How To Grow Your Own Popcorn

If you’ve never tasted freshly made popcorn from the garden, you’re missing out. Gardening expert Madison Moulton explains everything you need to know about growing popcorn, from choosing varieties to harvesting and cooking.

Grow popcorn. Close-up of a white ceramic bowl with ready-made popcorn on a white table next to three corn cobs. The corn cob, the reproductive structure of the corn plant, is characterized by its cylindrical shape and rows of kernels arranged around a central core. The kernels are pale yellow and glossy. The cob itself is encased in several layers of protective husks. Popcorn represents popped kernels are fluffy and irregularly shaped, with a crisp outer surface and a light, airy interior.

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Popcorn has to be one of the greatest snack foods of all time. It’s light, has tiny pockets perfect for trapping delicious flavorings, and turns a standard movie night into an experience. If you’re an avid popcorn lover with a bit of garden space, there is nothing more rewarding than growing your own.

If you plant your own popcorn, you can grow unique and tasty varieties that you wouldn’t be able to find in stores. Moreover, you can produce an extensive supply that you’ll never run out of.

Growing popcorn is just as easy as growing any other type of corn, with the added excitement of a pop at the end of your cooking. Follow these steps to get it right.

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Which Corn Makes Popcorn?

Close-up of a cob on a Dakota Black corn plant in the garden. Dakota Black corn is distinguished by its stunning appearance, featuring tall stalks with deep purple-colored husks and kernels. The kernels themselves are deep purple to black in color.
Only specific types of corn work for making popcorn.

Have you ever tried drying out a few sweet corn kernels and tossing them in the pan to see if they pop? If so, you probably already know that – unfortunately – popcorn doesn’t work that way.

Popping corn is a specific type of corn: the species Zea mays var. everta. The balance of moisture, starch, and a hard outer shell is what gives the kernels the ability to pop.

The outer shell traps moisture inside the kernel, turning to steam inside as it heats up. The steam builds up enough pressure for the kernel to explode, resulting in the light and starchy popcorn we recognize. That’s why some kernels just won’t pop no matter how you cook them – there isn’t enough moisture inside to cause the pop.

Growing your own popcorn starts with choosing a type that will actually pop. The exciting part is choosing a variety you may not be able to find in stores – one of the major benefits of growing your own.

These are a few popular favorites you may want to consider when starting out:

  • Robust Pop R400MR‘: A classic with large, rounded kernels.
  • Strawberry‘: Adorable pink-red ears that explode to white when popped.
  • ‘Dakota Black’: A dramatic purple-black variety with great flavor.

Planting

Close-up of a gardener's hand in a white and orange glove planting corn seeds into the soil. Corn seeds, also known as kernels, are plump and elongated, with a rounded base and a slightly pointed tip. The kernels are typically smooth and firm, with a glossy outer layer of yellow.
Plant corn outdoors in warm soil after frost.

To avoid damage to young and sensitive plants, corn is best planted in spring once all chance of frost has passed. The soil should be relatively warm (around 60°F or 16°C) and easily workable. Those in colder regions with late frosts may want to stick to varieties with shorter seasons.

Unfortunately, you can’t always get a head start on the season by growing indoors, as corn does not transplant well. Young roots are sensitive and don’t respond well to being moved or handled. It’s far better to sow directly in the ground once temperatures have increased in spring, even if that means waiting a little longer.

For better pollination and, therefore, a better harvest, you’ll need to plant several corn plants in the same area. Aim for at least 10 plants, but preferably more if you want to maximize your harvest. Corn is typically planted in blocks rather than rows.

Position

Close-up of young corn plants in a sunny garden. The plant is characterized by their slender, upright stems and narrow, lance-shaped leaves. The leaves are a vibrant green color and grow alternately along the stem, with a slightly glossy texture.
Plant in a sunny, well-draining spot away from windy areas.

Corn plants need plenty of sunlight to produce strong plants. Aim for around six hours of direct sunlight per day at a minimum – preferably more if you have the right spot. Lack of sunlight will lead to weak stalks and stunted growth.

