Coffee lovers know that the best coffee experience comes down to freshness. No matter what kind of coffee you prefer, if it isn’t fresh, it isn’t going to taste good. With that in mind, it seems nothing could create a fresher coffee experience than growing coffee at home, right? What does it take to grow, harvest, and process your own coffee beans? Is it even possible? Let’s take a look.
Arabica Plants – Wild and Farmed
We’ve learned that arabica coffee plants produce the best-tasting coffee.
We’ve also learned that coffee only grows wild and is cultivated on farms in a narrow band of regions around the center of the earth called the coffee belt. These areas are warm, humid, and tropical. Very often the best coffee-growing areas are also at high altitudes with rocky, volcanic soil.
Generally, if you picture a lush, green, mountainside rain forest when you think of coffee plantations, you are on the right track.
Since coffee plants thrive best in rain-forest-like conditions, and since most of us don’t live in a rain forest, it seems strange to think of coffee plants surviving in areas with frost and snow.
But with proper care and attention, they can do just that.
Coffee Plants as House Plants
Surprisingly enough, arabica coffee trees make great houseplants. Here’s why:
- Coffee plants are evergreen, meaning they never drop their beautiful, glossy leaves; they stay full, lush, vibrant and attractive throughout the entire year.
- They require ample light but do not need direct sunlight, making them ideal for bright interior rooms, sun rooms, lanais, enclosed porches, and covered patios.
- Arabica coffee plants, unlike robusta plants, are self-pollinating, so they can produce flowers and fruit even when kept inside.
- It is easy to control the size of a coffee tree through annual pruning and by use of a slightly-restrictive growing container.
- Coffee plants are great air purifiers and will improve the quality of the air in your home when kept indoors.
Where to Find a Coffee Plant
Despite their origins in tropical regions, coffee plants are surprisingly easy to find and acquire.
Once upon a time, you might have had to “luck out” by randomly finding a coffee plant at a sizable nursery or natural-food grocery store, but that’s not the case anymore. These days you can easily find a number of retailers online who sell arabica coffee plants from reputable growers. These coffee plants are carefully packed for transit and then shipped right to your door.
You may also be able to order a coffee plant through a local florist if you prefer not to order one online.
Even if you mail-order a coffee plant, you might want to keep an eye out for them when you’re out shopping, just for the fun of it. You may spot coffee plants at larger plant nurseries or at retailers like Whole Foods or The Fresh Market. Small coffee trees and coffee sprouts growing in cute little pots or coffee mugs are generally sold as novelty plants. They are, not surprisingly, an enticing impulse purchase for coffee drinkers who get a kick out of displaying them in their homes and offices. They also make unique gifts for coffee-loving gardeners.
Sprouting Your Own Coffee Plant
Many gardeners like the satisfaction they get from sprouting seeds themselves. There is an undeniable thrill in watching a seed you nurtured spring to life. In the case of coffee plants, however, germinating from seeds can be a bit of a challenge.
Special Note: Keep in mind that what we commonly refer to as a “coffee bean” is actually the seed of the coffee plant. The term “seed” and “bean” may be used interchangeably throughout the rest of this article but refer to the same thing.
Roasted Coffee Beans
Obviously the coffee beans you buy to make your morning brew will not work to sprout a coffee plant. These beans have been processed, dried, and roasted, so there is no viable “life source” within them to produce a new plant. Do not waste your time trying to sprout these coffee seeds. Just grind them up, brew, and enjoy your beverage.
Raw Coffee Beans
Raw, green coffee beans do have the potential to germinate and become a coffee plant. The success rate of this method, though, is quite low. This is mainly because of the following two factors:
- the reduced viability of the beans due to the post-harvest processing which dries them out; and
- the length of time that passes between the original harvest of the seeds and their replanting — each passing day reduces their viability
If you really want to try growing coffee at home from green coffee beans, do your best to find a local coffee roaster from whom you can purchase a small quantity of the freshest green coffee beans from their most recent delivery.
If you don’t have access to a local coffee roaster, you can order green coffee beans from an online, mail-order supplier. Try to find one with whom you can communicate your intent for the beans — which is to plant them — so that they will, hopefully, ship you the freshest green coffee beans they have available.
Germinating Green Coffee Beans
Once you have acquired the freshest green coffee beans possible, you will want to soak your green coffee beans in room-temperature water for 24 hours before planting them. This will soften the seeds and help “ignite” the germination process.
After soaking the green coffee beans, plant them in loose, wet sand or vermiculite. Keep them damp but well-drained. Then be patient. Green coffee beans can take anywhere from three to six months to sprout.
If the green coffee beans have not sprouted in six months’ time, you likely do not have viable seeds. You will want to try again with fresh green coffee beans.
Or, of course, you may decide that purchasing an already-sprouted coffee plant is a better option at this point if you truly want to be growing coffee at home.
Coffee cherries are the fruit produced by a healthy, mature coffee tree. The fruit of the coffee plant starts out hard and green. It gradually ripens into a softer berry of vibrant red. The color is the reason it’s referred to as a coffee cherry.
