Coffee Plant: Home-Brewed Caffeinated Cultivating

Who says that coffee has to be limited to cafes, break rooms, and morning commutes? In this article, we’re introducing a new place to put your caffeine fix – the garden! That’s right, no matter where you live, you can grow your very own coffee plant.

Growing coffee trees is an exciting venture that’s definitely a talking point. Caffeine aside, the plant is so beautiful that it’s often grown ornamentally in landscapes and as a houseplant. It has glossy, dark green leaves and clusters of white, jasmine-scented flowers. The blossoms only stick around for a few days, but are replaced with bright red, grape-like berries.

Unfortunately, one tree probably won’t give you enough coffee beans to brew a pot. However, you can roast them, use them in recipes, and even turn them into coffee ground compost. There’s really no end to the benefits of choosing to grow your own coffee beans.

This post is sponsored by Fast Growing Trees, a quality source for coffee plants and many other species.

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Quick Care Guide

Coffee plant
The coffee plant is surprisingly easy to grow at home. Source: macguys
Common Name(s)Arabian Coffee, Arabica Coffee, Robusta Coffee
Scientific NameCoffea arabica, C. canephora var robusta
Time to HarvestAround 6 months
LightPartial shade outdoors, sunny indoors
Water:Once or twice a week
SoilWell-draining, loamy, and acidic
FertilizerHigh nitrogen; 2+ times during spring and summer
PestsNematodes, mealybugs
DiseasesCoffee leaf rust, coffee cherry disease, bacterial blight

All About Coffee Tree

It may surprise you to hear that coffee beans aren’t beans at all – they’re seeds! They grow inside vivid red berries, which are usually referred to as coffee cherries. The berry itself is edible, but not nearly as valuable as the caffeinated treasure inside.

Coffee plants are referred to as trees but actually grow like shrubs. They bloom in May and June and are ready to harvest from September to March (depending on location). There’s usually only a single harvest per year, but it lasts for 2-3 months.

Coffee trees are native to tropical Africa, where they’re still grown commercially. In the US, it can grow outside in zones 10-11. For colder regions, it thrives quite well as a houseplant. You can even take it on trips outside during the summer.

Not only does the coffee plant keep half the world awake, it provides farming jobs for 100 million people around the world. Coffee is a vital part of Ethiopia’s economy. It also plays a huge role in Latin American and Africa agriculture. In fact, it’s one of the most popular beverages in the world, second only to tea.

Sadly, 60% of coffee species are endangered, including Coffea arabica (the most popular). This is being caused by climate change, deforestation, and the spread of pests and diseases. Some species are possibly already extinct.

Types of Coffee Plants

There are 124 known coffee species, but we only get our daily fix from two: Arabica and Robusta.

Coffea arabica is the most popular and highest quality brew. It’s used in most types of coffee as well as a flavoring for desserts and other drinks. Chances are the can of classic roast in your pantry is Arabica coffee.

Coffea arabica comes from Ethiopia, but has been widely cultivated in Arabia for over 1000 years. It grows up to 20 feet tall, but can be kept around 6 feet for indoor use. This plant is self-pollinating and produces large, elliptical-shaped seeds.

Coffea canephora var. Robusta is like the off-brand version of Arabica. It’s much cheaper but much more bitter. This variety is much easier to grow, so it’s produced for economic purposes. The tree naturally grows up to 40 feet tall and prefers warmer temperatures than Coffea arabica. The small, round seeds require cross-fertilization to grow.

The Robusta coffee bean has almost twice as much caffeine as Arabica. Because caffeine evolved as a defense mechanism against insects, the plant is very pest-resistant. Unfortunately, caffeine is also what makes the bean taste bitter, so that explains why this variety isn’t as popular. It’s often used in instant coffee, espresso, or as a filler in blends.

Planting Coffee

Young coffee tree
A young coffee plant growing in a botanical garden. Source: Voice Of Objective Truth

The best things take work and coffee is no exception. The coffee planting process is detailed but the end result is a beautiful plant.

When To Plant

The growing season for coffee plant is from April through August. We recommend planting seedlings a little before this season so they have time to get settled in. 

