Growing corn using the hill method is a great solution for those of you that would like to grow some corn in your small garden.
Growing corn using the hill method
Sweet corn has to be in most people’s top five garden crops. I know we love it around our place! But growing corn (either sweet or popcorn) represents a big challenge for most backyard gardeners. That big challenge is finding space to grow it. Have you ever wondered how to grow corn in a small garden? Growing corn using the hill method can be a solution to your space problems!
Corn is wind-pollinated
Each corn stalk must have plenty of other corn around it to assure proper pollination. Many new gardeners have been highly disappointed when they mistakenly plant only one row of corn. A single row of corn will never get pollinated properly.
In fact, I’ve found that when planting corn in rows you get the best pollination with 3 or more rows. That can take up a tremendous amount of space in a small garden. It also means when your corn matures you end up with 100’s of ears all at once!! So growing corn in a small garden can be difficult!
For a lot of years, our solution was to just not plant corn. Despite many pleas from my wife I just felt like I couldn’t spare the space, so we bought our corn from the farmer’s market. But then I read about growing corn using the hill method, after a year or two of experimentation by both myself and my mother-in-law we have this growing technique figured out!
Growing Corn Using the Hill Method
The hill method is simply planting corn very close together in small “hills”. The term hill in gardening really doesn’t have to refer to an actual hill. A hill is just a small intensely planted area. When planting corn in hills you just need a space between 12 to 18 inches round. I do usually “mound” it up a bit, maybe 3 or 4 inches high is all.
Corn is a big ” feeder” (meaning it needs lots of nitrogen). And corn also takes a lot out of the soil. So I like to start the season off by preparing my hills with plenty of compost and even some good organic fertilizer. This will give your corn plenty of nutrients for the summer. And adding compost to the “hill” will actually raise the soil a bit. But remember with corn “hills” we are not going for something large, just a small mound a few inches tall is what you are going for!
Planting your Hills
You then simply plant 5 to 9 seeds evenly around the hill. Don’t only plant them on the perimeter of the hill, be sure to get a couple in the center. Often I will plant as many as 9 seeds in a hill and then thin them down to around 6 plants evenly spaced over that 12 to 18-inch hill. Corn also likes a lot of water so be sure your hills are in an area where they will get at least an inch per week.
The corn will grow in a tight clump all summer. When the corn starts to tastle the 6 plants will be close enough to each other that all the ears will be properly pollinated! This is a never-fail method for growing a small amount of corn. My in-laws scatter 4 or 5 of these hills in empty spaces around their garden and they often end up with more corn than the two of them can eat.
Each stalk will develop 2 or 3 ears. So a hill with 6 stalks will have between 12 to 18 ears of corn. With 3 or 4 hills scattered around your garden (or even your flower beds) you will get a surprising amount of corn. Maybe it won’t be enough to bother canning or freezing, but it will be plenty for fresh eating.
Spreading out the harvest
Another advantage of the hill method for growing corn is that you don’t have to plant all the hills at the same time. It is much easier to spread out your harvest time. This is called Succession Planting and you can learn more from this article. Try planting two hills every two weeks over a six-week period. This will give you several small harvests over a very long time instead of having all your corn come on at the same time!
The hill method is also perfect for growing popcorn. Most years we grow popcorn here at home. 6 to 8 hills will give us around 70 ears of popcorn! Just remember that you can’t grow popcorn and sweet corn within 100 feet of each other. So if you have a small yard then you need to choose one.
Companion Planting Ideas
Keep in mind that corn grows tall and will tolerate being crowded by other plants. So you could easily put 2 or 3 hills of corn in your melon or squash patch. Plant the corn away from your main plants in the open area that will eventually be filled with your melon or squash vines. By the time the vines actually take over the bed your corn plants will be tall and out of danger of being shaded by the vines. Then the two plants will grow to maturity together.
You could even go as far as trying the 3 sisters method, where you plant pole beans at the base of the corn stalks and then the beans grow up the corn while melons or squash vines grow around the two. This is a technique I have only read about and not tried myself, but I think the principle is sound and would work well when growing corn using the hill method.
Watch out for wind
Be aware that when you are growing corn using the hill method, the hills of corn are pretty vulnerable to strong winds. I have found that when the stalks get tall and full-sized that they lean over and weigh each other down in a wind storm. If some of the stalks fall over in the wind you can usually pound a large stake or post in the center of the hill. Then tie the stalks back up using some twine wrapped around all the stalks and the post.
If your garden is in a really windy area it might be best to do some preventive measures early on. By putting a stake and some twine in, once the stalks reach their full height just before they tassel. I think the fact that the stalks are so close together just makes them a big target for high winds!
