Gardening with Kids: Grow your own popcorn

BETHANY MARCELLO/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Strawberry popcorn grows plump 4-inch cobs with narrow ruby-red kernels.

Gardening with kids should be easy, have easy-to-see progress throughout and end with a big finish.

Growing your own popcorn fits that bill perfectly. The stalks are easy to grow, put on height quickly and are already a tasty favorite of littles and bigs alike.

To please the grown-ups, popcorn, like other ornamental grasses, can be grown outside the kitchen garden, making a unique texture in perennial flower beds or added to containers. The grasses are a medium-height, averaging about 4 foot, which can be used to create privacy while also offering a unique light and sound display throughout the summer.

How to grow

My favorite variety to grow is strawberry popcorn, which grows plump 4-inch cobs with narrow ruby-red kernels that look like their jewel-toned namesake. Other popcorn varieties range in color from light gold to black as well as multi-colored.

To grow your own popcorn, have kids direct sow the seeds once all danger of hard frost has ended in mid- to late May. You can also help them start seeds indoors by planting them in peat pots or other biodegradable container, like a homemade newspaper pot.

When growing your own popcorn, choose a site that is very sunny and mix a fertilizer high in nitrogen into the soil before planting.

What fertilizer is best? Corn loves nitrogen — as does any leafy crop such as turf grasses or lettuce. Composted horse manure and chicken manure are particularly high in nitrogen.

If you don’t have those on hand, choose a product that lists its N for nitrogen at 8 to 12. Anything higher is unnecessary and just showing off.

Plant the popcorn seeds in blocks about three rows deep and not long rows that stretch the length of your garden.

Since corn is wind-pollinated, short rows about 2 to 3 feet apart create a better chance of tassels pollinating each other. Plant seeds about 8 to 12 inches apart and 1 to 2 inches deep.

Once seedlings are 6 inches tall and again when they’re about 2 feet tall — or about half the height of your little gardener, add fertilizer to the base of the plant.

Throughout the summer, check that the popcorn gets about an inch of water a week and is fairly weed-free. Be sure to watch any eager gardeners as they weed that they don’t harm roots–or, as happened last year in my garden when my then 3-year old ‘helped’ weed, that young gardeners don’t remove the wanted plants and leave all the weeds.

Unlike sweet corn where the corn is ready about three weeks after the corn silk appears, popcorn ears and other ornamental corn should be left on the stalk until the first hard frost to dry.

If there is a wet fall, cut the corn and leave to dry in a cool place.

Kids can use any dried stalks for fall decorating.

Popcorn is an easy crop to grow, not being too finicky like a tomato. But every plant is susceptible to disease and pests.

Corn is prone to corn earworms. Wash ears with dish soap, water and a Bt mix every few days to remove the pests.

Another pest, European corn borers, can also be treated with Bt, before the pests dig into the stalk. Remove any stalks from the previous year, as corn borers overwinter.

How to eat

Once the popcorn ears are dry, have kids scrape two ears against each other over a bowl to easily remove kernels.

Place one-third cup kernels and 3 tablespoons of veggie oil in a large pot with a lid. Heat the oil on high and wait for that tell-tale pop-pop-pop, about three minutes. Remove from heat and top with melted butter and salt to taste. Or add some maple syrup and dried apples for a fall-themed treat.

Growing your own popcorn might seem like a daunting garden task, even more so when adding the pressure of impressing a young kid. But with a little knowledge, popcorn is a fun and manageable way to start gardening with your kids.

The popcorn grows quickly and often successfully, is easy to grow and tasty to eat. And even if you and your gardener don’t get to the finish line of a bowl of buttery homegrown popcorn, at least you’ll have spent some lovely summer days outside and together.