Growing Coffee: A Guide to Cultivating Coffee at Home

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coffee berries

Are you tired of relying on your local coffee shop for your daily caffeine fix? Well, it’s time to break free from the chains of commercial java and embark on an exciting adventure – growing your very own coffee beans! By following these simple steps, you can bring the magic of coffee cultivation to your backyard.

Step 1: Selecting the Right Coffee Variety

Before you can embark on your coffee-growing journey, you need to choose the ideal coffee beans to accompany you on this endeavor. There are two primary options to consider: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans boast a delicate flavor profile, while Robusta beans deliver a bolder, earthier taste. Select the bean variety that aligns with your taste preferences.

The coffee variety we have chosen to grow here is the Arabica. We have found it to be an easy plant to deal with, and planting in a location in the garden that it prefers will give plenty of berries.

Step 2: Finding the Optimal Growing Location

Coffee plants thrive in tropical climates with abundant sunshine and well-drained soil. However, don’t fret if you don’t reside in such an environment. You can still cultivate coffee by opting for potted plants that can be moved indoors during colder seasons. Just remember that coffee plants crave the warmth of the sun, so choose a location that receives plenty of natural light. The berry crop won’t be large but it is still worth the trial.

We live in the wet tropics of Northeast Australia, where it can get hot and wet. We have over 20 plants scattered throughout the garden in all sorts of lighting. We have found the plant looks the best in light shade, but the crop is usually bigger in full sun.

Why have so many coffee trees?

Home-grown coffee can taste good; good enough to want to only drink our own, but that would require us to be self-sufficient in coffee. A few short years ago, it was just an idea we had. But now… we know that you can be self-sufficient in coffee with time and effort, and if you are curious how to get there, we explain it below.

We desire to be self-sufficient in as many things as possible, partly for the challenge, more so for food security, but mainly for the cost of everything going nuts, and becoming self-sufficient in coffee falls neatly into our can-do bucket.

If you can grow it, you don’t have to buy it. That is money saved, or… less money that needs to be earned away from home. This then buys the time to be home growing more coffee, amongst many other things.

Step 3: Nurturing Your Coffee Plants

While coffee plants may not require round-the-clock attention, they will respond to a little care. Ensure that they receive adequate water and apply plenty of mulch. Don’t overwater, as excess moisture can be detrimental. Regular pruning will help maintain their shape and promote fresh growth.

You can fertilize the plant with a balanced fertilizer if you wish, however we have found that plenty of good quality mulch is adequate for our situation.

You can hard prune this plant every few years to make the harvest more reachable. This plant will get 10 feet tall if you let it, and during times of heavy fruiting, the top section can break under the weight, especially in strong winds.

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Step 4: Harvesting the Coffee Berries

The coffee plant will flower and then after several months have berries that are ready for harvest. The coffee fruits don’t ripen all at the same time, with several picks taking place before the harvest is complete.

Ripe and green berries on a coffee tree
There will be several picks on this plant. This image is after 3 picks already.

The crop thins out near the end as the image below shows.

coffee plant in fruit
The fruit ripens in stages. We pick the ripe berries every few days.

We pick the ripe fruit by twisting the berry and lightly pulling. Very ripe berries will drop on touch so be ready.

Step 5: Processing Coffee Beans

This is the process we use as it fits into our workload. Once the beans are picked, we soak them in a suitable container where fermentation can take place.

fermenting coffee berries
The coffee berries will ferment for several days to make flesh removal easy

This will make removal of the fruit flesh easier. All it takes is a squeeze between fingers and the beans pop out. We have found it best to do this under water as the beans are slippery and can fly quite a distance. Once the flesh has been removed, it is time to dry the damp beans.

coffee beans after fermenting to remove fruit flesh
These beans have just had the fruit flesh removed and are ready to dry

This can take a few days in the tropics with the humidity we have here. Once the beans are dry, you have coffee beans with what is called parchment attached. This needs to be removed before roasting… believe me… coffee tastes far better when the parchment is not there.

dry green coffee beans
getting closer to a cup of coffee

To remove the parchment, we use a rolling pin. Place the beans on a tea towel and fold it so the beans are covered. Gently roll over the beans. You will hear cracking as the parchment is broken. We then take the beans and place them in a bowl where we can blow the parchment off the beans.

