The air is turning chilly, fall harvest is in full swing, and now we begin to look forward to cozy winter meals prepared from our preserved bounty. This year, I look forward to baking cornbread with field corn that I grew myself for the first time. Many gardeners grow a patch of sweet corn along with their summer vegetable garden, but fewer have given its starchier cousins dent and flint corn a try. If you want to grow an easy staple grain for your family, field corn is the way to go. Unlike small grains like wheat and rice, it requires no special equipment to harvest or hull, though you will need a grain mill or seriously powerful blender to turn it into grits or cornmeal. (But with all the known health benefits of fresh-milled grains, that's a tool worth considering for any home baker!) Read on for some inspiration to plan for field corn as part of your harvest next fall.
Which kind should I grow?
Selecting a variety of field corn is a matter of taste, climate, and aesthetic. Varieties range from classic yellow, like Reid’s Yellow, to brilliantly colored, such as Mandan Bride. Be sure to check the days to maturity for the variety you want to grow to make sure you have enough days of warm growing season. Field corn will take longer to mature than sweet varieties. Dent corn is so named because a small dent appears in the end of each flat, rectangular kernel as it dries - a sign of lots of soft starch in the kernel. The Jimmy Red corn I grew this year is one example, as are the storied Cocke’s Prolific and Hickory King Yellow. Related flint corns have extremely hard, rounded kernels that don’t develop the sunken dent on the end of each one. Think of the “Indian corn” that shows up around Thanksgiving, or Guinea Flint corn (coming to the Sow True Seed catalog in 2021). These varieties keep extremely well on the cob, and can also be made into grits, polenta, or rough cornmeal, but won’t create meal as light and soft as dent varieties.
Growing field corn
Dent and flint corn have the same spacing and soil requirements as sweet corn, and can also be interplanted with beans and squash or melons (the “Three Sisters”.) One reason some gardeners shy away from growing corn is how much space it takes up for the yield you get in the end, but a Three Sisters patch pulls triple duty while supporting soil fertility, maximizing the yield from a small garden space. If you do choose to go the Three Sisters route, I can vouch that the traditional Native American way of building mounds and planting the corn in round patches is the way to go - because I didn’t. I planted in widely-spaced rows, for “convenience.” Following a heavy thunderstorm in late July, I found myself spending most of a day picking up each flattened corn stalk and trellising them upright with t-posts and twine. Planting in circular clumps lets the corn be close enough together for the stalks to support each other in a wind while mitigating the domino effect if some stalks do succumb, and still leaves plenty of space for squash to ramble between the mounds. Poor planting layout and ensuing corn rescue project aside, my Jimmy Red dent corn served as an excellent zero-effort trellis for some very happy and productive Rattlesnake pole beans.
Harvest and Processing
While sweet corn can be notoriously tricky to harvest at exactly the perfect ripeness, field corn leaves no such guesswork. You leave it on the stalk until the husks have turned completely brown. At that point, it is ready to be dried and processed. In some climates, corn will easily dry completely on the cob in the field. If you live in a place where fall rain is frequent, the ears may be in danger of developing mold if left outside, and you’ll want to bring them in, remove the husks and leave them to dry indoors for a while. I left mine on a table in mesh bags with a fan running in the room and they were dry within a few days. Check that the kernels feel hard and don’t wiggle around on the cob (indicating the cob itself is also totally dry.) At this stage, the ears can sit and wait for a rainy winter day when you feel ready to shell and grind the corn. Hand-cranked mechanical shellers are a delight, but hand shellers are inexpensive and will serve fine for a small field corn crop. Store your kernels in an airtight container and grind your meal fresh when you want to use it for the tastiest cornbread ever.
Now doesn’t that just make you want to curl up with a hot bowl of chili on a cold winter evening? (Maybe even made with your dried Rattlesnake pole beans from your Three Sisters patch, who knows.) I hope you’re inspired to take a step toward chili and cornbread self-sufficiency when you’re planning your garden next year! I’ve certainly found my first dent corn growing experience rewarding.
Written by Sow True Seed's Director of Agriculture, Leah Smith.