What would American life be without coffee? In the world of coffee consumption, Americans sip more than a third of the total coffee produced on the entire planet, yet none of it is grown in the continental United States. At least, not commercially.
Yes, there are vast plantations in Hawaii, and there’s an increasing number of growers in southern states like California, Florida and Georgia. But there are success stories of home-growing in northern regions, too, from Minnesota to Vermont. Don’t you think the rest of the states should be trying to grow coffee in their homes and greenhouses, too? If you’re up for the challenge, read on.
Where I live in the Asian tropics, coffee flourishes in our wet, humid climate. If you can approximate that kind of microclimate in your property, with just the right amount of water, temperature and light — especially at wintertime — then with some patience you should be able to grow your own coffee plant, see it flower and actually harvest some fruit.
All About The Coffee Fruit
And don’t think for one second that coffee is only good for its beans, which are the seeds that are processed to make coffee. The fruit – referred to as cherries or berries – is very much edible and is delicious when freshly picked. They are actually far more beneficial than the beans.
Recent studies show that coffee berries are high in “super” antioxidants and plant polyphenols, known for their anti-aging and disease-fighting abilities. Coffee berries’ antioxidant levels surpass even those of green tea, pomegranate, cranberries, blueberries and raspberries. They are reported to neutralize free radicals in the body, regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and treat problems like Type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, depression and even asthma.
There are in fact several companies that have jumped in on this discovery and are now marketing coffee berry as a health supplement, energy drink, and flour that can be used for baking cakes, cookies and granola.
In the cosmetics, spa and dermatology industries, coffee berry powder and extract are now buzzwords because of studies pointing to coffee berry’s anti-wrinkle, moisturizing, collagen- and elastin-boosting properties.
In countries like Bolivia, the skin of coffee berries is sun-dried, lightly toasted and then brewed into a tea mixed with cinnamon sticks. It’s called sultana, which is said to be somewhat sweet and cherry-flavored.
Anatomy Of A Coffee Plant
Although actually a tree, coffee can be grown in containers, pruned regularly and trained to be a 3- to 4-foot tall bush. If left alone, some varieties can grow up to 40 feet. On most plantations, trees are pruned regularly and kept at a manageable height of 6-7 feet for abundant yield and ease of berry picking.
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There are more than 60 varieties of coffee, and the two most widely grown are Arabica and Robusta. Coffea Arabica is less hardy and yields less fruit than Robusta, but it’s higher in quality and has less caffeine – which is what gives coffee its bitter taste. The majority of drinkers prefer this variety. It is the one cultivated in the U.S., mostly in Hawaii where it is grown commercially and is known as Kona coffee. It grows at elevations of 3,000 to 6,000 feet.
Arabica is actually easy to grow, and is considered one of the easiest and hardiest house plants to manage. It is evergreen, with dark glossy green leaves and white, fragrant, jasmine-like flowers that make it a lovely ornamental plant to have indoors.
When berries develop from the blossoms, they start off green and hard but then turn bright red to crimson when ripe, similar to American cherries. They have thick, tough skin and a thin, sticky pulp which is sweet but a bit tart. The variety we have at home, Robusta, reminds me of sweet peppers — taut, red skin and tart, tangy taste. I haven’t tasted fresh Arabica berries yet but I’ve heard them compared to watermelon, rosewater or hibiscus. Other cultivars, I heard, can be so sweet they’ve being likened to papaya, peaches, plum and honey.
Inside the pulp is the green coffee bean, covered by a protective layer called a parchment. Beans come in pairs, facing each other. If you pop a berry into your mouth to chew off the skin and suck on the pulp, the beans easily split into two. In processing, these are extracted from the fruit in a variety of ways: tree-drying, dry processing and wet processing. All involve de-pulping the seeds, de-hulling them of their parchment, washing them and drying. Wet processing takes the longest time and effort, as it involves fermenting the seeds in water for a few days to soften the pulp until it falls off. Final drying can take another 3 to 5 days, depending on the weather if you’re drying it in the sun or open shade.
After processing, the green seeds are either set aside for planting, storing or shipping, or else are roasted and ground for immediate consumption.
Starting From Seed
For planting, you can purchase fresh or recently picked green beans from your local roaster, who buys them in bulk. Online, you can order from popular sellers like The Whatcom Seed Company (which sells tropical seeds) and SweetMarias.com. Pre-germinate your seeds by soaking them in water for 24 hours, then sow them in damp coffee sacks, burlap bags or straw. You can also use moist vermiculite in polythene bags. Germination takes about 2 to 6 months, depending on the freshness of your seeds. Once you see sprouts from the long end of the seed, transfer them to some peat moss or a loamy soil with a high humus content. Rotted cow manure, bone meal and dried blood meal can also be added. If these kinds of soil are hard to find, try a good commercial potting soil that’s porous and lightweight. Plant the seed 1.5 inches into a deep pot, and keep the soil moist but well-drained.
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When the seedlings reach 2-3 feet, move them to their final home — a pot big enough to accommodate deep roots such as a half wine barrel or anything equivalent. Growing and grown plants can tolerate a wider range of soil types, but something slightly acidic (pH6) and high in nitrogen would be perfect. At this stage, you can start pruning off the tips to encourage lateral branching.
From seed, it takes about 3-4 years for a coffee plant to mature, flower and bear fruit.
Or, Just Get A Seedling
If you find the above too much work, the easier route, of course, would be to just purchase a seedling. Three- to four-inch plants are sometimes available at local nurseries. Even Lowe’s and Home Depot sometimes carry them. Seedlings can also be ordered online.
Coffee Plant Care
Coffee trees prefer temperatures between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. They will still survive in the range of 45-85 degrees Fahrenheit, but don’t expect quality growth. Coffee’s worst enemy is frost, so bring your plant in as soon as the weather starts to become chilly in the late fall or early winter. If you live in a cool climate, grow your plant in a huge container that you can easily wheel indoors.
Arabica grows best in filtered sunlight. Outside, you can place your pot under a canopy of trees, sheltered from cold or hot winds. Direct morning or late afternoon sun is OK if it’s not hot. Indoors, an east-facing window would be good so it gets the most of the morning sun. Place a small dish of water beside it to encourage humidity. During cold dark winters, grow lights can do the trick.
Coffee trees love water, but they don’t like being overly saturated. Drench only until the water comes out the bottom of your pot, and sprinkle from the top — much like how rain showers water the forest. Use warm water whenever possible to approximate the warmth of rainforests in the tropics.
Coffee can produce fruit without any fertilizing, but for best results you can use a soluble 10-10-10 fertilizer or an orchid fertilizer. But use sparingly.
Coffee likely can be grown where you live, and you’ll be the envy of your neighbors, who can come over and sip on your very own backyard-grown, home-roasted and freshly brewed coffee.
Do you have any coffee-growing tips? Share them in the section below: