Many home gardeners have grown their own sweet corn before, but have you ever thought of growing your own popcorn, or your own dent corn for grits or cornmeal? Depending on how much garden space you’re working with, all the different types of corn can be worth growing in your backyard. Here’s a guide to the types of corn, to help you decide which kinds to grow in your garden next year
The Different Types of Corn
The major categories of corn are sweet corn, popcorn, and field corn, a group that includes dent, flint, and flour varieties.
Sweet corn varieties are meant to be eaten as a fresh summer treat. They are harvested at “milk stage,” when the young kernels are juicy and at their sweetest. (You can tell sweet corn is ready if you press your fingernail into a kernel and white juice comes out. If the juice is clear, it’s too early, and if it’s not juicy, you’ve waited too long.) If you have a space at least 6 by 6 feet, you can grow your own sweet summer treats! Just remember to always plant at least 10-12 plants in a block, close together - a long single row of corn won’t get pollinated properly and won’t produce. And, don’t plant any popcorn or field corn near your sweet corn patch - sweet corn pollinated by other types of corn won’t be as sweet.
This old-timey sweet corn is just a little more laid back than its relatives with straight, tidy rows - the kernels grow all at random (often called a “shoepeg” pattern.) The flavor is a standout too - not quite as sweet as many modern varieties, but with plenty of depth.
Red stalks, red leaves, red husks, and red kernels! This beautiful sweet corn is unlike any other. Developed by Dr. Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds.
This wonderful OP variety from the University of Hawaii carries the sh2 “supersweet” gene most commonly found in hybrids. Plus, it thrives in heat and humidity, making it an ideal option for gardeners in the Southeast.
Technically, popcorn is a type of flint corn, meaning the kernels have a thick shell of hard starch around a small amount of softer starch in the center. But, these flint corn varieties have a special talent of popping into a delicious crunchy treat when heated rapidly. (Truth be told, many different flint corns will pop, but popcorn varieties have been selected for the easiest popping and the best texture for eating that way.) Similar to sweet corn, if you have at least a 6 by 6 foot space available in your garden, you have room for some homegrown movie-time snacks!
Japanese Hulless will pop up light and crunchy with almost no hard hull bits to get stuck in your teeth.
White Rice is a rare heirloom popcorn with the tiniest, most adorable kernels. This mini popcorn is delicious and delicately textured too.
The name says it all - so richly flavored you hardly need to butter it (not that butter ever hurts, let's be real).
“Field” corn can refer to any of the starchy types that are usually processed into meal, grits, flour, hominy, or animal feed. Most growers prefer to dedicate more space to field corn than they would to sweet or popcorn, to make all the time spent husking, shelling, drying, and grinding worthwhile. Heirloom field corns tend to yield somewhere in the range of 40 to 100 bushels per acre. (And if that means nothing to you, it works out to about 25 to 65 pounds from a 500 square-foot plot.)
Dent corn is the most common type of field corn and the most versatile. Many varieties are good for multiple uses from flour to coarse grits, hominy, and even “roasting ears” when the corn is harvested at milk stage like sweet corn (it won’t be as sweet, but some people like the flavor.) Dent corn gets its name from the shape of its kernels. The dent in the end of each kernel forms during the drying process, when the soft starch in the center shrinks more than a layer of hard starch around the sides. Since dent corn and other field corns take some processing to eat, most folks who grow them want to plant a larger amount than for sweet corn or popcorn.
An old landrace variety recently received from the USDA seed bank. “Landrace” means a variety was selected mainly to produce well in a particular place (the Blue Ridge mountains, in this case), and not for uniformity. Expect a lot of variation, but some really huge cobs, sometimes 20 rows or more!
This heirloom was once the most commonly grown corn in the Southeast, until it went nearly completely extinct in the era of hybrids and GM corn. Then Sow True manager Angie Lavezzo discovered a farmer in South Carolina was still growing it, because his father had grown it and thought it was the best. We were thrilled to reintroduce this.
Keeping with the theme of nearly-lost heirloom dent corns, Jimmy Red is a once-common variety that has only been revived within the past few years. It has a beautiful color, and higher sugar content than most dents - which made it particularly sought after by distillers in its heyday, but also makes for some incredible grits.
Flint corn is characterized by its thick layer of hard starch around the outside of the kernel, which causes the kernels to hold their shape when dried. The “Indian Corn” you’ve probably seen used as holiday decorations is typically flint. This is the oldest and most diverse group of the corn types, with many indigenous American varieties that are as delicious and nutrition-dense as they are beautiful. These varieties are traditionally used for grits, masa, and hominy.
These jewel-toned ears are works of art! Developed by plant breeder Carl Barnes from multiple Native American flint corn varieties. Typically grown for its decorative quality, but can be popped as well.
This amazing heirloom was almost lost, but has been resurrected in recent years by food historians and growers. It came to the Southeast United States from Cuba, then traveled to Africa, where it was further developed to bear more ears per stalk (sometimes up to eight!) and this improved version came back to the US in the 19th century. It has long been prized for its heat tolerance, productivity, and deep flavor.
Flour corn varieties are similar to flint in kernel structure, but contain more soft starch and only a thin layer of hard starch, making them better suited for finely ground flour or meal. Many of these varieties originated in what is now the Southwestern United States.
This brand new introduction from seedkeeper and corn breeder Stephen Smith walks the line between flint and flour corn, as is common among many indigenous corn varieties, but we’ve found it leans toward the floury side. Strongly expresses its ancient ancestry with lots of tillers (side stalks), vigorous brace roots and heavy nitrogen-fixing gel production. Its speckled color pattern means it carries a high amount of genetic variation, and it will produce some reddish-orange kerneled variants in addition to the primary purple-speckled type.
So what do you think, will a corn patch be part of your garden this year? Shop our full collection of corn seeds, and learn more about how to grow corn on our blog. If you already know your corn growing basics, you might like our article on the weird and amazing botany of how corn pollination works.