Finding coffee plant seedlings or seeds can be hit or miss in stores, so you may need to order online. Give yourself plenty of time to shop before it’s time to plant.

Where To Plant

If you live in the tropics or zones 10-11, feel free to plant this tree outside. Start the seeds indoors and then transplant when they have sturdy roots. Plant starts can go directly in the ground.

Remember that these are large shrubs that take up lots of vertical space. Place them at least 3 feet away from surrounding plants. Choose a spot that’s in part shade for most of the day, especially in the afternoon.

Indoor plants will grow to 4′-6’ tall, so you’ll have to make some room. They’ll love sunrooms but also thrive in sunny windows. In the summer, you can treat your plant to a trip outdoors – in the shade of course!

How To Plant

When you buy coffee plant seedlings, they may come with multiple seedlings in a single container. You’ll have to soak the soil and gently divide the plants. Once they’re separated, plant each one in its own container or spot in the garden. Use fertile, well-draining soil and keep it consistently moist while the seedlings get settled.

Fertilize 3-4 times a year for the first few years of the plant’s life. Each spring, size up the pot if needed. Keep the container size relative to the tree size since too much empty soil will only collect water and drown the roots. You can expect your new coffee plant to start flowering in 3-5 years.

How To Care For Coffee Plant

Coffee flowers and immature berries
Coffee flowers and very immature berries. Source: Crashworks

The taste of coffee is heavily impacted by the conditions the plant is grown in. So, if you want the best quality beans and a vivacious tree, you’ll have to pay special attention to coffee plant care.

Sun and Temperature

When outdoors, coffee plants need partial shade. They can’t handle direct sun and heat, which can burn the leaves. However, indoor plants should be placed by a sunny window. South-facing windows are ideal since they get the most sunlight.

Because these are tropical plants, the temperature needs to be warm but not hot. 60-80°F is ideal. Temperatures below 55°F may result in leaf drop and frost can be fatal. Plant coffee trees where they’ll be protected from cold winds, like on the south side of a wall.

Water and Humidity

Keep the soil consistently moist by watering whenever it starts to dry out. Depending on your location, you’ll likely be watering twice a week. Water significantly less during the winter to boost flowering in the spring.

Avoid overwatering or letting the roots stand in water. It’s easy to tell if the plant needs more water because it wilts and recovers easily. Don’t rely on this method though or you’ll cause unnecessary stress to the plant.

High humidity is absolutely necessary for this tropical tree. This shouldn’t be a problem in tropical or coastal areas. If your plant lives indoors though, keep it away from heating vents, which are extremely drying. To accurately monitor the humidity levels in your house, consider using a hygrometer.

The easiest way to boost the humidity in a dry room is to use a pebble tray. Find a tray or saucer that’s larger than the base of the pot and fill it with rocks. Place the pot on top of it and fill the tray with water just below the rock level. The water will evaporate around the plant, boosting its inner circle of humidity. Just be sure to keep the water below the rocks so the soil doesn’t drink it up.

Soil

Coffee plants are heavy feeders so they require rich, fertile soils. Before planting, feel free to prep the growing medium with organic compost. You also have to ensure that it doesn’t hold onto water. If needed, add some sand or perlite so it’s well-draining yet loamy. Mulch can be added for weed suppression and moisture control.

For best results, the soil needs to be slightly acidic with a pH ranging from 4-7 (6-6.5 ideally). You can raise the acidity slightly by adding sulfur or peat moss. Always check the pH before amending it, which can be done with an at-home soil testing kit.

Fertilizing

Feed your coffee plant at least a few times during the growing season of spring and summer. This tree needs a fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen. Rose and citrus fertilizers are excellent at keeping your coffee plant healthy. You can also fertilize with coffee grounds, since they’re full of the exact nutrients the tree needs!

Coffee is hungry for micronutrients, too. Magnesium, sulfur, iron, zinc, calcium, and boron are all important for plant development. When selecting a fertilizer, opt for one which contains at least small amounts of these as well as the normal NPK.

