For the past few years now, Barb and I have wanted to experiment with growing popcorn in our vegetable garden. Our sweet corn crops have done very well, but neither of us had any experience growing and harvesting popcorn. Unfortunately, it has been difficult for us to find popcorn seeds for sale in the places we typically buy our garden plants and seeds. That is, until this season. That’s when we decided to take advantage of our good fortune.
We dedicated the first fifteen feet or so in two of our corn rows to plant some popcorn. This being an experiment for us, we didn’t want to dedicate too much of our corn rows to popcorn seeds (in the event that they didn’t do well in our garden). We planted the seeds on June 10 along with our late corn, which we typically plant three or four weeks after planting our first two rows of corn to extend our corn harvest season into August. We love to eat corn on the cob, and we sell some of the ears we harvest at the Farmers Market. The popcorn seeds didn’t begin to sprout as early as the sweet corn, and I was a little worried about our chances for success. However, we finally did notice some popcorn plants breaking ground a week or two later. While only about two-thirds of the popcorn seeds we planted took root, I was hopeful the small crop would be sufficient to pollinate the ears and produce some viable popcorn.
When tassels began to emerge on the popcorn stalks and we noticed silk emerging from the infant ears, I was reassured that we were doing okay. After years of producing sweet corn, we were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to identify the popcorn plants in our corn rows. The silks were a delicate shade of pink, which contrasted quite well against the creamy yellow silks on our sweet corn stalks. I made sure to treat the silks with a few drops of mineral oil to help prevent cutworms (which we commonly call corn silkworms) from compromising the ears. This mild treatment has proven largely successful in prior years. Although our popcorn stalks produced fewer ears than did our sweet corn, we were hopeful that we could harvest enough to obtain some viable popcorn kernels.
We finally harvested about a dozen ears on September 28, when we pulled up all of our cornstalks to put the garden to bed for the season. Popcorn ears must be allowed to dry on the stalks before harvesting. I stored our bucket of ears in our shed so that the kernels could continue to dry into the fall. We shucked the ears and harvested the kernels nearly two months later on November 21. By then, the kernels had dried and hardened. I pried the kernels loose using my thumb, while Barb used a teaspoon to scrape them loose. It can be hard to begin shelling the kernels because they are so tightly packed and dried stiff on the cobs, but if you work at them one row at a time, it becomes easier to remove them as you go along. When we were done shelling the cobs, we determined that we had managed to obtain exactly one full pound of popcorn kernels. As you can see from the picture in this post of the kernels we harvested, they look as the should (just like commercially produced and packaged popcorn you can buy at the store), and we were fairly confident that they would pop.
I set the bowl of kernels on a trivet that I had placed on the top of our pellet stove overnight. This allowed them to speed-dry, but the heat from the stovetop was not hot enough to burn or pop them. After we returned from church this morning, we decided to see how well our popcorn would pop. We took a non-stick pot with a steamer lid (that had holes in the top) and spread some cooking oil along the bottom of the pot—not enough to puddle up, but enough to coat the entire bottom of the pot. We placed a couple of test kernels in it and put it over one of the burners on our LP gas stove and kept the pot moving over the flame until we heard them pop against the lid. Having determined the heat level was sufficient, we threw a small handful of kernels into the pot and popped about four cups of popcorn. We drenched them in melted butter and found them to be very tasty—although they could have used a dash of salt as well.
Popcorn is a traditional holiday season staple that is as easy to produce as traditional sweet corn. Many people used to string popcorn to produce a homemade Christmas tree garland. When I was young, we would occasionally while away a long mid-winter power outage by popping popcorn on our wood-cook stove and process it into caramel popcorn balls. It was the perfect exercise to keep fidgety children entertained and occupied during a ferocious winter storm. While I will admit it is far easier to find conveniently microwavable popcorn packaged in individual servings in any grocery store, the reward from growing and producing it yourself is well worth the effort—power outage or not. As always, we wish all of our website readers a happy Thanksgiving, despite all the Coronavirus fears, and we hope you will help us preserve and practice all of our shared traditional lifestyle folkways.