Think weeding has to happen if you grow corn? There are some simple steps you can take to plant corn weed free and easily in a low maintenance bed that seriously won't need hardly any weeding all season long - really. It's time to get rid of that hoe!
I've heard from so many people about the back-breaking weeding they've either had to do growing up, or in their own gardens that I've made it my goal on AOC to show that you can grow vegetables without a lot of weeding (you can see more on easy care gardening here, including my key no-till gardening method).
In our ranch-turned-cottage I grew corn, beans, and potatoes in large-ish permanent beds that measured about 10' x 20' with just 4-inch sides. They were basically large raised beds or small garden plots, however you want to look at them. Even though they were too big to not be walked on (one of the goals with raised beds so you don't compact the soil), I created them with the purpose of growing larger crops that take up more room, like corn, beans, and squashes but with permanent edges to be able to use no-till and weed-free methods.
To me, it was like the best of both worlds and they really did end up working that way. Everything I grew in these four beds produced a ton and flourished. And I didn't have to deal with hoeing, tilling, or hardly any weeds.
You can see these beds in many of the gardening articles you'll find on the site (like why to grow cucumbers on a trellis, organic vegetable gardening 101, and why I love Emerite pole beans to name just a few), but I felt there was a need for an dedicated tutorial specifically on how to plant corn to be weed-free all season because that seems to be the crop I hear about the most in regards to weeds.
There aren't many things worse for a gardener than trying to find sprouting corn in a sea of weeds - and then trying to free the poor things from them, right?
Do you think I'm stretching the truth when I say that you CAN plant corn weed free from the beginning all the way to harvest? Well I've got the pictures to prove it! I planned this article over a full season - taking pictures of all the steps from prepping and planting all the way to growing and harvesting, so I could share it with you.
Here are the simple, non-back-breaking steps I take every year to plant corn weed free all season long. It's my hope that this will revolutionize your garden as much as it has mine! Update: I've added an FAQ at the end answering questions I've gotten about this including how to start from scratch.
How To Plant Corn Weed Free
Prepping the Beds
While I am promising little to no weeds in the growing season, the weeds do come back each winter in these beds so that by March, the beds look like the photo above.
Do not be discouraged! You can take care of this easily without hoeing, tilling or hand-pulling (oh, and this prep method isn't just for corn, this is how you proceed for any no-till beds, too).
The first step to prepping your beds is:
- Cover the future corn bed with black plastic at least two months before corn planting time for your area, securing it with rocks. Don't think about it again - just let the sun and plastic do it's work of killing weeds and breaking down leftover debris from the previous year. TIP: This video shows more about how we came to appreciate black plastic as an organic way to kill weeds.
- When you lift the plastic months later, you will find a pile of dead vegetation that you simply rake up and add to your compost pile.
- Then spread a 1-3 inch layer of compost over the bed, without tilling. The only time I turn the soil are if I find areas with vole or mole holes - it's my sad attempt to hinder their movement, ha!
That's it for prepping - really! Now you're ready to plant.
Planting The Corn Seeds
- Make a furrow with a hoe, shovel, or trowel about 4-5 inches deep - this is the only place you break up the soil, and it's pretty simple with the hoe (also the only time you'll use a hoe - sometimes I just use the end of a rake or shovel).
- Add a line of organic fertilizer in the furrow and partially fill the furrow back to about 1-inch deep. In my 10' wide beds, I plant 4 rows about 2 1/2 feet apart (note: corn should always be planted in groups for pollination, so never any single rows here and there).
- Add corn seeds 2-3 inches apart. Seeding fairly thickly like this is my trick to ensure an even corn patch - between corn's often spotty germination and the birds, I had some pretty empty rows before I started sowing this way. You do have some waste when it's time to thin, but it's worth it to me to have the corn beds full of plants growing at the same rate.
Set Up The Watering System
- Lay soaker hoses along each planted row, hook up the hose and water the seeds well, usually for 3-4 hours if there's no rain in your forecast.
- This is a KEY to the weed-free system: watering with soaker hoses - or some type of drip system - is the only way to not water between rows AND give a deep watering to the roots. Typical overhead sprinkler watering gets everything wet, including the weeds that want to grow, too.
