Whether you like your corn grilled, popped, creamed, or ground, you probably like it in one way or another. Corn is a great crop to add to your backyard garden, and it’s certainly a popular choice among farmers in the US, with about 100 million acres dedicated to corn production.
You probably don’t have that much space to spare in your garden, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow your own kernels. In fact, you can plant corn with other plants to make the most of your limited space. Many plants benefit each other in one way or another, which will help your plants grow better.
Corn doesn’t have to be grown in a field with nothing else but more corn. Let’s look at some other plants you can add to your cornfield, no matter how small or big it may be.
About Companion Planting
Companion planting utilizes nature’s synergy for better gardening, so grow compatible plants together and control pests naturally.
Companion planting may seem like an ingenious trick, but really, it’s just nature doing what nature does best. Rather than keeping all your plants in separate beds, companion planting allows you to grow certain plants together to reap the benefits.
Instead of growing beans in one bed and lettuce in another, you can grow them together. Lettuce will help act as a ground cover to suppress weeds, and beans will add nitrogen to the soil to help your lettuce develop bigger, healthier leaves.
If a plant has a pest problem, introduce a plant that will keep that pest away or a plant that will attract insects that will eat the desired pest. The more diverse an ecosystem you have in your garden, the better. Everything will work together and improve their conditions over time.
The most well-known companion planting method is the Three Sisters, which I’ll be referencing often since corn is a main component! The Three Sisters method uses corn for a trellis, pole beans for nitrogen, and squash as a ground cover. You can use several variations of this method, and I’ll mention them along the way in this article.
Corn as a Companion Plant
Corn is tall and slender and needs wind to be pollinated. How exactly can it be a companion plant? That’s what I used to wonder, at least! Though corn can have some disadvantages as a plant neighbor, it brings many things to the table.
If you need to save some money in the garden, use corn as a natural trellis. Vining plants like pole beans can climb up the corn. No need to buy trellises for lots of plants when corn will give you plenty of height!
For plants that need shade, corn can provide it. Spring crops like lettuce and dill bolt when temperatures move from warm to hot. Providing them with shade can help them tolerate the heat longer, giving you a wider harvesting window so you can enjoy your favorite spring foods for longer.
Corn doesn’t rely on pollinators to produce corn, but it will still draw in pollinators to your garden. They’ll help bring in bees, flies, and other insects that will probably enjoy the rest of your garden, too.
Corn will tower over your garden, assuming it grows healthy as intended. While some plants appreciate the shade, others won’t. When you plant corn, keep in mind which plants need full sun exposure and where the sun is throughout the day so you can prevent shadows from being cast over your entire garden.
Just as your grassy lawn needs a lot of water, so does corn since it’s part of the grass family. It will need at least 1 inch of water each week, but you’ll likely be watering it more often than this, especially in hot climates in the peak of summer. If your corn needs so much water that other plants are unhappy, you can put the others in containers nearby.
Companion Plants for Corn
You don’t have to limit your corn maze to just corn—you can have other things in there, too! Let’s look at some great companions for corn.
As nitrogen-fixing legumes, beans thrive when grown with corn and store nitrogen for the next season’s plants.
Beans are a classic Three Sisters component that will help all your plants grow. Beans (and other legumes you can swap out to take the place of beans) are nitrogen-fixing. They take nitrogen from the air and deposit it back into nodules on their roots.
When beans are planted with corn, the corn consumes nitrogen, which helps it grow taller and develop more foliage. Corn gives back to the beans by providing a tall trellis for them to climb. Later in the year, when you’ve cut the bean vines down, leave their roots in the soil. As they decompose, they release their stored nitrogen back into the soil, replenishing it for the next growing season.
Beans like sunshine and consistent watering like corn, so the two get along well. Corn has a deep root system, while beans’ roots are shallow. Beans will dry out faster than corn, so they likely won’t get overwatered when you have to give your corn extra water.
Borage is a cucumber-flavored herb that repels corn’s pests and attracts pollinators, making it a great companion for corn.
Borage is a beautiful flowering herb that tastes a lot like cucumbers. It’s a good neighbor to corn because its scent is believed to repel various worms that like to eat corn, and its flowers entice in some predatorial beneficial insects. Worms are one of corn’s most cumbersome pests, so you’ll probably want to go heavy on the borage planting.
While borage keeps worms away, it also draws in pollinators with its dainty blue flowers. Combined with corn, the two plants will make bees and their friends buzz around your garden.
Cucumbers are an alternative plant for the Three Sisters method and attract pollinators.
