By: Amy Grant
We’re growing corn this year and it’s sort of awe inspiring. I swear I can practically see it growing right before my eyes. As with everything we grow, we hope the outcome will be some juicy, sweet corn for late summer BBQs, but I’ve had some problems in the past, and maybe you have too. Have you ever grown corn plants without ears?
A corn plant not producing could be the result of climate changes, disease or insect problems that are affecting the plant’s ability to pollinate properly, hence it not forming healthy ears or any ears at all. To fully answer the question, “Why is my corn not producing ears?”, a lesson in corn reproduction is in order.
Corn plants produce individual male and female flowers, both of which start out as bisexual. During the flower’s development, the female traits (gynoecia) of the male flowers and male features (stamens) of the developing female flower terminate. The end result is a tassel, which is male, and an ear, which is female.
Silks that emerge from the ear are the stigma of the female corn flower. Pollen from the male flower adheres to the end of the silk, which grows a pollen tube down the length of the stigma to reach the ovary. It’s basic 101 corn sex.
Without proper production of silk or sufficient pollination, the plant won’t produce kernels, but what causes the plant to produce no ears of corn at all? Here are the most probable reasons:
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My corn plants are very healthy, over 6 ft now in tassel, but no ears. Also, my beets are not developing.
I rotate crops, compost, the soil is very rich, and well drained. I have drip watering 20 minutes every other day in the early AM. My other crops include cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes are plentiful.
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Give it more time. Sounds like it's plenty tall, but if you've had a long cold and / or wet growing season, it's just going to take it longer to "make" corn. My grandfather always said, "Honey, it takes whatever time it takes", and I think he was referring to Mother Nature who is whimsical to say the least.
Unless it's planted in "Blocks", it may not be getting pollinated enough. Long straight rows of corn never do as well as shorter rows that are in blocks like 12 corn stalks long and 12 corns stalks wide if that makes sense. In a large cornfield, it's always the "inside" rows that have the most corn on them.
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My corn is about 4 feet high and is tasseling, but no ears of corn. Any suggestions why not?
Ear-less corn holds heaps of sugar that could be turned into ethanol and other biofuels, a new study finds. When grown in the Midwest, this "tropical maize" lacks nutrient-needy cobs, so the crops require less nitrogen and other fertilizers.
"Corn is a short-day plant, so when we grow tropical maize here in the Midwest the long summer days delay flowering, which causes the plant to grow very tall and produce few or no ears," said Fred Below, a crop scientist at the University of Illinois.
What the plants do produce could be a jackpot for the biofuels industry. Below found that the ear-less stalks store 25 percent or more of sugars in the form of sucrose, fructose and glucose.
Conventional corn and other dedicated energy crops store their sugars as more complex molecules, including starches and cellulose. Scientists must treat these substances with enzymes to convert them into sugars that can be fermented into alcohols such as ethanol.
The tropical-maize stalks store simple sugars, so no processing is needed. In addition, storing simple sugars is more cost-effective for the plant, because it takes additional energy to form complex starches. The energy savings could result in more available energy (simple sugars) per acre of tropical maize.
"In terms of biofuel production, tropical maize could be considered the 'sugarcane of the Midwest,'" Below said. "The tropical maize we're growing here at the University of Illinois is very lush, very tall and very full of sugar."
Sugarcane grown in Brazil produces lots of sugar with minimal nitrogen fertilizer, and as is the case for the tropical maize, the sugars can be converted into ethanol without the middle processing steps needed for complex sugars, he said.
The svelte stalks are also easier for farmers to integrate into their current operations than other dedicated energy crops because they can be easily rotated with corn or soybeans.
Sweet corn is a luxury that many smaller gardens simply cannot accommodate, leaving tiny garden patches and rooftop gardens sadly devoid of these tasseled wonders. Fortunately, a few lesser-known varieties of dwarf sweet corn require significantly less space than the traditional varieties, including "Golden Midget," "Midget Hybrid" and "White Midget." These varieties of corn grow no more than 5 feet tall, making them easy to work into the landscape, even if there is no formal space for them in the garden.
Take several samples of the soil where you intend to plant your corn several months before planting time. Submit the samples to your university extension service for a detailed soil analysis. Wait for the test to return with soil amendment recommendations to prepare the bed -- corn is a heavy feeder, so starting with proper nutrition is crucial.
Rototill the bed about 8 inches deep two months before planting. Incorporate abundant amounts of compost if planting in heavy, poorly draining soils. Work the recommended fertilizer into the soil. Submit a new soil sample to your university extension for testing six to eight weeks after preparing the bed to ensure everything is incorporated and the bed is ready for planting.
Plant corn directly in the soil in March for an early crop, or as late as July for late-season crops. Space dwarf sweet corn about 6 inches apart in rows about 3 feet wide, no more than 1 inch deep. Plant at least two short rows together for proper pollination (unless you intend to hand-pollinate).
Provide the corn with at least 1 inch of water each week, more during pollination and the final stages of ear development. Check the soil periodically to ensure that it is moist at least 6 inches deep so the corn receives plenty of moisture to its roots.
Mulch around each corn plant to smother weeds. Continue heaping mulch to about 3 inches deep as the corn grows. Pull weeds as they appear.
Watch for silk strands to appear on the end of the ears of your dwarf corn. Harvest the corn about 20 days after you see them, once the silk strands are just starting to dry and brown. Snap the corn from the stalk by bending it at a sharp angle. Plow under the dried stalks after harvest.
