Why Grow “Non Sweet” Corn?

corn patch growing, corn plants in garden

In this day and age few gardeners even consider growing non sweet corn. By “non sweet” I simply mean any kind of corn other than the sweet type most commonly grown by gardeners.

Beside sweet corn, there are at least four types of corn one can grow.

Without getting too technical, I’d mention that apart from sweet corn there are at least four types of corn: flint, flour, pop and dent. In a nut shell: sweet corn has more sugar and moisture in it, at picking. It’s grown to be harvested before the seed is mature. Flint corn has really hard kernels, and some corn lovers claim that it makes the absolute best cornmeal. Flour corn generally has large kernels which lack most of the hard outer coating found on the kernels of flint corn. Flour corn is EASY to grind and makes a softer “flour” as opposed to a gritty meal. Dent corn is an intermediate form between flint and flour. It tends to be extremely productive. And… pop corn, well, you know, it pops; though I’ve heard that it can be ground into a nice cornmeal.

Carol Deppe’s Resilient Gardener is a book which truly delves into the different kinds of corn and their qualities.

Non sweet corn is grown primarily to make grain, but it can be used for “roasting ears.”

A hundred years ago many folk picked these kinds of corn while still young and tender and made roasting ears with them. Roasting ears taste like corn, but they’re not sweet. Our family enjoys roasting ears, though, we do LOVE sweet corn as well.

Sandhill Preservation Center has the best selection of non sweet corns I know.

I can think of five reasons I LOVE to grow Non Sweet Corn.

1. Homemade cornmeal is fantastic!

Blue Corn Meal, Meal from Cherokee Squaw Corn variety, meal made from non sweet corn
Cherokee Squaw is a blue and white corn which grinds into a blue/green meal of good quality.

We use a hand grinder to grind our cornmeal. Set to its finest setting, it produces a coarse cornmeal. If we loosen the grinding plates a bit, we can produce some really nice grits. Cornmeal alone is reason to grow non sweet corn! There’s almost no other way to experience the amazing flavor and texture available by grinding different varieties of corn and eating it fresh ground. I rarely make anything with sourdough that does not include some homegrown cornmeal.

Here’s what we use to grind our own cornmeal by hand:

2. Old fashioned, non sweet corn has sturdy stalks for growing with beans and squash.

This old fashioned method of gardening is known as “Three sisters gardening.” There are variations on this method, but essentially it involves growing corn, beans and squash (or pumpkin) together. The corn helps support the beans. The beans supply some nitrogen for the other crops, and the squash supplies weed suppression around and in the entire planting. All three produce food for the gardener. I enjoy this method for its beauty, historical/cultural richness and the weed suppression.

3 sisters gardening, beans on corn, non sweet corn generally has STURDY stalks
To grow beans on corn requires STURDY corn stalks, which are simply not found with sweet corn varieties.

Many have tried three sisters gardening and been disappointed. The most common cause for this disappointment is that they try to use sweet corn in this arrangement. The very genes which make for sweet corn also make for weak stalks. So, if you want to really experience three sisters gardening, you need to use a non sweet corn variety.

3. Corn can be used to control certain invasive weeds.

In our neck of the woods Bermuda grass is a real headache for gardeners. I doubt a northern gardener can comprehend the tenacity and audacity of this weed. Bermuda resists most methods of weed suppression, but it is susceptible to shade. Corn, in a fairly dense planting, produces shade. Combining corn, climbing beans or cowpeas, and squash, produces a rampant, jungle of growth with shade underneath all that growth. After growing corn in a section of my garden, I have much less Bermuda to contend with, the following year.

4. Corn produces a lot of biomass.

Biomass is a fancy word for organic material, material which can be used for various things. After harvest I use the cornstalks for at least three things: 1) Animal fodder: our rabbits, goats, sheep and cattle enjoy eating the leaves and stalks, especially when they’re still slightly green. 2) Compost, though large, the stalks and leaves can be composted, or 3) mulch: I can always use this kind of organic material as mulch. Beside producing food, corn produces a lot of useful organic material.

I even use the corn cobs as smoker fuel, when I work bees.

Indian corn, Mesquakie Indian variety
There are many varieties of non sweet corn, which come in many colors. My favorite is Mesquakie Indian, which produces these colors.

5. When summer conditions get rugged, I like to have something in the garden which looks robust.

Most non sweet corns are robust growers. When I walk up on my garden and conditions are tough, I love to see my corn going strong. Corn is what I call “a feel good crop.” It’s easy to grow, rugged and often gives spectacular results. In my mind, this plant which grows so exuberantly is beautiful and brings great joy. Later, when I’m shucking and shelling the ears, I find more pleasure, as I observe the beauty and diversity of the ears and individual grains. All year long I enjoy our own, homegrown, home ground cornmeal!

I garden for pleasure. Non sweet corn gives me great pleasure!

Along this line, see The Joy of Three Sisters Gardening

Sustainable Mountain Agriculture preserves and promotes real, old time cornfield beans, which are specially adapted for growing on corn. 

Do you grow a non sweet corn? Tell us about your favorite variety.


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2 thoughts on “Why Grow “Non Sweet” Corn?”

  1. I have a friend form, Malawi, who likes field corn because it reminds him of home, so I grow field corn for him each year, plus a few of the ‘old-timers’ around here grew up on field corn and prefer it to sweet corn, so I share it around with my friends in the community. Field corn has more texture than sweet corn and it seems like you actually ate something after you’ve finished one, kind of like the old, Moon and Stars Watermelon, the heirloom varieties had more meat. I planted about 10 pounds of field corn seeds this Spring. I even planted a little Mesquakie Indian corn too.

    1. I’ve heard similar comments from a number of old timers. Additionally, when we lived in Mexico, the old roasting ears were what was for sale at special events, etc. I remember when KFC introduced sweet corn. Most of my Mexican friends didn’t care for it.

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