Sugarcane by David Y. Goodman
here’s nothing like whittling off a hunk of sugarcane stem with your pocketknife and enjoying that sweet juice on a hot day. I remember a friend bringing over a cane to share when I was a boy. It was like magic tasting this big hunk of bamboo-like grass filled with amazing flavor. People have this idea that sugarcane is something that requires yearround tropical weather and a big old swamp. Fortunately, that idea is wrong. You can grow sugarcane successfully all the way up into Georgia, swamp or no swamp. Other than its delicious flavor, sugarcane is also attractive as an ornamental. Depending on the variety, the thick canes can range in color from dark red-browns to yellow-green and have a very similar appearance to bamboo in the landscape. Since it’s a perennial plant, once you plant sugarcane you can look forward to having it for years. The hardest part about growing sugarcane might be finding the plants in the first place. I’ve never seen it for sale at a plant nursery. Ask for sugarcane and you’re likely to get a blank look and the question “does that even grow here?” It’s okay that they don’t have any; you really don’t need to buy a potted sugarcane plant. All you need is a good hunk of sugarcane with a couple of intact nodes (those are the joints in the cane). Since sugarcane is usually harvested in the fall, that’s the time you’re likely to see the canes for sale. Most grocery stores don’t carry sugarcane, but a lot of farm stands do. I
drove down 441 one afternoon a few years ago and bought two different varieties of sugarcane from two different produce vendors located only a few miles apart. Grab a couple of stout canes (they’re usually five to six feet long with about eight to 12 nodes, depending on the cultivar) and you’re well on your way. When you get home, cut your canes into segments with at least three nodes each, pick a good spot to plant them, then put those pieces on their sides about four to six inches down and cover them up well.
Planting sugarcane This is the second hardest part about growing sugarcane: waiting for them to pop up. All winter, those pieces will sit down there in the ground until the soil warms up in the spring. You’ll think they’re dead … you’ll forget about them … you’ll start building a gazebo in the spot where they were buried … you’ll get married and give up on the gazebo … start a family … launch an online business … buy a bass boat … sell a bass boat … invest
Sugarcane, six months later in a condo development … discover your spouse is a werewolf … and then, one day, you’ll be in the backyard, see the sugarcane poking out of the ground amidst the rotted pieces of that gazebo you never finished and be like “What the heck? Is this bamboo?” Actually, that was a slight exaggeration … it doesn’t take that long. When I plant sugarcane in November, the plants always pop up sometime in March or April. For each cane you bury, you’ll usually get a couple of good shoots emerging from the ground. If you really don’t want to trust the earth to take care of your little baby sugarcane plants, you can just stick some chunks of cane in pots with a node or two beneath the dirt and keep them someplace that doesn’t freeze, like a sunroom. They’ll grow. When my baby sugarcane plants appear in the spring—and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to freeze again—I fertilize them with chicken manure. You can also use lawn fertilizer. (They’re a grass—they like lots of nitrogen.) Throughout the summer they’ll get nice and tall and sometime in July or August you’ll really see the canes starting to thicken up, but don’t chop them yet (unless you really can’t stand to wait). Wait until it’s just about time for the first frost of fall or winter, then go cut the canes down – that way you’ll get the largest harvest possible. If you don’t cut them down and you get a freeze, you’re going to lose all the aboveground growth and you may even lose the plants. Harvest by
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Natural Awakenings Magazine, September 2013 issue.