Friday, May 4, 2012

Grow Your Own Popcorn!

As interest in healthy eating continues to grow, May 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, a whole grain, has as much fiber as bran flakes or whole wheat toast.

Unlike the drab sameness of store-bought hybrid popcorn, there are many different kinds available for the home gardener via catalogs, nurseries and seed stores. 

Robust Y128 Hybrid Popcorn
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!

Wisconsin Black, Pennsylvania Butter Corn, Cherokee Long Ear

During late May or 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.

Harvesting Your Popcorn: About the time the Major League Baseball Playoffs begin (early October), your popcorn should be ready to harvest. The stalks will be mostly brown, the husks will be dry and the kernels hard. Try popping a few kernels on the stove in a pan of hot oil at this stage; if most of them pop, that's your sign to remove the ears from the stalks. Husk the ears, place them in a mesh bag or old nylon stocking to cure for two to three weeks in a warm, dry, well ventilated area. Again, pop a few kernels; if they pop, strip the kernels from the cobs and store the kernels in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Is It Popcorn Yet? 13% moisture level is ideal. Popcorn that is chewy after popping is still too wet; let the kernels dry some more, popping a few every couple of days until the popcorn is no longer chewy. If you get too many unpopped kernels, add moisture to the storage container. Pour one tablespoon of water over a quart of popcorn, shake it up a couple of times on Day 1. By Day 3, try popping another batch. Repeat this procedure until most of the kernels are popping.

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 the on-line seed source, Jung Seed.

Store the kernels in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.



  1. I've grown the little red cobs and was delighted how well they popped up -- despite being small. They were so much more colorful and decorative than the commercial varieties! They even survived the rodents that attacked my bigger corn crop.

  2. No popcorn for me. My lot is only 120 feet deep so getting 100 feet apart is difficult.

  3. Wow - I love this post! Really inspiring. I'm struggling growing sweetcorn but this has given me the ooomph I need to persevere!

  4. I plant all the same variety to prevent cross pollination and I always have too much. What's your review on the Golden Bantam? Have you ever tried it for popcorn purposes?

  5. I have always wanted to grow popcorn. Thanks for the background info on the two types of popcorn.

  6. Other corn will not pollinate popcorn, but popcorn can pollinate other corn. It's a one way exchange only. Popcorn has a feature that rejects any pollen that does not share a common popcorn or teosinte genetic marker. So no GMO popcorn either. Cool eh

    1. bs. my bodacious sweet corn pollinated some of my purple popcorn.