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What Are the Best Methods of Maize Cultivation?

By Jordan Weagly
Updated May 17, 2024
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The best methods of maize cultivation are conventional, conservation, reduced tillage and polyculture planting. In most types of maize production, crop rotations are used to maintain the soil over a long period. One of the challenges of growing maize is that the best methods for cultivation usually depend on local conditions. Some maize species are better suited to dry conditions, for instance, and may grow best in an area with frequent drought. The complexity of sustainable maize cultivation means the best method for one area may be ineffective or detrimental in another.

Conventional agriculture uses a plough or tiller to remove almost all plant material except for the maize crop. Weeds and pests are often controlled with chemicals. Hybrid and genetically modified maize varieties mean conventional maize cultivation can produce high yields in small areas. This method of maize cultivation, however, is not always considered best, because it has poor erosion and moisture control, and one of the best methods for controlling erosion and moisture is quite different from conventional agriculture.

Conservation agriculture, in the most extreme form, often leaves all of the existing plant layer or sod. Rows are usually cut into the ground, and fertilizer is usually applied to the openings. Seeds are then planted in the rows and grow up from the openings. This method of maize cultivation is often considered best in areas with erosion problems, because it retains most of the existing soil. Moisture also is retained in conservation agriculture, which often makes it best in areas with minimal rain.

Reduced tillage practices are similar to conservation agriculture, the primary difference being that some of the weeds and plant material are tilled back into the soil. Some of the original sod is left, primarily between rows. Burning plant material left by the crop plants and tilling the ash into the soil also is used in reduced-tillage practices to return some nutrients back to the soil. This method of maize cultivation is often considered best for small-scale agriculture.

Polyculture planting usually attempts to reduce weeds and pests by planting multiple species in the same plot. Plants that fix nitrogen into the soil, such as many types of beans, can be added to a field of maize. One example of polyculture planting exists in a Native American agriculture practice known as the Three Sisters. Maize, beans and squash are planted in the same area. Maize would provide a place for beans to grow, beans could return nitrogen to the soil, and squash could cover the ground to retain soil and moisture.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Jul 14, 2013

@pastanaga - They really are completely different crops though. Sweet corn is mostly grown so that people can eat it fresh. You can eat maize fresh as well (cooking it over coals can be delicious) but it's mostly grown to be used for other reasons.

I don't think you can make sweet corn into popcorn, for example, or dry it and grind it up for flour.

I do think you might be forced to choose one or the other though, since they are both varieties of zea mays and so they would probably cross pollinate if planted together. If you are intending to collect your own seed, planting them in the same area, where they would contaminate each other would be a mistake.

By pastanaga — On Jul 13, 2013

@Fa5t3r - I don't know why anyone would grow maize over sweet corn. Sweet corn is just so much tastier and maize seems to have hardly any taste at all.

Some of my fondest memories are from family dinners where we picked the corn just before cooking it. I do think that it's a good idea to grow corn of some kind in a sustainable way, but it's a big plant and you need several rows in order to get the pollination right. So why not grow the sweeter alternative?

By Fa5t3r — On Jul 12, 2013

It's a good idea to check out permaculture methods as well if you are thinking about growing a small scale crop of maize in your land. The cultivation of maize can fit nicely into permaculture methods as it is a crop that can be used for multiple purposes. You can eat the ears of maize, use them for flour and for popcorn, and you can even use the husks for various things as well. It stores well if you dry out the kernels.

You can use it as a fattening crop for cattle as well, I believe, and of course chickens and other birds will enjoy maize too.

It sounds like the Three Sisters method is a tried and true way of situating plants so that they support each other and would fit perfectly into a permaculture garden. The goal is to get your garden to function as close to naturally as possible, so that you aren't constantly having to add things (like fertilizer) into the system.

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