If beans aren’t your thing, you can use cucumbers as one of the members of the Three Sisters. They can climb up corn stalks (but may require additional support), or you can train them to grow out to act as a ground cover to replace squash.
Cucumbers are always covered in bees when I grow them, so you’ll definitely want to grow these by your corn to make sure everything gets pollinated. They thrive with as much sunlight as you can provide, but they won’t mind being partially shaded by corn stalks, although you may see a decrease in fruit production.
Grow dill near corn for pest control as it attracts beneficial insects to tackle earworms, cutworms, and aphids.
I absolutely love dill, so I’ll recommend you grow it by almost everything! My personal bias aside, it really is a great herb to grow with corn. Earworms, cutworms, and aphids often gobble up corn. Fortunately, dill attracts beneficial insects that prey on those pests, such as parasitic wasps that go after caterpillars and ladybugs that eat aphids.
Dill has a long taproot that may compete with corn roots, so it’s best when placed on the ends of corn rows or with at least 1 foot of space between the corn and dill. Since the mutual benefits are about pest control rather than nutrients, it’s not detrimental for you to grow these in close quarters. They’ll benefit each other if they’re in the same vicinity.
Plant lettuce near corn to benefit from moisture and shade, and harvest it as needed.
Lettuce is an easy-going crop that will work well next to corn. The shallow roots won’t interfere with corn roots, but they’ll benefit from the moisture and nutrients the corn draws up from deep within the soil. Feel free to get your plants a little cozy, especially if your corn is already established when you add in lettuce.
Corn will cast shade over your lettuce, which will allow you to grow lettuce a little longer into the hot summer months. Since lettuce can be eaten at any stage, you can harvest it as soon as needed if it grows too close to your corn.
Marigolds repel pests, including beetles and root-knot nematodes, and their shallow roots make them easy to grow near corn.
Marigolds are a pest-fighting staple in many gardens. They’re believed to repel several pests like beetles, squash bugs, and hornworms. They also keep away root-knot nematodes which can be detrimental to any plant in the garden.
Because of their shallow roots and compact size, you can grow marigolds virtually anywhere without causing too many problems. It shouldn’t be an issue if they grow close to your corn.
Melons work well as a squash alternative in the Three Sisters, providing ground cover and fruit.
Melons make a great alternative to squash in the Three Sisters combination. They like as much water as you can give them, as does corn, so your watering schedule won’t be a balancing act.
Their large vines and leaves will act as a ground cover that will protect corn and bean roots, prevent erosion, keep the soil moist, and prevent weeds from popping up. Not to mention, you get fruit out of the deal, too!
If you use melons as a “sister,” try to keep the vines on the ground rather than the corn. Ideally, beans or peas will trellis up the corn. Melons may be a little too heavy once they start producing fruit. Plus, the plants will be easier to manage if you can easily access the fruit.
Plant mint in containers near corn to deter deer and suppress weeds, but be cautious of its aggressive growth.
Does anything grow more vigorously than mint? You may not want to plant it in the ground with the corn, but you’ll certainly want it in containers nearby. Deer love to nibble on corn, and they hate the smell of mint. You can keep your corn crops to yourself if you leave mint nearby.
Mint will develop a thick mat that will suppress weeds and pretty much anything else. If you plant it in-ground near established corn, it shouldn’t be a problem as long as you keep it in check, but it will likely suppress young corn seedlings if it’s too close.
Mint has shallow roots, so aside from downright aggressive growth habits, it shouldn’t interfere with corn too much. You’ll definitely need to keep it pruned if you want it in the ground, though.
Nasturtium attracts pollinators to benefit corn and acts as a trap crop for aphids.
Nasturtium will bring a bright pop of color to your vegetable garden, attracting pollinators of all kinds that will benefit your corn. This flower also functions well as a trap crop for aphids. Plant it far enough away from the corn that the aphids can’t easily travel between the two but close enough that the aphids will find it. Let the aphids feast on the plant instead of your corn.
Nasturtium needs about 1 inch of water per week, so they’ll be happy if you keep the same watering schedule as you do with corn.
Peas are nitrogen-fixing legumes that climb corn and provide shade during hot weather.
Peas are the best alternative to beans in the Three Sisters method since they do the same thing. Peas are also nitrogen-fixing legumes that will give your corn a much-needed boost. They’ll climb the corn and will appreciate the afternoon shade the corn gives them as the weather heats up.
Since peas are a spring plant and corn isn’t planted until after the last frost, you’ll likely need to trellis your peas beforehand. Once it’s corn season, you can plant the corn right next to the peas. The nitrogen boost will help them grow quickly, and the peas will wrap around the corn as everything grows.