Pruning

Coffee trees
Coffee trees at a commercial coffee plantation. Source: Coffee Management

Across the world, coffee plants are usually pruned to 6 feet tall or less for easy harvesting. However, keeping the trees that small takes a lot of work. You’ll have to prune at least once a year and definitely more if your tree grows inside.

Coffee plants can be pruned year-round, but the beginning of spring is best so the plant is prepped for the growing season. Don’t be afraid to prune it heavily, as this shrub is pretty durable (don’t prune more than half the tree though).

A good rule of thumb is to prune the secondary and tertiary branches while leaving the primary ones alone. Since this is a shrub, it’s pretty moldable. You can prune the lower branches to encourage tall growth. If bushy-ness is your goal, keep the top trimmed to send more energy to the lower branches.

Propagation

The most popular method of propagation is growing coffee from seed. The key is to get the right type of seed and germinate it correctly. You’ll need to get some fresh, green coffee beans (not roasted). They need to be removed from the coffee fruit and rinsed. Gather some from a friend’s tree or order green seeds online. A number of varieties are available from retail sellers. Ask for seeds that are as fresh as possible. They’re viable for four months, but the likelihood of them germinating decreases the older they are.

Once you’ve acquired your seeds, soak them in water for 24 hours. Then, place them in damp, but drained, sand or vermiculite. Keep the seeds here until they germinate. When those baby plants are poking out, gently remove the germinated seeds and plant them a centimeter deep in fertile, well-draining soil (flat side down). Vigilantly keep it moist until seedlings appear.

If seeds just aren’t your thing, you can grow coffee plants from stem cuttings. The process is pretty standard. Choose a healthy, mature branch that has leaves but not fruit or blooms. Using a sharp knife, make a diagonal cut 4-5 inches from the tip. 

Remove the leaves on the bottom third of the cutting. The nodes you took them from will grow new roots while the remaining leaves up top will collect sunlight. Dip the end of the cutting in rooting hormone to increase its chances of growing.

Plant a little less than a third of the cutting in well-draining soil (peat moss and perlite work great). Give it a good drink and cover the container with a clear dome, like a ziplock bag. Keep the cutting indoors in a warm, sunny area and keep the soil consistently moist. 

As soon as you see growth on the branch, like new leaves, remove the dome. When the roots are established and the cutting is actively growing, you can repot it or even plant it outside. It usually takes 2-3 months for the cutting to turn into a full coffee plant.

Harvesting and Storing Coffee Berries

Coffee cherries ripening
Coffee cherries, gradually ripening on the plant. Source: colleen_taugher

After all the coffee plant care, we’re finally at the most anticipated part – harvesting that delicious coffee. It’s a long process, but an experience true coffee-lovers will appreciate.

Harvesting

You may not get a huge harvest from your coffee plant, especially if it’s growing indoors. The fruitfulness of your plant depends on its precise care and maturity. One plant likely won’t give you enough beans for a whole pot of coffee. You should get enough to roast or even make a dessert such as chocolate-covered espresso beans.

When the cherries are ripe, they’ll turn a vivid, dark red. They don’t fall off the tree, so you’ll have to pick them by hand. Only pick berries from a disease-free plant and start processing as soon as possible so the fruit won’t spoil.

The berry itself is edible and somewhat like a grape. If you want to eat it, remove the seed by cutting open the cherry with a knife. Otherwise, you can extract the seed by soaking the cherry in water overnight and then squishing it out. If you have a large harvest, you can lay the seeds on the concrete and crush them with a board. Now that you have your green seeds, you can plant them to grow coffee again or get them ready to eat.

Storing

Roasting the seeds is a long but rewarding process. The outside of the bean is coated with parenchyma, a soft tissue. To remove it, you’ll have to ferment the beans. Fermentation is when microorganisms, in this case enzymes, break down an organism’s chemical structure. It sounds difficult, but all you have to do is soak the bean in water for 12-48 hours and the enzymes will do the rest. The parenchyma is slimy in texture, so soak those seeds until they feel rough. Discard any seeds that float in the water.

Rinse off the seeds and then set them out to dry in the sun. If you’re going to store the beans instead of roasting them right away, let them dry for several days. Otherwise, just wait until they’re dry to the touch.