If you are fortunate enough to have access to some fully-ripened coffee cherries, then you have the greatest potential for sprouting a coffee plant on your own. An unprocessed coffee cherry contains the freshest, most viable seeds for planting.
Germinating Seeds from Ripe Coffee Cherries
Germinating a coffee seed from a coffee cherry is a simple process. You will want to “pulp” the fruit by gently compressing the ripe coffee cherry between your fingers until the coffee seeds pop out. It is best to do this by hand since using a knife can easily damage the seeds during the extraction process, lowering your chances of successful sprouting.
For best spouting potential, you will want to soak the coffee seeds in room temperature water for about 24 hours before planting.
After the coffee seeds have soaked, plant them in loose, wet sand or vermiculite. Keep them damp but well-drained. Seeds this fresh should sprout within two to three months.
If you still do not have a coffee plant sprouting in four to six months’ time, you will either want to begin the planting process again with more fresh coffee cherries or consider purchasing an already-started coffee plant.
Caring for Your Coffee Plant
Whether you have purchased a coffee plant or have started one yourself from seed, you will need to take proper care of it to ensure it enjoys a long and healthy life.
Since coffee plants are tropical, they do require some specialized attention to grow and thrive outside of their native environment. Caring for a coffee plant is not difficult, but the care does need to be consistent.
Translation: if you are the kind of person who never remembers to water the plants, then a coffee plant will probably not be a good choice for you.
To help you decide if a coffee plant is something you’d like to have and care for, here are the most basic care guidelines. Further in the post we will cover a few specific tasks that will have to be completed until your coffee tree reaches maturity. We’ll also cover what to do if and when your coffee plant flowers and produces fruit.
General Coffee Plant Care
These are the basic tenets of coffee plant care that that should be followed at every stage of your tree’s development:
- Provide lots of light, but avoid direct sunlight which will burn the leaves and kill your coffee plant.
- Water consistently in a well-draining pot so the roots stay hydrated but do not become soggy.
- Maintain a temperate climate of, ideally, 64 – 70 degrees (higher temperatures may mean more-frequent watering).
- Avoid exposure to cold temperatures; frost can kill a coffee plant in as little as ten minutes!
- Provide humidity for your coffee plant by placing its pot atop a pebble-filled tray filled with water; keep the bottom of the pot above the water line to avoid root rot.
- Address any insect problems (such as aphids) immediately, starting with non-toxic remedies such as leaf-washing or pruning out affected areas and using insecticides only if the problem persists.
- Understand that it takes many years for coffee plants to mature enough to produce flowers and fruit, and realize that some indoor coffee plants will never flower or fruit. Enjoy the plant for its beauty and not just for its potential, or you may be disappointed.
- TAKE NECESSARY PRECAUTIONS: With the exception of the ripe coffee fruit and coffee beans, every other part of the coffee plant is toxic to humans and pets, so keep it secured away from curious children and animals.
Special Instructions for Purchased Coffee Plants
Before we get into general care instructions, we first have to address one issue with store-bought coffee plants.
If you start your own plant from a seed, you will have one coffee plant produced by that seed.
If you buy a larger, well-established coffee tree that is a few feet tall, you have acquired one individual coffee tree.
If you buy a coffee plant in a pot that’s only a few inches big, you have actually purchased numerous coffee plants.
This is because newly-sprouted coffee plants are rather “sparse” in appearance. Most people wouldn’t be impressed enough by the looks of a single coffee sprout to buy it. So savvy growers cluster many newly-sprouted coffee plants together to make the pot look fuller and more attractive to their customers.
The good news: this makes your coffee plant purchase quite a bargain since you are, in essence, getting four to six coffee plants for the price of one.
The bad news: none of the individual coffee plants will thrive long-term if they are left clumped together.
So the first order of business with a small, purchased coffee plant is to carefully separate each of the coffee plant sprouts from each other and transplant them into their own individual little pots.
Separating and Re-Potting a Purchased Coffee Plant
Follow these steps as soon as possible after buying your coffee plant to separate the individual coffee seedlings and provide them their own growing space:
- Fully immerse the pot containing the coffee plants in barely-warm water for 24 hours to loosen the soil around the roots (cover only the top of the pot, not the plants themselves).
- Gather together 4″ pots with drainage holes, one for each coffee plant sprout being separated and transplanted.
- Fill the 4″ pots with organic potting soil.
- After the coffee plant pot has soaked overnight, gently “spill” the loosened soil onto a newspaper-protected work surface (cardboard or an old towel will work, too, if you don’t have any newspaper handy; you just want to be able to clean up easily).
- Carefully separate the individual seedlings. Be gentle but don’t worry too much about harming the roots; coffee plants are very hardy.
- Re-plant each seedling in its own 4″ pot.
Coffee Plant Care Through the Years
From this point on, care for your individual coffee seedlings is the same whether you have purchased-and-separated them or sprouted them yourself.
We covered the general guidelines for caring for your coffee plant above (so be sure to stick to those!), but there are also specific steps that need to be taken during different phases of your coffee plant’s growth to keep it healthy.