The soil should drain well to prevent waterlogging while holding enough moisture to satisfy these thirsty plants. Popcorn absorbs nutrients from the soil quickly, so aim for a rich loam with a slightly acidic pH where possible. If your soil is not ideal, amend it with plenty of compost before planting to improve conditions.

Finally, choose a position away from windy areas in your garden. As corn plants grow taller, with shallow root systems that don’t anchor far into the soil, they catch the wind and can easily get knocked over. Plant away from windy spots or add a screen for extra protection.

Spacing

Close-up of young corn seedlings in a field under sunlight. Corn seedlings are planted in rows at equal distances. Corn seedlings are characterized by slender, upright stems and narrow, elongated leaves that emerge from the soil in a spiral arrangement. The leaves are green with a slightly waxy texture.
Plant densely in blocks for effective pollination.

Corn pollination is a little different from vegetables you may be used to. Pollen is produced on tassels and gets blown onto silks below for pollinating. Each individual silk corresponds to a single kernel on an ear of corn, so pollen needs to reach all the silks for a full ear of homegrown popcorn.

That’s why corn is best grown in blocks rather than rows. Keeping all your plants tightly packed together improves pollination rates and, by extension, your harvest.

Space the seeds around eight to ten inches apart in a row, with rows around one and a half to two feet apart. Plant around four to five rows at minimum, creating a square or rectangular grid. Plant seeds about an inch deep with two to three seeds per hole and water immediately after planting to encourage germination.

Cross-pollination from any other corn plants can affect your harvest and prevent kernels from popping correctly. Plant one type of corn in one area and keep any other types in a separate part of the garden.

How to Grow and Care for Popcorn

Popcorn takes around three months to harvest after sowing seeds, with exact times depending on the variety you’re growing. During that time, care and maintenance are essential to avoid a failed crop.

Watering

Watering corn from a blue watering can in a sunny garden. Close-up of a barefoot boy in a blue T-shirt and black shorts watering corn seedlings. The corn plant displays a distinctive appearance with its tall, sturdy stalks and large, broad leaves. The leaves of the corn plant are arranged alternately along the stalks and are characterized by their elongated shape and prominent midrib. They have a vibrant green color and a slightly rough texture, with serrated edges that taper to a point.
Plants need regular watering, especially in hot weather and sandy soil.

Corn plants are usually considered thirsty in comparison to some other crops. No need to panic if you miss one weekly watering, but the plants will be far happier with regular access to moisture.

The standard one inch of water per week is usually enough to satisfy these plants. Keep an eye out for rain and supplement with a weekly watering when the weather is dry. Give them some additional moisture on hot days to prevent stress, especially if you live in a region with harsh summers.

Since corn plants have relatively shallow roots, don’t let the soil dry out for extended periods. If you’ve planted in sandier soil that dries out quickly, you’ll need to water more often.

Weeding

Close-up of a gardener's hand with a hoe in a garden with growing young corn plants. The hoe is a long-handled gardening tool characterized by its flat, rectangular blade attached to the end of a wooden handle.
Weed control is crucial for successful growth.

Like most garden plants, popcorn does not appreciate competition. Any weeds growing around your patch will sap up available moisture and nutrients, leaving your popcorn sad and diminished. It is vital to stay on top of weeds throughout the growing season so you can ensure a successful harvest.

Start by clearing the area well before planting and pulling any weeds as soon as you spot them. Remember, corn roots do not appreciate being disturbed, and roughly pulling larger weeds after they have been established can disturb growth in your corn plants. You may need to hold the base of seedlings in place while pulling a neighboring weed.

If you’re really struggling with weeds early on, consider mulching straw or leaves around the plants to prevent weed germination. This will also help retain moisture in the soil.

Pests & Diseases

Close-up of European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis) on an ear of corn in the garden. The European corn borer larvae has a cream-colored body with dark spots and reddish-brown head.
Watch for corn earworms and control them with handpicking or insecticide.

