Growing Popcorn

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We all know that corn is king. In the southern tier of New York State, sweet corn is available at every farm stand. When we planted our first family garden, we grew heirloom sweet corn. Eventually it seemed rather silly to give so much garden space to a vegetable that we could drive around the corner and buy so we decided to discontinue the practice.

As our garden expanded, along with our self-reliance, we began growing items that we were able to store and enjoy well into the long, cold winter months. One of the items we explored was popcorn. 

Smoke Signals Popcorn drying under ceiling fan.

I love heirloom plants. I really enjoy learning about their history and in turn relating my own experience to that of a long historical thread of farmers and gardeners. Popcorn easily falls into that category. For example, ancient indigenous tombs in Peru contained kernels that were so well preserved that they were able to be popped and eaten after their discovery.

A 1,700-year-old funeral urn in Mexico depicted a corn god wearing a headdress of popcorn. It is easy to image why such a prolific and easily stored food source would play such an important cultural role in ancient history. I suppose on some level corn has never really lost its foothold when you look at the current state of farming.

In an effort to continue a historical line of corn, we chose to grow Smoke Signals popcorn, which was an heirloom available through the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. The plants easily grow well over 8 feet in height and tend to have three to four ears that can measure about 7 inches in length. The massive cornstalks are a nice feature because we use the three sisters’ method of growing squash, beans and corn together. The stalks then act as a sturdy trellis for the beans and squash.

When the plant matures, you will find the kernels are spectacular. They contain a brilliant array of blue, pink, black, yellow and white kernels. Visually they are just stunning, and they are delicious as well. We rarely put butter on popcorn because they seem to carry the flavor naturally. 

Your author among the sunflowers and popcorn.

This particular popcorn takes about 100 days to mature on the plant at which point we allow it to sit on the stalks until the plants begin to dry and their husks turn a brittle tan or brown.

There are a number of methods to drying your popcorn, but what we tend to do is put the ears in cardboard boxes and rotate them daily under a ceiling fan. They will fall victim to mold surprisingly easy so keep an eye on them.

After a few weeks we remove the seeds by hand and put them in a giant bowl so that we can run our hands through them whenever we walk by the bowl allowing them to dry further and hopefully avoid any mold. We then take 100 seeds out to save for the following growing season and then store the dried popcorn in Mason jars. We usually harvest in October and by January the popcorn is ready to eat.