We have been growing corn using the hill method successfully now for 6 years. We usually use it to grow popcorn. My in-laws have been using it for 8 years to grow sweet corn. So planting corn in a small garden can be done successfully. If you have always wanted to grow corn but didn’t think you had space, try growing corn using the hill method next year and you will see how awesome it will work for you as well!!!
That looks like a very effective method for growing corn in a small garden. I may have to give it a try! I’ve been growing flint and flour corns the last couple of years and it is always a challenge to find the space for them. This method may help me to squeeze a few more plants into the garden.
I’m thinking of growing corn for the first time this year but worried about the space the corn would need. This is exactly what I was looking for – thank you!!
I wouldn’t use the 3 sisters method with sweet corn. The corn stalks will mature and fall over taking your pole beans with them. However, it works great for field varieties that you grind for meal, just like the Cherokee did.
I’m going to have to try this. I tried corn this year, but I don’t think I had enough of it planted.
Small Steps of Sustainability
Sounds like something I should take a run at. I like the intensive 3 sisters idea.
Elaine @ sunnysimplelife.com
I am going to try your hill method in my small urban garden. Thanks.
My dad used to grow corn in our backyard garden. It was one of our favorite foods! I am so delighted that you shared ‘Growing corn using the hill method’ with us at the Healthy Happy Green and Natural Party!Thank you so much for sharing your gems and for your support! All the best, Deborah
Great idea! Thanks for sharing a method for smaller-space gardeners. I’ll give this a try next summer!
I used a similar method with 8 hills and 4 plants per hill yield just under 100 ears of corn. The addition of beans to grow up the stalks (NITGEN FIXER) and storage squash as ground cover. This method is known as “Three sisters” a Cherokee method of planting. This worked fine except for the beans which did not do well at all. I planted Glass Gem corn which is used for corn meal or popcorn. The space used was only 4 or 5 foot wide and 20 foot long, Over 150 pounds of squash and 96 or so ear of corn, but no bean to speak of mainly due to vols.
Yep, I love this method, it’s a great way to maximize the space in your garden! 3 sisters can be a very productive system!!
Has anyone tried setting up a wire cage around the hill of corn to help brace it during a wind storm?
Clyde, Not a bad idea at all!! I have a few extra tomato cages I will have to give that a try this year!
Thank you for sharing the growing corn with the hill method. In our area we have a lot of thunderstorms at the time that the corn matures, planting with the “hill” method and putting a wire cage around the hill may help to keep the corn from blowing over. I am going to try this method this year and will let you know the results.
Yes, this is exactly what I do…I also put 4 stakes inside the tomato cage for extra support. Living in north central Canada, I put clear plastic bags over each cage and the corn real grows until the danger of frost is over. I put with 4 – 10 inch corn transplants in each cage.
Thank you for the great article! If I plant lots of hills, how far apart should the hills be in the rows and how far apart should the rows be. Thank you.
Richard, That is the beauty of this method. You get to choose. But if you have the space to plant rows then you may just want to use the row method. This Hill method is meant for folks that don’t have the space to plant in rows but still want a little corn.
Thank you Mr. Stoney. I have 4′ x 14′ beds and want to experiment with using heavy landscape cloth with holes for plants just like I do for broccoli etc. So perhaps two rows of hills per bed. My broccoli and cabbage beds are almost zero labor.
when corn reaches about knee high additional soil should be placed around the stalks. We always called that laid by or laying by. The corn plants will grow more roots and will be less susceptible to being blown over.
I just tried this! Excited to see if it works! My first time growing corn 🙂
WE love this method, we have been growing our popcorn very successfully this way for 6 years now!!
I have beds that are about 3.5 or 4 feet wide. Last summer I used 2 rows of clumps per bed. The clumps were about 8-10 inches in diameter. For a small variety the clumps were 24 inches apart in the rows. For a large variety they were about 28 inches apart. The plants were started indoors in 72 cell flats and they were planted out when they were 6-7 inches tall. Four plants per hill or clump. This worked very well. This year I am trying 5 per clump.
Thank you for this idea. I used it in our community garden with great success last year. This year, I got everything planted and most all the seeds sprouted. When the shoots were a few inches high something nipped them off at the base. They left the precious shoots. ARGH. Do you have any idea what does this and how I can prevent it?? Thanks for all your advice.
Sorry I don’t know what would do that off the top of my head.
rabbits and birds . yes birds love tender shoots of
corn and anything green like peas, broccoli etcetera.
Mice do this, they go for the rooted kernel. The greens they leave behind, but this happens only when the plant is small. At knee high you do not have this problem anymore