Once the parchment is removed, you have what is called green beans. These can be stored indefinitely or roasted straight away. We use an old popcorn popper that blows hot air and this does the job. It is not high tech but it works.

roasted home-grown coffee beans
The end product. Roasted home-grown coffee beans.

The roasted beans should be left for a day to settle and then you are good to go. Grind the beans as you would grind store-bought coffee beans and enjoy.

FAQ

How long does Coffee take to give beans?

If you believe the internet, this time frame has been said to be up to six years from seed to fruiting age. Coming from us (someone also on the internet, lol), this article details our experience. Remember the seedlings in the image above? That is this year’s germination.

The image below is last year’s germination. We have them in pots awaiting their final move (hopefully the right one). We try to think things through more these days. Growing plants in the wrong spot is painful.

potted coffee plants
About 12 months old.

And the image below is coffee seeds that germinated from the year before, making them three years old. These three are a part of a larger plant out where we have this lot in one area and another three in another location growing below some papaya trees.

Coffee and papaya get along great because the umbrella-like growth habit of the papaya create great shade for the young coffee plants. Just a quick note on these plants below. We actually picked a half dozen or so coffee beans from them earlier this year. The three below are partially shaded by a passionfruit vine in the summer months.

year three coffee plants
Already flowering and only year three.

To be fair with the internet’s opinions on the time till fruiting age, a coffee plant in the shade will be slower to fruit, as a general rule. Sunny locations tend to speed things up by our observations. Still, six years is a long time.

Is it hard to grow coffee?

As with growing anything, matching your garden conditions to those preferred by coffee will help ensure that growing coffee is not complex.

We have found that coffee is easy to grow; it is semi-drought resistant, will grow in full sun to deep shade, it will self-propagate, and can be ignored once established, generally speaking. This kind of plant suits our yard, or system as we like to call it, so we consider coffee an easy plant to grow. Good soil conditions go a long way to supporting the growth, and the better the soil the less water required.

It must be noted that we have put a lot of time and effort into our soil, so we are likely to be a little more advanced than some. We also get a lot of rain at times so we don’t water often.

So, to expand on why we say coffee is relatively easy to grow, this is our experience with it. Our entire yard is planted with food trees and plants, including coffee plants.

Sometimes, our initial design ideas have proven to not function effectively in the real world, so we continuously monitor and adapt the overall design to maximize the yield.

In one extensive redevelopment zone, we relocated several mature coffee plants from an area that had not performed as well as we would like.

During the moves, we lost two relatively large coffee plants, but the extenuating circumstances were that both were heavy with green berries, and the plants couldn’t cope with the fruit load and move both together.

The soil type was also different and likely increased the shock. We kept the water up to them, to no avail.

We have relocated another six that never blinked, and three even fruited a few months after the move. This information has helped us with how we approach growing our coffee now. It is not as hard as we thought at the beginning.

How to make coffee plant seedling organically.

As mentioned above, we have the yard planted with all sorts of things, and it is now a basic self-replicating system. We have intentionally chosen hardy plants that give a good harvest or yield, ones that actually taste good and we prefer and are primarily perennials.

The coffee tree is one of these plants, and it ticks every box. We can also add that it is self-replicating, meaning that the fruit or berries are a source for viable seeds that will germinate when the soil conditions are right.

dried coffee berries on plant
These are a yellow variety of the arabica. We have both reds and yellows.

Every season, after we have picked the crop, we leave the last few coffee berries on the tree to mature, drop and germinate. This allows us to dig up a few when we need some in a new area we are working on.

self-sown coffee seedlings
Coffee seedlings that self-germinated. How easy is that!