There are several pests that find your popcorn just as tasty as you do. Corn earworm is one of the most common and damaging pests, infiltrating husks and munching through the kernels. Wireworms and cutworms are also an issue. Look out for any signs of concern (boring in cobs, or leaf damage) and pick them off by hand or apply a targeted insecticide before populations get out of hand.

Grubs can also be a problem in your corn patch. The best way to deal with them is to check for them as you amend your soil before planting. Remove any you find in the soil, and feed them to the birds.

Speaking of which, birds can also become a problem, often picking the seeds out of the ground before they even have the chance to germinate. If birds become an issue, protect your corn plants with row covers until they germinate successfully.

Rust is a common corn disease that leaves streaky orange patches on the leaves, spreading from there to other parts of your garden. To tackle frequent problems with rust, choose resistant varieties.

Stalk and root rot can become an issue as well in conditions that are favorable to the pathogens that cause them. The best way to handle both is to plant in proper soil conditions, and water two inches per week maximum. Cut back if rain has been prevalent.

Harvesting

After around 100 days, you should have plenty of ears ready for harvesting. It’s best to leave them to dry on the plant as long as possible, but not so long that you risk damage from birds or small animals.

Drying

Close-up of a gardener holding three picked ears of corn. Corn cobs, the reproductive structure of the corn plant, are characterized by their cylindrical shape and tightly packed rows of kernels. Each cob has a conical or cylindrical shape with a rounded base and a tapering tip. The kernels are arranged in neat rows, usually in multiples of eight or more, and are attached to a central core, or cob. They are golden yellow in color. The cobs are encased in several layers of protective husks.
Harvest when husks are dry.

As your corn starts to dry on the plant, the husk will change from green to yellow and eventually a light brown. Leave the ears until the husks are completely dry before picking. The longer you leave the corn to dry on the plant, the better your chances of harvesting poppable corn.

If you notice any pest issues or significant rainfall coming, pick the ears to continue drying indoors. Simply pull them downwards to pick them off the stalks.

Remove the husks immediately after picking. If you don’t remove them, moisture may become trapped between the kernels, leading to mold. Place the cobs in a dry area in a bag or basket to continue drying until they have just the right amount of moisture to pop successfully.

Since it’s almost impossible to tell the moisture content by simply looking at the cobs, you’ll need to conduct some tests. Take a couple of kernels from a cob and try cooking them as you would regular popcorn. If they don’t pop, leave them to dry for another week and test again. If they do pop, remove all the kernels for storage.

Storage

Close-up of corn kernels in a glass jar on a blurred background. Corn kernels, the edible seeds of the corn plant, are characterized by their plump, oval-shaped form and distinctively bright colors. Each kernel has a smooth and glossy surface, bright golden yellow.
Store kernels in airtight jars labeled with storage dates for freshness.

Once you’ve removed all the kernels, they need to be stored in an airtight container. If they are not stored properly, the kernels may continue to dry out, leaving them without enough moisture to cause the ‘pop’ required to make popcorn.

Airtight glass jars are best to keep them sealed and fresh. Remember to label the jar with the date of storage, especially if you have a lot of popcorn to store. When you’re ready, pull out the jar and grab a handful of kernels to make your favorite snack.

Making Popcorn

Making popcorn in a frying pan without a lid in the kitchen. Close-up of a gray frying pan with white dots filled with dry corn kernels and popcorn. White popcorn and dry grains are scattered on the stove.
Maximize popped kernels without burning using this stovetop method.

Every popcorn lover has their own method for popcorn perfection. But if you haven’t quite got the hang of it yet, this is how I make mine to maximize popped kernels without burning any.

Start by heating oil in a pot on medium-high heat and throw a few kernels in. Once those kernels have popped (all of them, not just one), add the rest of the popcorn. Put the lid on and remove from the heat for just under a minute to allow the new kernels to come to the same temperature.

Return the pot to the heat and shake it gently until you hear a few seconds between each pop. Take off the heat and cover with your favorite toppings. The popcorn tastes far better when you know it’s straight from the garden.

Final Thoughts

Homegrown food is always tastier and more satisfying to eat, and popcorn is no different. Use these tips to grow a prolific crop that delivers an almost endless popcorn supply for the year.

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