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. 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!!
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 farmers 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. To plant corn in a hill 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 is 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. 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!!!