You’ll need to pull out the peas before the corn’s ready to harvest, but you can dual-crop by leaving the pea roots in the ground and popping beans in to start the cycle anew!
Corn shades potatoes during hot summer, protecting them from heat.
Corn and potatoes are a great combination on the dinner table, but they also work well together in the soil. Many say that corn enhances the flavor of potatoes, but the real benefit comes from the shade it provides.
Potatoes like full sun in the spring, but once summer arrives, they often can’t take the heat. Planting your corn in a row on the south side of your garden and your potatoes north of the corn will give them the shade they need to stay cool and finish developing. If you go this route, make sure your corn is only shading potatoes and other plants that need shade rather than the sun-loving plants in your garden.
Pumpkins suppress weeds and protect the roots of your plants.
Pumpkins are another option for the Three Sisters in place of other types of squash. Make sure you have plenty of room for these since everything about the plant is huge unless you choose a small variety. The leaves are large, the vines are long, and the fruit can be giant. You won’t want these crawling up your corn!
Like other ground-level Three Sisters plants, pumpkins will do an excellent job at suppressing weeds, maintaining moisture, and protecting roots from erosion. You will need to fertilize these throughout the season (along with your corn) as both can be heavy feeders, but the beans’ roots will eventually release nitrogen into the soil as they decompose, so the soil will be ready for the next season of growth.
Spinach benefits from corn’s shade. Plant them together to prevent bolting, and they share similar watering needs.
Like lettuce, spinach will enjoy the shade cast by the corn. You can help stave off bolting in early summer by planting spinach at the base of corn or alternating rows with it. Plant corn in your spinach beds once the threat of frost is gone.
These leafy greens like as much water as corn seedlings, so they’ll get along well in the same garden bed. When the summer heats up too much for the spinach, you can pop another heat-resistant crop in its place!
Plant corn and sunflowers together for pollinator benefits or rotate them yearly to improve soil nutrients.
You might think corn and sunflowers won’t play nice together since they’re both tall with deep root systems, but you’d be surprised at how well they can coexist in the same quarters.
There are several ways to approach the corn and sunflower combo, but the simplest method is to plant them together in alternating rows. It may sound counterproductive, but the deep taproots go straight down and won’t tangle up too much.
The sunflowers will draw in a plethora of pollinators while also providing support and a windbreak for the corn. You can easily adapt this method to the Three Sisters—beans and squash also get along with sunflowers, and everyone gets a pollinator boost!
You can also go the route of farmers and rotate corn and sunflower crops. Have a corn bed and a sunflower bed right next to each other and alternate them each year.
The roots will dig deep into the soil, pulling nutrients and water upward. Next year, the other crop growing in its place will have pre-dug channels to snake its roots through, allowing them to grow faster and deeper and get even more nutrients.
Plant thyme near corn to repel corn earworms.
Thyme is an important plant to keep near corn since it repels the dreaded corn earworm. Earworms are aptly named since they’ll devour your ears of corn, so you certainly don’t want them around. Luckily, they hate thyme and often stay out of the area if you plant it nearby.
Thyme is drought-tolerant and doesn’t need as much water as corn, so it will be happier as a container plant. You can also plant it on the ends of corn rows if those areas are a little drier than the insides of rows.
Try white clover as a nitrogen-adding living mulch between corn rows.
Maybe the Three Sisters method isn’t your cup of tea, but you’d like to enjoy the benefits of nature-made nitrogen. If that’s the case, try white clover. Though it’s growing in popularity as an alternative lawn, it will work well between corn rows as a living mulch. This grass-like plant is a legume that will add nitrogen to your soil and suppress weeds.
The clover can grow around your corn since the shallow roots won’t cause problems. If you plant corn in an existing clover patch, you’ll want to clear out a small area for the seed so it can have room to grow. As long as it isn’t choking out the seedlings, you won’t need to worry about them being close together.
Winter squash varieties like acorn, butternut, and spaghetti are ideal for the Three Sisters method.
Winter squash is the kind of squash that works well in the Three Sisters method. There are several kinds of winter squashes, such as acorn, butternut, delicata, and spaghetti. Though it’s called winter squash, you’ll need to plant it about the same time as corn so it can have a long summer to develop and be harvested in the fall.
Large squash leaves protect tender roots and prevent weeds from popping up between plants. The roots will prevent erosion and water runoff, keeping your plants happy and healthy.
You can easily tie corn into the rest of your garden by planting it with trusted companions that will give and take and make it part of your backyard ecosystem. No need to dedicate half of your yard to one crop!