San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Growing corn the natural way is easy in home milpa

How lucky we are in Costa Rica when it comes to gardening! In many parts of the country, the climate is so kind there are almost 365 days of gardening a year. Not a day passes without plenty of salad greens from the garden, as well as an abundance of tropical fruits, root crops and corn, called maíz in Spanish. 

Ed Bernhardt

Ed Bernhardt

Most gardeners can plant and harvest corn twice a year. Some gardeners who have adequate irrigation can plant three crops. Our corn crop is now being harvested, and from that harvest we can save seeds and replant in September. Ticos call it la postrera, or the dessert harvest. 

If you have a 5-by-5-meter garden space at home, you can have a corn patch, known here as a milpa. Some agricultural seed stores in the country offer a hybrid sweet corn for the tropics, but it’s not as sweet as the northern varieties. I’ve adapted to the regular local corn that is picked early for elotes or sweet corn. Of course, it’s not that sweet, but it has some advantages. The local corn can be dried and used to make tortillas and corn bread, or to feed the chickens. Local corn is also very hardy and resistant to insects and plant disease. 

Another big advantage of growing your own corn has to do with how commercial corn is grown these days. More than 85 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. in 2009 was genetically modified. Researchers have learned how to splice genetic material from other organisms into the genes of corn and other crops. Although these new genetic combinations have certain advantages in providing plants with more resistance to disease and insects, many people are asking what effects these changes may have on our health and the environment. Many countries in Europe have banned the use of these types of crops until further research shows their long-term effects. Some reports are already indicating a rise in allergies when livestock and humans are fed this type of corn. Although Costa Rica’s government has placed a limit on growing genetically modified crops (for research only), the laws are rarely enforced.

One of the options we have is to start growing more of our own corn or to support farmers who grow organic corn from standard seeds. This type of corn can be grown year after year using the same seed stock, just as people did for generations before the advent of high-tech seeds. Growing your own corn is easy, too, particularly if you plant it like the indigenous people have done for centuries.

First, you clear the planting area of weeds and grasses. You don’t need an expensive rototiller, just a machete, hoe and shovel. Next, dig small holes 15 centimeters deep and about the same diameter across. Place these holes about 1 meter apart in your designated corn patch. It’s best to plant a square “block” of corn to ensure good pollination. Next, fill each hole with aged compost fertilizer and plant three corn seeds in each site. In about five to seven days, the corn will germinate and sprout above the soil. 

About a month later, you can plant some beans and squash in the same area to harvest a diversity of crops. The Indians called this the “three sisters.” At the same time, you can hoe around your corn plants to eliminate weeds and provide support for your growing corn plants. 

In the second month, water your corn, beans and squash with compost tea to make them grow strong and healthy, and in the third month you’ll be enjoying the harvest of young corn, beans and little squash. Food from the garden always tastes so good! 

For more details on how to grow corn in Costa Rica, and how you can obtain organic heirloom corn seeds for your garden, write me at

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