Thursday, June 4, 2009

Grow a Healthy Snack Food: Popcorn

As interest in healthy eating continues to grow, now is the time for backyard gardeners to make room for a family favorite that is also good for you: popcorn. This dent corn relative is one of the best all-around snack foods, providing almost as much protein, iron and calcium as beef. A cup of popped, unbuttered popcorn contains fewer calories than half a medium-sized grapefruit, about 40. Popcorn has as much fiber as bran flakes or whole wheat toast.

Unlike the drab sameness of store-bought popcorn, there are many different kinds available for the home gardener via catalogs, nurseries and seed stores. Besides the traditional big and chewy "movie-style" yellow hybrid popcorn, you can choose among several smaller, crunchier white varieties, including many heirlooms. And for fall decorations, it's hard to beat the colorful popcorns that include blue, red and black kernels.

A word about hybrid versus heirloom popcorns: hybrid varieties are bred to produce more cobs per stalk as well as larger cobs. Hybrid popcorns tend to pop up bigger, as well. The downside: the seed you collect from your popcorn harvest will not come back true to the original if you plant it the following year. Heirloom popcorn tends to have the same problems as other heirlooms: more susceptible to insect and disease problems; a smaller harvest; smaller kernels. The big upside to heirlooms: better flavor! Plus, if you planted the heirloom popcorn away from other varieties of corn, the kernels you collect this year can be planted the following year...the result being the same great flavor!

During early June, plant your own popcorn the same way you would plant sweet corn. Choose a site that gets full sun and a soil that drains easily (no standing water). Plant the kernels, two inches deep, six inches apart. For better pollination, plant in short blocks instead of a single row. Thin out the seedlings to stand 10-12 inches apart; space the rows at intervals of three feet. Don't plant popcorn within 100 feet of sweet corn; cross pollination could ruin both crops. Three fertilizations work best: at planting time; when the stalks are knee high; and again when tassels appear at the top of the stalks. Water the popcorn thoroughly, once or twice a week.

 Harvest your popcorn when the stalks are mostly brown, usually around early October. Husk the ears, then place the cobs in a mesh bag or old nylon stocking to cure for two to three weeks in a warm, dry, well ventilated area. Then, pop a few kernels on the stove in a pan with hot oil; if they pop, strip the kernels from the cobs.

A hard-to-find device to ease that process when you have lots of popcorn: the little stripper (no, we are not talking about midget lap dancers moonlighting as farm workers). A quick search found this handy tool at two on-line seed sources: Jung Seeds and the Vermont Bean Seed Company.

Store the kernels in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
More information about growing popcorn from the Universities of Wisconsin  and Minnesota.


  1. Drats! I planted mine 1" deep and 8" apart per the recommendation of the Veggie Gardener's Bible. Maybe next year...

    That rain we got last night ought to at least guarantee some germination though!

  2. "Well-drained", huh? Guess I won't be planting corn this year, as I need to add soil if I want drainage.