Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Survival Plant Profile: Coffee

Homegrown coffee cherries.

What does COFFEE have to do with survival?

If you're asking that question, you must be one of those strange and rare creatures that live their lives in a state of drug-free serenity.

Perhaps you sleep in late, eat only vegetables, and spend hours watching a fishtank in your condo.

For those of us addicted to caffeine, coffee (or tea) isn't just a plant. It's a need. A burning need combined with pleasure.

The smell of roasted grounds... the hiss and trickle of a percolator... the first hit of the day...

These things will make the oncoming Econopocalypse almost bearable.

I mean, honestly: who wants to face a horde of the undead or fight with AI-equipped death-dealing homing drones without a cup o' joe in the morning?

Not I.

Coffee, unfortunately for those of us dwelling in non-tropical climes, is a completely tropical plant. It likes somewhat cool temperatures though cannot stand the frost.

Fortunately, there are ways to grow it outside of its natural range. Growing coffee in Florida is easier than in most states.

Thanks to its ability to grow as an understory plant, coffee can be successfully cultivated indoors and in sheltered locations through the cold of winter.

My mother plant. It's about 2-3' taller now than in this picture.

If you live in South Florida, you can pop some coffee plants into your yard and they'll grow without much care; up in my neck of the woods, however, they're best grown in pots or against the south wall of your house as I've started to do in my Miami Garden.

I've been growing a coffee tree in a large pot for about four years now and it's paying off. During the freezes I keep it in my greenhouse. During the spring, summer and fall, it resides in a shady spot outdoors, happily blooming every spring and producing coffee cherries in the fall and winter.

Though I've been told that "good" coffee only comes from the mountains, I'm not all that concerned. If shipping lines fail, I will happily enjoy my locally grown coffee.

Right now, however, all the beans are being used to grow new coffee plants.

A word on those "beans": they're not really beans. They're the seeds inside a small fruit called a "coffee cherry." Coffee cherries taste a lot like sweet red bell peppers with a bit of spice to them.

Not bad at all. Just spit out the seeds, then roast and grind them.

Coffee trees take a little bit of time to propagate.

Last year I started a couple dozen of them and sold them in my plant nursery, though the time involved was a bit silly.

Here's why germinating coffee seeds is a little tough:

1. You need fresh seeds

I've bought coffee seeds through the mail and tried to germinate them. They all failed. If the seeds are more than a few weeks - or maybe months - old, they won't come up. Roasted beans from the store are obviously not going to work, so finding green, non-aged seeds is the first thing you need to do to get started. I paid $30 for my mother coffee tree and then waited a year for seeds so I could get started on my future plantation.

2. It takes time for coffee to germinate

Coffee beans usually take a couple of months to germinate. Even then, the germination is uneven and hasn't been that high. Maybe 50%. Bottom heat helps. I've had them come up in a month with a heating pad (like this one) beneath my seed trays. You need to keep them moist during this time. I put the seed trays on a large oven sheet with a little water in the bottom so they don't dry out. That works well for me.

3. It takes time for coffee to grow

From germination, it takes 2-3 years for your new coffee tree to start blooming. Fortunately, coffee is self-pollinating so you'll be able to get beans off a tree without its needing a mate. The plants I sold last year were mostly about 6 months old and 6-8" tall. They grow moderately quickly if you keep them in acidic soil and supplied with nitrogen. I feed mine with rabbit manure and coffee grounds. Blood meal is another good choice.

Coffee takes well to growing in a pot and can actually be grown as a houseplant year-round. The leaves are attractive, the blooms are lovely and the fruit is a fascinating conversation piece.

Back in the day, David The Good was a cartoonist. And coffee junkie.

To roast your own beans, go hit up YouTube. There are plenty of ways to do it at home. I can't spare any right now due to my need to grow them for my nursery, though one day I'll finally have enough to spare. (Call this post a "preliminary" survival plant profile. I can grow coffee well at this point but I haven't actually processed it out yet... when I do, I will update this pot.)

What I can tell you on cultivation: it's hard to kill coffee. If you move it into full sun, it will burn the leaves and make it unhappy. If it goes without water for too long, it will wilt but usually recovers rapidly when water is reapplied. Just keep it fed and watered and it will reward you with plenty of rich, glossy leaves and abundant blooms and fruit.

