How to Grow Corn for Popcorn

Everything you need to know to grow sweet corn for popcorn kernels, including recipes for popcorn seasonings.

| April/May 1993

Sweet corn is terrific when eaten fresh, field corn is good for feeding livestock, and Indian corn is great for popping. Indian corn? That's right. Popcorn was one of those fabulous foods that the Pilgrims learned about from the Native Americans, who grew over 700 varieties with kernels ranging in color from white to golden, red to black, and all colors in between.

Archaeologists believe popcorn was the first corn ever enjoyed by humans. Columbus "discovered" it when he landed on the Caribbean island of San Salvador. Today, you can buy gourmet popcorn left on the cob, packed in wine bottles, or packaged for the microwave. As much fun as it is to eat, popcorn is twice as much fun if you grow it yourself.

Selecting Popcorn Seed  

Classified as Zea mays, corn is actually a grass. Sweet corn is botanically known as Zea mays rugosa. Popcorn is Zea mays praecox and comes in over 100 different strains varying in flavor, tenderness, presence, or absence of a hull, shape, and color. Despite the wide selection and varied kernel colors, all corn is white once it is popped. (Don't let the commercial cheese fool you.)

The two most popular strains are "snowflake" and "mushroom." Snowflake pops big and puffy and is the kind you'll munch at the movies or pop at home; mushroom pops small and round and is preferred by commercial makers of caramel corn because it doesn't break as easily. You aren't likely to find mushroom seeds for growing, but no matter. Since you wouldn't process your homegrown corn by machine, snowflake works fine. It's also the more tender of the two.

One of the first things that you'll have to decide when you grow your own is whether to plant a hybrid or natural, open-pollinated variety. If you plan to save your own seed from year to year, choose one of the latter. Popular open-pollinated varieties are Strawberry (which has small ears with red kernels), Tom Thumb (a fast-growing dwarf requiring little space), and Japanese Hulless (which has 4" ears with kernels that pop quite tender). White Cloud, a hybrid, produces fewer ears than open-pollinated varieties, but many feel that it pops better.

Planting  Corn

Young corn shoots are highly susceptible to frost damage, so plant seeds after all danger of frost has passed. Select a sunny spot that's protected from the wind. Since corn likes lots of nitrogen, it does well where a legume, such as beans or peas, were grown the previous year. Seeds germinate best after the soil has warmed to at least 60°F. Plant kernels ½" deep in spring; during the heat of summer, plant seeds 2" deep. Germination occurs in three to 12 days.

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