Growing your own coffee at home can have a number of benefits. First is the free coffee angle. A mature plant can produce as much as two to four pounds of coffee per year. Second, are their fragrant flowers. Some say the aroma resembles jasmine. However, not to be dismissed are the health benefits of sharing your home with Coffea Arabica. Each plant converts your exhaled CO2 into about one ounce of oxygen per day. This, in effect, will help to offset your personal carbon footprint! So you can counteract rain forest destruction, improve the air quality in your home, reap the social creds of being green and get a free cup of coffee to boot!
How, then, do you grow that cup of joe? It is as simple as making your home, or at least a part of it, mimic the coffee plant’s normal environment. Which is jungly. Very jungly. Most of the world’s coffee is grown within 25 degrees of the equatorial belt, at altitudes between 1800 to 6300 feet, with temperatures averaging 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and receiving six inches or more of rain per year. They enjoy high humidity, mist and clouds.
Actually, if you just want a nice green plant in your home, and don’t care to become the next Juan Valdez, coffee doesn’t require much in the way of special attention. If you buy a plant online (from $5 to $65 depending on size), or seeds for home germination (see below), keep it watered and keep it warm, you and your big green coffee plant should enjoy many years of photosynthesis together.
However, if it’s beans you want, read further.
- Not just any bean. As many coffee aficionados know, there are basically two main species of coffee cultivated today -- Arabica and Robusta. The Arabica is more flavorful and is used in high-end coffee. Robusta is not as complex in its flavoring and is higher in caffeine. Arabica is only cultivated in higher elevations and is temperamental to grow, while Robusta, like its name, is a more hardy plant and grows at a more diverse range of elevations and temperatures. This being said, choose Arabica. Why go to all the trouble of growing this plant (see below!) for an inferior brew? Also Arabica is self-pollinating while Robusta needs assistance, not something we want to delve into…
- Next, the seed. The coffee bean, pre-roasted and ground, is the coffee seed. Seeds are available for $4-$5 per dozen from a number of online exotic plant purveyors. Another source of seeds could be your local roaster. The green seeds they roast into our daily brew are often still fertile. This is by far a cheaper source for seeds than mail order, but the seeds are not as likely to be fertile as the mail order ones.
- Now what? Soak your seeds overnight in warm water. In about 12-24 hours you should see an embryo emerge. Sow it about ¾ of an inch deep in a well-draining potting mix. Keep it warm and damp. Then wait. It takes about 50 to 60 days for it to develop into a sprout.
- Where to put it. In choosing a container, you can start with a 3”-4” pot and replant as it matures. Eventually you will need something to house an eight to ten foot plant with plenty of room for root growth. In outdoor growing conditions the taproot extends 1-1.5 feet below the surface and the laterals extend 6 feet or so from the trunk. The main thing to keep in mind is that most of the feeder root system, where the plant draws its nutrients, is within the first foot of soil and 2-3 feet from the trunk. Fully accommodating that would take a mighty wide pot. Keeping the plant trimmed to a manageable 4-6 feet in height will reduce the need for such a grand planter.
The soil can be any good, fast-draining commercial potting soil. Place your coffee plant in a south facing window, preferably in diffused or filtered light, and keep the temperature in the 60 to 85 degree range, not allowing it to drop below 45 degrees in the evening.
- What to feed it. Remembering that coffee’s natural environment is an equatorial rain forest with 6” or more of rain per year and a rich loam of decaying plants, you will want to keep it well watered and fed throughout the year. The amount of water will depend on the heat and humidity of the room it is in, so you will have to experiment with this yourself. Water it thoroughly, then wait to re-water until the top of the soil is dry but it is still moist underneath. This may be every day or twice per week. Your plant will let you know. Feed it with any balanced water-soluble fertilizer every other week and backing off to once per month in the winter. Plants have been known to produce beans without fertilizer, but why chance it?
- Voila! Coffee! On coffee plantations it takes about three to four years for a plant to begin producing. First clusters of aromatic flowers will emerge on new growth. About 6-7 weeks after fertilization small green fruit will be visible. In another 30-35 weeks the fruit grows and will change color from green to red. Now it is ripe for picking. Not all of the fruit ripens at once so they need to be picked with discrimination.
- Did you say 3-4 years? What’s the famous tag line, “Your results may differ”? A homegrown plant will take even longer to produce than one grown in its natural habitat -- perhaps as long as six years, and sometimes as long as eight. But won’t it be worth it? And, even if your plant never produces an ounce of caffeine, you will still have that oxygen thing going for you.