According to my non-scientific estimates, a serious coffee drinker will require about 25 bushes to stay caffeinated through a year. An occasional coffee drinker will only need a few. They bear more and more every year and can grow into a decent-sized tree under good conditions.

I met a man at the Kanapaha plant show this year that grows a small plantation of coffee trees in his yard somewhere around Gainesville. They're brought in during freezes but he told me he's had great success with fruiting and production. (If you're the guy I met and you're reading this, drop me an e-mail - I want to see your place!)

If you're not growing coffee, give it a try. It's a lot of fun, even if you're not an addict. If you are, it's a necessity - unless you're willing to switch to Yaupon tea.


3 Spuds

Name: Coffee
Latin Name: Coffea arabica/canephora
Type: Tree
Size: Can grow to over 30' under ideal conditions. Usually much smaller.
Nitrogen Fixer: No
Medicinal: Yes
Cold-hardy: No
Exposure: Part to full shade
Part Used: Seeds
Propagation: Cuttings under mist, seeds
Taste: Excellent
Method of preparation: Roast, grind and consume
Storability: High
Ease of growing: Moderate
Nutrition: Good - high in antioxidants and POWER
Recognizability: Low
Availability: Low




At April 7, 2015 at 7:41 AM , Blogger dfr2010 said...

"a serious coffee drinker will require about 25 bushes to stay caffeinated through a year"

Between hubby and me, that would mean 50 plants at minimum.

At April 7, 2015 at 8:58 AM , Blogger David The Good said...

If you created an indoor plantation, it would also provide you with lots and lots of oxygen.

At April 7, 2015 at 10:29 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I've toyed with the idea of growing them in the ground in my greenhouse. One of my garden club members does just that here in NW FL. Don't remember how old his plants are though. Good to know they do well in containers! How much do you sell seedlings for?

At April 7, 2015 at 11:07 AM , Blogger Arisia said...

You forgot to tell us about the wonderful scent that coffee flowers have. The idea of an indoor plantation with all that perfume has me very interested in trying that out in S.C. I wonder what health benefits coffee flower aromatherapy has. Just think of a WOFATI house with an indoor coffee plantation! Now I just need to find out how to get it built. Are there people that are willing to come and build a WOFATI house for you?

At April 7, 2015 at 5:47 PM , Anonymous Athor Pel said...

You are going to have so much fun picking and processing those cherries. I say this with only mild sarcasm because there are many ways to go about the de-pulping and drying and all of them affect the coffee flavor in different ways. Significant ways sometimes.

Not to mention the roasting. Not only do different degrees of roast, dark to light, change the flavor but the temperature profile of the roast will as well. Think of a time versus temperature chart, as the roast progresses the temperature should normally be changed because the chemistry of the roasting bean is changing.

Oooh I just had an idea for an experiment. Fertilize groups of plants differently to see how that affects the flavor of the resultant coffee.

Flavor is all about the terroir.

At April 7, 2015 at 9:15 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

Yes. I have actually read that with proper nutrient balancing, you can mimic the flavor of mountain-grown high-end beans.

At April 7, 2015 at 9:15 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

You're right - should have mentioned it.

At April 7, 2015 at 9:15 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

I'd come help you build a house. I like you.

At April 7, 2015 at 9:16 PM , Blogger David The Good said...

My seedlings are $6 each, once they're big enough to pot up into 1-gal pots.

At April 8, 2015 at 11:20 AM , Blogger Arisia said...

Wow, I think I will take you up on that. :) Especially if you do the decorating. Not only could you bring a bunch of coffee seedlings, but you could paint murals on the walls. Maybe we could have another TFC get-together, only a camp-out and build-a-house this time, instead of a Dragon Con. If we do it in October, we could take a trip over to the Story Tellers event. You've got my head spinning with ideas!

At April 8, 2015 at 6:12 PM , Anonymous Robbie said...

Hey there. I just bought my bananas from you today. I am interested in these topics. I found Yaupon Holly all in my yard and made my first batch of tea from it. I got pretty good caffien buzz off of 8-10 leaves! Brewed it like coffee. I would love it if you could jump in on our FB group anytime you want! https://www.facebook.com/groups/FloridaFoodForests/ Take care!!

At April 8, 2015 at 9:23 PM , Anonymous David The Good said...

Thanks for picking up the bananas. Yes - yaupon is great. Unfortunately, I'm not on Facebook or I'd definitely join up. That's up my alley as well.


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