more than two ears of corn per plant. When growing in containers, your yield may be less: one ear per plant at best.
The harvest from container corn can be disappointing. The best way to overcome the odds and have a bountiful harvest is by choosing container-friendly varieties and showering them with attention. Plant a few containers of 4-6 stalks each and set them close together to encourage high pollination rates.
After a summer of hard work and dedicated attention, you’ll know your corn is ready to pick when it’s completely filled out. Feel the tip of the ear, if it’s pointed, the corn needs more time. If the tip is rounded or blunt, and the silks are dry, the ears are ready.
So, Is it Worth It?
That’s up to you to decide. Corn is always going to have a relatively low yield per plant. If you’d be disappointed with only two ears of corn from a garden-grown plant, then container corn is definitely not for you.
On the other hand, if you enjoy seeing those towering, green stalks along the sunny side of your patio it could be great. Maybe you’d be thrilled with the 6-8 ears of corn you can harvest off of 8 plants; or if you’re mainly growing corn stalks for their autumn ambiance. If so, then go for it.
For the right person, container corn is a joy. Give it a try. Plant a wall of corn, step out onto your patio, and imagine you’re in your own Iowa corn field. Sounds like fun to me!