The now-dry seeds have an outer, tan, parchment layer which is easily removed by hand. Once that’s done, it’s finally time to roast! Roast them in a pan over medium heat, stirring continuously. When they’re roasted enough to eat, they’ll make a cracking sound. The longer you roast them, the darker they’ll become. If you hear a second crack, remove them from the pan before they become inedible. Once they’re cool, you can grind and brew or just snack away on your homegrown beans!

Store your roasted coffee beans in an airtight container kept somewhere cool and dry. They’ll last for months, but for the best taste, use them within one month. Freezing them in an airtight container will extend that month to 3-6 months of quality (freezing may alter the flavor).

Coffee cherries can be stored long-term by drying them. Spread them on a pan and lay them out in the sun for a few weeks. Make sure to turn then occasionally so they dry evenly. When completely dried, the skin will harden. The skin can be used to make cascara tea.

Troubleshooting

Slight pest damage on coffee plants
Visible signs of pest and disease damage on coffee leaves. Source: shstern

As always, prevention is the most important part of coffee plant care. In this section, we’ll go over the symptoms to watch for and how to handle them.

Growing Problems

Humidity is extremely important when you grow and plant coffee so you’ll need to monitor it closely. If the tips of the leaves turn brown and look like they’re drying out, they most likely need more moisture. Place the container on a rock and water tray or move it away from heating vents. The damage may be permanent so it’s best to keep the room humid in the first place.
If the browning isn’t limited to the leaf tips and shows up in spots, your plant may be sunburned. Immediately move it away from direct sun and heat. Also, check that the plant has enough water as heat will dry it out quickly.

Pests

If you have a Robusta plant, you won’t need to worry much about pests (thank you caffeine!). When it comes to the Coffea arabica houseplant though, you need to be on the lookout for these insects.

Nematodes are one of the most dangerous pests to a coffee plant. These gross worms usually attack the roots, causing root knots. Other symptoms include yellowing leaves, wilting, and decreased fruit production. To prevent nematodes from showing up, clear the ground of old roots before you plant and add organic matter regularly. Remove existing populations by introducing beneficial nematodes to defend your plants.

If you’re growing coffee, you have to be on the lookout for mealybugs. A common pest, these small white insects feed on plant juice and leave behind a cottony residue. The affected plant will wilt, lose color, and eventually die. As if that’s not bad enough, they also attract ants.

Eliminate these buggers by dabbing them with rubbing alcohol. For larger populations, apply insecticidal soap or mycoinsecticide to the coffee plant. Of course, the easiest thing to do is prevent the whole ordeal by not overwatering and applying neem oil. It’s also beneficial to control ant populations since they have a symbiotic relationship with the mealybugs.

Diseases

Coffee leaf rust looks exactly how it sounds. It shows up as rusty-looking spots on the leaves and eventually causes defoliation. This fungus is spread by fungal spores in the wind and rain, so you likely won’t encounter it if you grow indoors. Outdoors, prevent and control it by spraying the tree with copper fungicide. 

If the cherries on your tree have dark, rotting spots, you could be looking at coffee berry disease. This is a fungus that originates in the tree bark and spreads through spores to the berries. It usually causes the berries to drop at the time of infection. Prevent and treat this disease with copper fungicide.

Bacterial blight is brought on by a consistently cold and wet environment. It makes dark, wet spots on the leaves and eventually causes cankers and damages the plant’s vascular system. This disease is fatal to coffee plants. Multiple applications of copper fungicide will usually control bacterial blight.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is coffee a tree or a bush?

A: Technically, it’s a shrub. You can prune and grow coffee plants like a tree or keep them small and bushy.

Q: Do coffee plants smell like coffee?

A: No, that mouthwatering smell comes from roasting the coffee beans. However, the flowers are said to smell like Jasmine!

Q: How long do coffee plants live?

A: They can live for up to 100 years, but are the most productive at 5-20 years old.

Q: Is coffee tree toxic?

A: The fruit is edible, but the rest of the tree is poisonous to humans and animals.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Rachel Garcia
Succulent Fanatic

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

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