- Optional: If you have birds or cats in the neighborhood, covering the beds with chicken wire or whatever you have will help keep the beds pest-free. I also used garden row covers to fully cover the beds until the corn was a few inches high to keep anything from digging.
Sprouting & Thinning
Soon you will see the corn sprout!
- Sometimes it may take up to two weeks, so don't worry. You can see above that even with my thicker sowing, there are some large spaces between some of the corn. This is fine, as I planned for it, but if I had sown the seed at the final spacing I wanted, I'd have too much space and would've had to re-sow. But that means the next step is what some people find the to be the hardest...
- Thin the corn to 12-18 inches apart. Yes, you will be pulling sometimes lovely corn and throwing it away. If you've read here long, you know this pains me, but it's the only way to get full sized stalks with full ears - the only way, trust me. And it's a lot better than empty spaces. So bite the bullet and just do it.
Maintaining The Beds
Now all that's left is to water and watch the corn grow:
- Water with the soaker hoses for about 4 to 5 hours every 4-7 days deeply to encourage deep root growth (shorter watering every few days results in shallow roots and stalks that will topple when full of ears if a wind comes up). If in doubt, dig an inch down - if it's moist, the corn has enough water and can wait for a day or more to be watered.
- You may see a weed here or there that you'll need to pull occasionally, usually as you're hooking up the soaker hose (in the photo above there's one in the front). At the end of the season the bottom leaves may yellow like mine did after two months of warm, dry weather, but the rest of the stalks are a healthy green with ears growing full, so don't worry if you see some dead bottom leaves on your plants.
The photo above is the full grown corn bed at the end of the season with many of the ears ready for harvesting. Do you see that soil? Yeah - no weeds. And that was with no hoeing and no tilling. Lots of corn on the cob with very little work - what's not to love about that?
Planting Corn Weed Free FAQ
What varieties of corn do you grow?
I always plant two of these beds with three different varieties that all mature 2 weeks apart so that we don't have a glut of corn all at once. This gives us about a month of harvest so I can easily prep and freeze smaller amounts and not kill myself processing corn. If you have a smaller planting area, I'd just plant two of these, the earliest and the latest.
After trying a lot of different varieties, I've settled on this combo as the best:
- 2 rows of 'Quickie' as the earliest variety (about 65 days)
- 2 rows of 'Bodacious' for mid-season (75 days)
- 4 rows of 'Incredible' as the tallest, and latest (85 days)
We have never grown corn so we will need to start a new bed - do we till and then cover with plastic?
No, you don't even need to till in the beginning - promise! When we started the beds pictured, I simply laid cardboard over the pasture grass and layered it with free horse manure and then a layer of clean garden compost we bought. The total height was about 4 inches. I left that to settle for a couple weeks until it was warm enough for corn and then I planted the corn just like I outlined here and with soakers on the rows. And honestly, it was an experiment - I didn’t think the corn would do as well since the available soil was only 4 inches – I thought maybe they’d fall over when grown or be stunted.
But they didn’t!! Corn is a shallow rooted plant, so that wasn’t and issue, and over the growing season the cardboard broke down enough that the roots grew deep enough to hold the stalks up. And being heavy feeders, the stalks loved all that manure. We had a great harvest even in the first year and every year after that I use the plastic like I outlined - and have never had lots of weeds to deal with!
If you have empty spots in the rows, could you transplant some of the little seedlings that you thin out into the empty spaces?
Yes I’ve done that many times, you just have to be careful to do it on overcast days. If it’s sunny at all, the transplanted seedlings will just wilt and never really take off.
After the harvest, do you pull up the dead plants? If so, does this deplete quite a bit of soil in the beds?
I actually don’t pull up the plants until they’re completely dead in late winter, usually when I'm ready to cover the beds with plastic. I do always let them turn completely brown and knock them down, though, sometime in late fall. After covering and then raking there’s barely any soil, left on the roots.
What if I still want to use a tiller?
If you just can't get on the no-til train, I would suggest at least using newspaper or cardboard and straw in between the rows so at least you don't have to spend time weeding the paths. Though I really do hope you'll read this for even more info on why it's the best for less maintenance.
So, there you have it - there really is a way to grow corn and not have to spend a lot of time weeding! Do you grow corn? Do you have any tips and techniques to share with us that you like?
This article has been updated - it was originally published in June of 2013.
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