We don’t get to choose the best location for coffee seeds to germinate, though. The image below shows a coffee bean seed that has germinated in the lawn and is one of several. These coffee seedlings will be relocated to pots and will wait for a permanent location to grow undisturbed.

coffee seed germinating in lawn
If conditions are good, they will grow.

Do coffee plants grow in shade or sun?

Coffee will grow in both shade and sunny locations. In the tropics, a tree grown in full sun will tend to grow faster, crop heavier, and seem to suffer burnout from the forced growth. Coffee is really an understory plant, and it does look happier growing in the shade.

coffee growing in shade
Coffee growing in light shade. Smaller crops but happier plants.

If it is deep shade, the coffee will struggle to produce a good-sized crop, but the plant will last longer. The sun-exposed coffee plants tend to give more of a harvest, but they suffer from over-exposure; at least, that is what happens here in our yard.

If they are in full sun, keep the water up to them during the hottest months.

We grow coffee plants in both lighting conditions, and the primary observation to share here is that if you are looking to expand your number of plants and want to have some self-sow, have at least one coffee plant in medium shade and keep it mulched.

One observation we want to share is the coffee beans or seeds that have germinated at the base of mature coffee plants are very slow to grow. They seem to be in a state of slow motion, similar to trees in a rainforest where the young plants wait for a sunlit opportunity presented by a fallen tree. This triggers the race to gain height.

If we utilize this information accordingly, we can store coffee seedlings in the garden for a period of time without any effort. It could be called being lazy by not potting them like the image above, but when time is at a premium, coffee plant care has to be easy.

As long as the soil is covered with mulch and they get the occasional water, they can be ignored.

How much coffee do you get from a coffee plant?

Well, if you force feed the thing with chemical fertilizers, you can get a good-sized crop of beans. The commercial coffee outfits will do this, but as backyard growers, we will only treat our trees with mulch as needed and a bit of compost when we plant them out. This is our compost process.

This means that our coffee bean harvests are not the size of what a commercial farm will get, but we don’t have the time to worry about how many beans we get. If we fall short, we dig up and plant out another seedling.

We can increase the yield by working on the soil conditions, but as we have said elsewhere, time is short. If they get enough water, they will be ok. If they do die, we will replace them with seedlings from the garden.

We estimate that each of our coffee plants will give us about 500grams of beans per year. This is considered a poor harvest (deliberately), and we use this number as a guide for how many trees we need to grow in our system. Our intention is to grow coffee with as little work as possible.

fermented coffee beans
Separating the fruit from the bean.

Is coffee plant care easy or difficult?

As noted above we have found the coffee plants to be very robust and can honestly say that once the plant is established it takes care of itself. Our observations are the coffee plant rarely gets attacked by insects, with just the odd leaf attacked by leaf miner insects.

Leaf miner damage to coffee plant leaf
leaf miner damage to coffee plant

The care required is what we rate as easy, however the further from the coffee plants preferred climate, the more work and input you will need to provide.

Please note that we are in the wet tropics of northeast Australia where our coffee enjoys the climate and rainfall. But having said that, we have found the coffee plant to be reasonably drought tolerant.

Our dry season can be several months long, and very little rain can fall during this time. The coffee plants we have survive ok with little attention; the downside of limited nurturing is a lower harvest of coffee beans.

Will coffee plants survive in a greenhouse?

We have no experience with coffee grown in a greenhouse or similar. Having said that, if we found ourselves in a location where coffee proved difficult to grow in the garden, we are very confident we could plant coffee plants successfully.

The winter temperatures might be an issue in extreme situations, but generally speaking the arabica variety should be fine. We think you will still obtain a crop of coffee beans.

Is it worth growing coffee at home?

If you have the space, this plant is absolutely worth it. I say this only from our perspective. We live in a location where coffee grows well and that is helpful. You may be as fortunate as us. We enjoy the challenge of becoming more self-sufficient in the long term, and while this process does initially take a fair bit of our time, we think it is very much worth it.

