Growing Your Own Popcorn Is Easier Than You Think

Popcorns by Carmen Edenhofer
Image by Carmen Edenhofer

No movie night is complete without a bowl of popcorn. How cool would it be to watch your favorite movie, while eating popcorn from your own garden? This article will tell you how to grow corn for popcorn.

To prepare your garden for growing popcorn, add a generous amount of compost and manure to the soil prior to planting. Plant your seeds 2.5cm (1inch) deep and 8cm to 10 cm (3-4inches). Ideally, you want to wait until the soil has warmed to 18°C (65°F). Thin seedlings to 20cm to 30cm (8-12inches). Keep the corn plants well-watered as they grow, but stop watering once the ears are mature to allow the plants to start to dry. Protect your precious corn from birds and insects, and leave the cobs to dry in the garden as long as possible. Once they are harvested, shuck off the husks and hang the ears in a mesh bag to fully dry.

Popcorn is not the same as sweet corn that you eat on the cob. It is not meant to be eaten fresh but it should be dried and stored for later popping. It is a different variety, and though they have similar growing requirements, here are a few points specifically for growing your own popcorn.

Planting Popcorn

There are many different and unique varieties of popcorn available. Here is an article about growing the popcorn that you purchase at the grocery store.

Corn is a heavy feeder throughout its growing season, so it is important to start if off with enough nutrients to sustain it. When preparing the garden plot for your corn, be sure to add plenty of compost and well-rotted manure. Dig or till this into the soil, and then rake the soil flat for a good seedbed.

Popcorn from the grocery store by Carmen Edenhofer
Image by Carmen Edenhofer

Plant your seeds about 2.5cm (1inch) deep, but you will want to plant them a bit deeper if your soil is sandy. Plant your seeds 8cm to 10 cm (3-4inches) apart to compensate for any losses at germination. Like most corn, popcorn prefers a soil temperature of 18°C (65°F). While the soil temperature can be lower than this, it is best to start your corn indoors if you are expecting a cool, wet spring. Planting your corn under black plastic mulch can also help sufficiently raise the temperature.

Popcorn needs space to grow so it can properly develop its ears. You want the plants to mature with about 20cm to 30cm (8-12inches) between the plants in rows that are 45cm to 90cm (18-36inches) apart.

Popcorn takes longer than sweet corn to germinate. So be patient and keep your seeds watered and weeded while you wait.

Pollination

Like all corn, popcorn is wind-pollinated, so it needs to be planting a block rather than a long row. Planting your popcorn in blocks of at least 4 rows will ensure pollen from the tassel at the top of the plant will reach all the silken threads in the ears. Insufficient pollination will leave empty spaces in the ears where kernels did not develop.

Because it is pollinated by wind, your popcorn can easily be cross-pollinated by any other corn varieties that are close by, whether they are in your own garden, your neighbours yard, or a nearby farmer’s field. Corn pollen can travel around 90m (300ft) on the wind, so you need to keep the varieties really far away.

If you want to grow both popcorn and sweet corn in your garden, you don’t want them cross-pollinating. If either variety pollinates the other, it will make sweet corn less sweet, and popcorn not pop as well. Most people do not have a garden large enough to separate corn varieties by this distance, so one solution is to stagger planting and sow your popcorn about 3 weeks before your sweet corn. (Start the popcorn first because it usually takes longer than sweet varieties). The popcorn should be done pollinating before your sweet corn starts producing silks.

We love popcorn by Carmen Edenhofer
Image by Carmen Edenhofer

Days to Maturity and Heat Units

Not only does popcorn take about 90 to 120 days to reach maturity, but it also needs those days to be warm enough to produce mature ears. These warm days are known as heat units or growing degree days. Read this article for an in-depth look at if you have enough heat units in your area.

As a rough guideline, you need the average daily temperature to be above 10°C (50°F) for the duration of the growing season for the ears to fully mature.

Water

Popcorn needs a fair bit of water to grow properly. And because corn has shallow roots and generally grows in warm weather, it dries out very easily. If you are relying on rainfall, your corn needs about 2.5cm (1inch) of rain per week. If you aren’t getting this, it is a good idea to thoroughly soak your popcorn bed at least once a week. When you are done watering, dig down to see how deep the water has penetrated the soil. If the water hasn’t soaked to about 15cm to 25cm (6-10inches), you better give it some more water. It is also beneficial to mulch around the corn stalks with straw or another organic mulch to help retain moisture.

Once your ears have matured, you can stop watering to allow the plants to start to dry.

Pests

Scarecrows are a cliche image of a corn field, but for good reason: it is horrible to watch a flock of hungry birds devouring your harvest that you have painstakingly cultivated and are waiting patiently for. There is a lot of differing opinions on whether or not scarecrows actually work, but you need to do something to keep the crows out of your corn. Floating row covers might be an option, and there are many physical deterrents that use, sound, water or light to drive away the pesky birds.

Insects also love to eat your corn, and when they are done, there won’t be any left for you. To save your precious popcorn, you do not have to resort to chemical insecticides. Here is an article that provides some old-school tried-and-true natural methods to deter bugs from your garden.

Making popcorn by Carmen Edenhofer
Image by Carmen Edenhofer

Harvest And Storage

After all your hard work and patience, fall has come and you can begin harvesting your popcorn. Once the ears have matured, it is best to allow your ears to dry on the plant in the garden for as long as possible. If the ears do not fully mature before you dry them, they will no pop very well. You can tell when an ear is mature when is it plump hard kernels that are shiny, and the husks are beginning to dry.

Twist and check

One trick to test if the ears are mature is to peel back the husks and twist the cob: if they twist they are mature, but they are not ready yet if they are rigid and do not twist.

Once the ears are fully mature, and you can’t leave them on the plant any longer (such as if the frost or rains are coming), then harvest your ears and bring them inside. Be careful not to leave the mature husks piled together or they will quickly mold. Shuck the husks off the cobs, out them in a mesh bag, and hang them where it is warm and dry with good air circulation. Let them dry completely for a few weeks. They should have a moisture content of about 13% to 14% when they are dry.

If you can’t measure the moisture content, try popping a few kernels each week. The popped corn is dry when it is fluffy and crunchy. If it is not, let it dry for another week and pop a few more.

Once the corn is dry, remove all the kernels from the cobs (they should come off fairly easily when it is dry). Put it in an airtight container and it should make fluffy, delicious popcorn for several years.

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About the Author Harry Thompson

Involved in home renovations throughout his life, Harry is an expert in everything to do with home and garden DIY. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking and tending to his garden.