Last year was my first year growing corn and I didn't do too well with it. I planted silverqueen but I didn't know how to fertilize it or how to plant it for good pollination. I did still get ears even though they didn't look too great. This year I planted a different variety, not sure of the name, but its a yellow sweetcorn and I've fertilized it with bloodmeal once when it was about 12" high and again not too long ago and planted them like I was supposed to. I thought I've done everything right and my plants have looked so good this year. Last week they started to tassel and I've been looking for ears but haven't seen one. I checked them over good yesterday..I guess I'm thinking last year the ears started showing around the same time as they tasseled or is that wrong?? Also I noticed yesterday the stalks look a little skinnier than the ones I planted last year. but not sure if that's because of the different variety?
***Also I'm posting a pic of a bug that is on all my corn plants..no damage and it looks like a ladybug but it's pink..and its funny I have the exact same looking bug on my squash plants next to my corn but they are yellowish green instead of pink. Should I just leave them or spray for them? Didn't know if they were just beneficial since I see no damage.
Silks will begin to form very soon - as I typically have ears begin to form withing 1-2 weeks after tasseling. It'll happen.
New! Click or tap the image to view the new Growing Corn guide
Joseph Masabni, Assistant Professor and Extension Horticulturist, and Patrick Lillard, Extension Assistant, The Texas A&M System
Sweet corn is a member of the grass family. In smaller gardens, it should be planted in square blocks instead of long rows to improve cross-pollination between corn stalks. Like most vegetables, corn will grow best in areas with plenty of sunlight.
Corn is one of the plants grown in the traditional Native American vegetable technique call the Three Sisters. The other two plants in the Three Sisters are beans and squash, and each had its role in this companion planting tradition. Corn served as a support for the vining beans. Squash served as a ground cover, preventing weeds from growing. Beans provided natural fertilizer for all.
Corn can tolerate many soil types but prefers well-drained soils with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. In sandy soils or soils with a low pH, corn may suffer from magnesium deficiency.
Remove weeds, rocks and trash, and work the top 8 to 10 inches of soil before planting. Work the soil only when it is dry enough not to stick to garden tools.
Use 2 to 3 pounds of fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, for every 100 square feet of garden area. Spread the fertilizer evenly over the soil and work it into the soil 3 to 4 inches deep. Rake the soil to smooth the surface.
Sweet corn is a warm-season crop and must be planted after the soil warms and there is no more danger of frost. If you have room, plant again when the first corn plants have three to five leaves. This usually takes 2 to 3 weeks. You will need 1 to 2 ounces of seed for every 100 feet of row. Do not use seed saved from last year’s sweet corn as these seeds will not grow a good crop. Sweet corn grows best when planted in several short rows instead of one long row. This makes it easier for the corn plants to pollinate, and good pollination is necessary for ears of corn to have plump, juicy kernels.
Figure 1. Plant corn in several short rows, not in one or two long rows.
Plant the corn seeds about 1 inch deep and 3 to 4 inches apart in the row. Space the rows 2½ to 3 feet apart. After the plants are up, thin them to 1 foot apart. If you plant them closer, your corn will have small, poorly-filled ears (Figs. 1 and 2.)
Figure 2. Poorly filled corn is caused by poor pollination.
Water sweet corn as needed to keep it from wilting. Do not let corn suffer from lack of water when the kernels are forming.
Hoe or till the soil just under the surface. Hoe the weeds off just below the soil’s surface. Deep hoeing will cut the corn roots, which are close to the top of the soil.
When the plants are about 2 feet tall, apply 1 cup of fertilizer for every 10 feet of garden row. Scatter the fertilizer evenly between the rows and mix it lightly with the soil. Water after fertilizing (Fig. 3.)
Figure 3. When corn is about 2 feet tall, scatter 1 cup of fertilizer for every 10 feet of row and water it in.
If a few of your corn plants are stunted, they may have a viral disease and should be removed to keep the virus from spreading.
Click or tap to view corn diseases chart
Corn is ready for harvest about 3 weeks after the tassel grows on top of the corn plant. Corn is ripe when juice from the kernels is milky white, the silk on the ears has turned dark brown, the kernels get large, chewy and pasty like dough.
The best time to pick corn is in the early morning or evening when it is cool. To harvest the ears, hold the stalk below the ear and twist the tip of the ear toward the ground until it breaks off. Cook the corn right away, or store it in the refrigerator until mealtime. Corn loses flavor and nutrients quickly when left at high temperature. Watch the corn closely because the quality changes fast.
Corn has small amounts of many vitamins and minerals and is best when cooked immediately after picking. It can be cooked either on or off the cob. Remove husks, silk and bad spots just before cooking. Corn which is past its best quality is still good as cream-style corn.
Store corn in the husk. Place it uncovered in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days. Corn stored for more than 2 days loses its sweetness.
Old corn plants are good compost to add to the garden soil. They will break down much faster if shredded before composting.
Download a printer-friendly version of this page: Growing Sweet Corn (pdf)
View this publication in Spanish: Cómo cultivar maíz dulce
Purchase this book: Easy Gardening in Texas
My ears of corn started appearing about a week or so after the tassels. (08/22/2008)
I think it just needs to grow more. Four feet high is not that tall for corn, although it depends on the variety. Many types of corn require a long growing season. I doubt that there is anything wrong with it. Let it be for a couple more weeks of hot weather. (08/22/2008)
Corn is wind-pollinated and should be planted in blocks of at least 4 rows for good pollination to occur. Also, if you are in a climate that has experienced low temperatures or too much moisture, or certainly any frost, that will have damaged your chances or at least delayed them. (08/23/2008)
This question was mine and I thank all those that responded. I was just not patient enough, the ears are coming out nicely. I got the garden in late, because of the unusually cooler and wet spring. (09/11/2008)