Greetings Happy Gardeners! The dog days of Summer are here and the monsoon planting season is nearing. Organic gardeners in Tucson ask me all the time about growing corn in Arizona. The following article about growing corn in the southwest was posted to my Blogger back in April, but I am re-posting it here on the website for your reading pleasure.
Tips for Growing Corn in Tucson
I remember the first time I tried growing corn. It was my first summer gardening season and I had a small garden in an old dirt driveway on the side of my rental house. To save space I planted two rows of corn in six inch high mounds on the north side of my garden. I can’t help but laugh at myself now realizing that I basically did everything wrong. I learned a lot that first growing season, and even though it took me longer to have success at growing corn than other vegetables I stuck with it and eventually I was able to put the healthy delicious treat on my dinner table.
There are many types and varieties of corn available to the home gardener. There is pop corn, flour corn, dent corn, decorative corn, corn for feed and so on. Whatever type of corn you decide to plant the growing requirements will be similar. Corn is a heavy feeder, so your soil will probably need to be heavily amended prior to planting. Mix generous amounts of compost into native soil as well as organic fertilizers such as worm castings, alfalfa meal and cottonseed meal. Bi-weekly applications of organic fertilizers during the growing season is also strongly recommended.
When deciding on varieties of corn to plant in your garden you should try to plant only those varieties that are known to preform well in the southwest. Seed catalogs are packed with hundreds of varieties of sweet corn hybrids. Super sweet and extra sweet varieties promise gigantic sugar packed ears that gush with milky goodness when you pierce the kernels. Forget about those, for success in the desert we need to think small plants with a quick maturity date. Native Seed Search has many great heirloom corn varieties such as Yuma Yellow, Tohono O’ Odham 60 day, and Hopi Blue that are well suited to our climate. Another good variety to try for our climate is the classic Golden Bantam. Both the 8 row and 12 row are well suited to our climate. In general when growing corn you want to select a variety that will mature as quickly as possibly, typically that means in less than 75 days.
Like all of gardening, growing corn successfully is really more of an art than a science, but there are some basic steps you can take to mitigate the environmental obstacles we face growing corn in the desert. Much of the success in growing corn depends as much as when you plant as the soil condition and variety of plant chosen. That varieties of corn that have been grown in this region for hundreds of years have been bred to thrive in the wet and humid weather that is characteristic of the monsoon here in Tucson. When planted during this time your corn will enter the critical tasseling stage while nights are cool and days are somewhat moist. Corn planted in March or April enters the tasseling stage during somewhat drier weather, which will likely lead to decreased pollination and somewhat lackluster cobs.
Corn should be planted in sunken beds that can be irrigated heavily and mulched heavily after planting to conserve water and to provide even moisture for corn’s large fibrous root system. Plant kernels 8″ to 12″ apart and in no less than a 4′ x 4′ square. The larger the area planted, the more successful you will be. Growing corn on the southern and western sides of your garden will create a natural shade that will aide the rest of the garden during the summer months.
You can give your corn a boost and put dinner on the table by interplanting pole beans with your corn. Select a varietes that is known grow well such as the various cowpea and tepary varieties. Many of these beans also thrive during monsoon conditions. Plant beans between the rows of corn every 6″ after the corn has reached about 6-8″ in height. The beans will use the growing corn as a natural trellis and will also provide the corn with nitrogen in the process.
If all is successful, you will be rewarded with a bounty of the sweetest corn you will ever taste. You will know your corn is ready when the silks turn to a dark brown but are not dried out. Peel back the husk and pierce one of the kernels with your fingernail, if it exudes milky white goodness, you know it is ready. This usually occurs 2-3 weeks after tasseling. Harvest your corn as close to the time you are going to eat it as possible. Old timey farmers say you should wait to pick the corn until after the water is boiling, and I tend to agree.
I wish you all the best of luck with your corn this season. For those of you who may not yet have the time and space to plant a spring crop of corn, there will be another planting opening towards the end of summer during the monsoon, so check back during that time when I discuss planting other types of corn such as flour and flint.