Coffee can also be used as a general gardening plant where a couple of coffee plants planted side-by-side can create a good looking vegetation screen to block off other things. We use the coffee plant this way in one area of our yard and it performs admirably obscuring the view of part of the house, all while growing coffee beans.

If you want to investigate this method of designing, the logical question is how high can a coffee plant grow? The information we can share is you can keep them trimmed to whatever height suits your purpose; however, they can get to twelve or more feet high if left alone. Picking the beans can be a challenge though.

To get more plants, keep some seeds and bury them under mulch then water them.

Does home grown coffee taste ok?

Coffee flavor comes down to an individuals tastes and preferences but having said that, we have found our flavor of our coffee to be very acceptable. It is not as strong as many commercial flavors and there are a few reasons why, as far as we know. The reasons the flavor can be different are listed here…

  • The soil type the coffee plant is growing in can have a large impact on flavor.
  • The climate plays a large role in bean production.
  • The altitude has a bearing on the intensity of the flavor, so we are told.
  • The attention that is given to the plant as it grows.
  • How much water the plants get.
  • The kind of fertilizers that are applied, if any.
  • The post-growing processes like roasting vary.

What soil types suit coffee?

Our soil here is slightly acidic and coffee thrives. The wet tropics are well known for soil that is acidic, and many coffee plantations are located in the wettest tropical locations globally. The coffee plant prefers soil types in a pH range of 6 to 7.5 which can be considered broadly average.

If the soil is outside of this range on either side, then amendments should be added to rectify it. We recommend you add compost to the area to move the pH.

The soil should be rich in organic matter and well draining.

What climate is suitable for coffee growing?

The tropical climate is the best, but it is not the only climate that will support coffee. The sub-tropics allow many commercial ventures to successfully harvest good coffee crops. It is safe to say that the coffee plant will grow in most climates if the coldest temps are above freezing.

Does height above sea-level affect coffee quality?

Our information suggests that this is true, but we don’t have any hard evidence to prove either way. We know that we are close to sea-level where we live, and our beans give a subtle flavor that is notably softer than the commercial coffee.

It is still very drinkable, and the softer flavor is a small price to pay for the free beans we harvest. The altitude, or lack of, does not appear to bother the coffee plant at all. We have no idea if the bean quantity differs between locations though.

Do coffee trees need fertilizer?

This is a question that only you as a gardener can answer. If you are not into composting, and applying mulch to your gardens, then you may well need to apply manufactured fertilizers. Regular watering often goes with fertilizers so keep this in mind.

We create our compost on site and apply this to the young tree, and mulch is regularly spread and maintained.

What coffee variety is best for the average gardener?

We have the Arabica variety growing here, and find it easy to work with, it gives a solid harvest without trying to be spectacular, and the taste of the coffee after processing is satisfactory.

We like how easy it is to propagate coffee, and the resilience it shows when neglected. When we undertook our research for a suitable variety, most opinions pointed towards Arabica beans over the Robusta bean, so we went with the consensus with no regrets.

As with most plants grown in our system, the coffee plant has to be foolproof and productive. We have no time for plants that require constant care or special treatments.

The flavor profile differences are a primary reason the Arabica demands a higher price over the Robusta, whose bean flavor is said to be far stronger and less sweet.

Is it possible to be self-sufficient in Coffee in a backyard?

If you approach your yard in a similar fashion to us, and that is through permaculture design, being self-sufficient in coffee is achievable. It will take time, as the images above have shown.

But all things take some time, especially edible garden designs. Hopefully, over the next little while, we will have enough articles to get anyone interested on the right track. We are happy to lead the way and make mistakes for you.

Are we self-sufficient in coffee beans yet?

Not yet, but we expect to be in another two years. Every home will consume a quantity of coffee that only that household can judge, but we are working on a plant per person ratio of 10-1 to give enough beans for one person to enjoy two cups a day for the year. We think the arabica coffee plant deserves our attention.

Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.