The following guidelines are broken down to address what action to take during each important stage of your coffee plant’s growth from seedling to maturity.
When your coffee plant is just a little sprout of a thing, it will get all the nutrients it needs from a good-quality organic potting soil.
Keep your tiny coffee plant(s) watered but not soggy. Ensure they remain in a temperate area (not too hot, not too cold), and provide plenty of bright light but not direct sunlight.
If you live in an arid environment, place your coffee plant’s pot on a pebble-filled dish of water, making sure the bottom of the pot sits on the pebbles above the water line. This will provide your coffee plant with necessary humidity without allowing too much moisture into the pot that could cause the roots to rot.
Young Coffee Plant
When your coffee plant reaches a height of about 8″ tall, it is time to move it to a larger pot and provide some added nutrients to keep it growing strong.
Choose a pot between 12″ and 18″ to give the coffee plant’s roots space to spread out and strengthen the tree.
You’ll want to amend your organic potting soil during this transplanting by adding peat moss for drainage and some organic matter (such as bone meal or worm castings).
Once settled in its new, larger pot, your coffee plant should be happy for the next year to year and a half as it goes through its “growth spurt” towards maturity.
During this time it will be important to keep your coffee plant watered (but never water-logged) and well-supplied with nitrogen. Orchid fertilizer contains an abundance of nitrogen and can work well for your coffee plant during this stage. Follow package directions for proper application procedures.
Mature Coffee Plant
Once your coffee tree is between two and three feet tall, it’s roots will once again need more room. So you’ll want to transplant it one final time into a much larger “permanent” home.
If you’re very interested in having your coffee plant produce flowers and fruit, you’re going to want to transplant it into a pot no less than 25 to 27 inches deep. This will allow the development of a root system strong enough to support the tree’s efforts to bloom and create coffee cherries. A half-barrel planter, or any pot of similar size, will be ideal.
If you simply want to enjoy a lush green houseplant and don’t care if your coffee plant sets flowers or fruit, then you may wish to select a somewhat smaller pot of 20 to 24 inches. Combining a slightly-restrictive pot with annual pruning will keep your coffee plant tree a more manageable size.
Regardless of which size pot you select for your mature coffee plant, it will be heavy when filled with dirt. So place the large pot atop a wheeled plant dolly before adding dirt and transplanting your coffee tree into it. This will allow you to move your plant easily when needed without worrying about back strain in the process.
The Producing Coffee Tree
It takes three to five yeas for a coffee plant’s root system to mature and strengthen enough to begin producing flowers and fruit. If growing conditions have been properly maintained during those years to optimize the plant’s health, your coffee tree should begin producing blooms sometime during these years.
You will definitely know it if your coffee tree starts to flower. You will be treated to showy white blossoms with a noticeable jasmine-like fragrance. The flower-blooming phase will last three to four weeks.
As noted, the arabica coffee plant is self-pollinating, so even if your plant is kept indoors exclusively, it can still produce flowers and set fruit. The scented blooms are the first sign that your coffee tree wants to produce the coffee cherries that contain the sought-after coffee beans.
Once the flowers begin to fall off your coffee tree, you will be able to see the start of the coffee fruit or cherries. The developing fruit will at first resemble small green pees or pebbles. And they will seem to take forever to grow and ripen.
It takes about half a year for coffee cherries to mature and turn the deep dark red that indicates they are ready for picking. They will go through a variety of color changes from green to yellow to orange then red.
While half a year may seem a long time to wait, it might help to know that the slower the coffee cherry matures, the better the coffee beans it produces will taste. It is definitely worth the wait!
Once your coffee tree begins producing flowers and fruit, it may still take a few years to get a bumper crop. Fortunately it only takes a handful of beans to produce a single cup of coffee, though, so you should be able to enjoy at least one home-grown cup once your coffee tree starts to yield.
Harvesting the Beans
As the coffee cherries ripen, you will want to pick them once or twice a week. Fully-ripened fruit will come off the coffee tree with a gentle tug.
Once the coffee cherries are picked, you’ll want to pop the beans out of the center by giving the fruit a squeeze. Soak the extracted beans in water for 24 hours, then spread them out on some newspapers or a small stack of brown paper grocery bags to dry. This will take about a week.
Continue the picking, soaking, and drying process until all the coffee cherries have been removed from your coffee tree. It could take up to two months for all the beans to ripen.
Store your dried, raw coffee beans in a cotton or burlap sack or a loosely-covered jar until you’re ready to use them. Mix them up from time to time as well. The beans need adequate air circulation to keep from getting moldy or musty.
Ready to Roast
After you’ve harvested your coffee beans, the next step will be roasting them. We’ll cover that process in the next post.
Growing Coffee at Home
Although coffee plants are native to tropical, mountainous rain forests, we now know that growing coffee at home is both possible and fairly simple. Arabica coffee plants are hardy and make attractive houseplants.
And since coffee trees are self-pollinating, anyone who grows them has the potential to enjoy their own home-grown coffee beans…no matter how far from the equator they live.
Have you grown your own coffee tree, or do you know someone who has? If so, we’d love to hear about the experience in the comments section below.