Starting Corn Indoors Can Extend the Growing Season and Raise Productivity

Reader Contribution by Blythe Pelham
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My father-in-law used to find great mirth at the fact that I start my corn indoors. I do, after all, live in the heart of corn-growing country and he was a lifelong farmer of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

I started this practice more than 20 years ago when we lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was told that most folks didn’t have much success with growing sweet corn there because of the shortened season. Since I love a challenge, I set about trying to lengthen the growing season without adding costs or constructing cold frames.

My puzzle-loving brain settled on using empty toilet paper tubes for containment because I assumed the length of the tube would allow for less root disturbance—the issue most commonly stated as the reason for failure of transplantation. I also assumed that the tubes would compost and allow for fairly quick freedom of the roots once planted. My method worked well and we enjoyed several meals of sweet corn that summer.

When we later moved to south-central Ohio, I decided that I would continue my toilet paper tube reuse practice because of the high success rate. I also tried some direct seeding in an adjacent bed the first year so that I could see if there was a difference. Interestingly, that year I had 99% germination for the seeds indoors and only about 75% from the seeds that I put directly in the ground. I haven’t direct-seeded corn again even though my method is a bit more time-consuming than the traditional way.

The first photo (above) shows one season’s progression in the garden. I put the plants in the garden near the end of May that year. Each plant was nestled carefully into a hole in the bed. It was easily knee-high by mid-June with beautiful ears formed by the end of July. I find it necessary to cage my corn for the first few weeks so bunnies and cats don’t mistake it for a salad bar.

I’ve discovered three things that are essential for such a high success rate. The tubes must be held closely together from the start. Soil must fill any gap spaces between tubes. It’s best to start the corn no earlier than three weeks before transplant date.

I have left the corn in their tubes and also removed them upon transplantation—both of these methods have yielded the same success rate as long as I make sure to bury the entire tube if keeping them intact. Interestingly, the tubes wick moisture out of the soil. For this reason, it’s important to carefully monitor moisture while indoors and to completely cover the top of the tube when planting the seedlings outdoors. The tubes will decompose by the end of the season and are well on their way by just a few weeks in the ground.

As you can see in the photo above, the corn has no problem sending its roots right through the thin cardboard. With a bit of care, the roots that have gone wandering in the bottom of the larger container can be kept intact. Even if they break off, there are plenty of other roots to maintain the health of the plant.

Most of the corn I grow now is for dry use rather than eating off the cob. Since I have my nifty Wondermill for grinding the perfect corn flour and meal, I went a little overboard with corn babies this season. Until I added this appliance to my pantry, I had a dickens of a time grinding my corn. Now, it’s a whiz! I have 180 happy little plants—five different varieties—in various parts of the garden. Most of my corn beds have at least one squash family member keeping them company with beans nearby to round out the three sisters of Native American Indian practice (corn, squash, and beans).

I have no doubt that this year’s harvest will yield an abundance of new recipes. My mind has already begun to muse on the possibilities, and my fingers are itching to wander the Internet for inspiration. I’m thinking there may be more than the usual delicious cornbread to warm our hearts, souls, and tummies come Fall and Winter.

Photos by Blythe Pelham

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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