What has a hard shell, a soft and starchy heart that explodes when heated, and tastes great with a generous drizzle of melted butter and a sprinkle of salt? It must be that wild grass called popcorn. If you love popcorn and ever wondered what it would take to grow your own, keep reading. The good news is you don’t have to live in the Corn Belt to grow it. All you do need is the proper seed, favorable conditions, and patience—lots of patience. Home-grown popcorn tastes delicious and makes the extra effort worth it.
Not all corn pops, so variety matters. Popcorn is a special variety of corn, the scientific name being Zea mays everta, and is one of four main types of corn, with dent, flint, and sweet rounding out the list. The kernels have two shapes: the more elongated rice shape and the rounder pearl shape.
Growing Your Own Popcorn
Check your favorite vegetable seed sources for their selection of popcorns, taking into account your growing season length and amount of space available. Many popcorns grow 8 to 9 feet tall and produce 7-inch-long ears, although there are some popcorn offerings that run to miniature sizes, with 4-foot stalks and 3-inch ears.
Popcorn takes longer to mature, too, generally between 90 and 120 days. Like other corns, popcorns dislike cold soil and won’t germinate well, which means is best to wait until the soil warms to at least 60º F.
Because corn is wind-pollinated, it pays to plant in blocks of four rows, following the sowing instructions for depth and spacing. Compared to other corn, popcorn is slower to germinate, taking about 10 days to shoot up, and slower to grow. Corn is a heavy feeder of nutrients, which means an initial round of nitrogen-rich fertilizer when the seeds are planted will help establish the plants, followed by another side application of fertilizer when the plants are about a foot tall.
If you want to grow another type of corn, such as sweet corn, keep in mind that wind-pollinated trait. In a small garden, the varieties will cross-pollinate and the popcorn will not attain its maximum yield. Recommendations vary from growing only popcorn to isolating the rows of popcorn by as much distance as possible. If a garden is located near commercial cornfields, it may be impossible to avoid the pollen drift.
Keeping Your Popcorn Pest- and Disease-Free
Popcorn is susceptible to the usual varmints and diseases of other corns, and the same methods can be used to mitigate those problems. Crop rotation can help with troubles like corn smut and corn borers by moving the rows of corn far from the previous year’s location. As for raccoons, well, good luck distracting them from convenient snacks.
If the plants survive to their maturation date, the ears can be left on the stalk to dry, although this isn’t great if raccoons are plaguing the plants. A light frost only hurts immature ears, although a hard freeze can affect the popping rate of drying kernels, depending on the amount of moisture remaining inside.
To avoid those particular pitfalls, harvest the mature ears and husk them. The ears need to dry, either by spreading them on a clean surface or hanging the ears in a mesh bag in a space with good air circulation.
How do you know the popcorn is dry enough? The amount of moisture inside a kernel for a perfect pop falls between 13 and 14 percent, but that’s not something you can test on the kitchen counter.
The best way is to scrape some kernels off the cob and heat them in the microwave or hot-air popper. A perfect pop will be light and crunchy. A partial pop or one that’s tough to chew indicates too much moisture, and then it’s back to waiting a few more days.
Prepping for Popping
Once a test indicates the popcorn is ready, kernels can be popped right on the cob by placing it inside a paper bag and cooking it in the microwave. But you can remove the kernels from the cob first. Just use your thumbs to push the kernels free into a container. Clean garden gloves with added grip in the fingertips such as rubber or nitrile will protect the skin and give extra leverage.
Store dried kernels in an airtight container to keep the popcorn from losing too much moisture. When the craving comes, add two tablespoons of kernels and use your favorite method for popping!
Once you serve up your homegrown popcorn at your next movie night, you and your family might never want store-bought again!
Read to Garden By The Moon? When is a good time to plant corn? Find out here!