It’s sugar cane harvesting season here at Econopocalypse Ranch. For the last few days, we’ve had pots of juice boiling away on the stove and the air is thick with the sweet grassy aroma of cooking cane. I’ve loved this plant for a long time, ever since a friend brought 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 year-round tropical weather and a big old swamp. Fortunately, that idea is wrong. You can grow sugarcane successfully up through much of the south, 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.
Finding Planting Material
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 some farm stands and ethnic groceries do. I drove down a rural highway 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 5-6’ long with about 8-12 nodes, depending on the cultivar) and you’re well on your way.
Sugar Cane Cultivation
When you get home from your cane-finding expedition, cut your canes into segments with at least 3-4 nodes each, pick a good spot to plant them, then put those pieces on their sides about 4-6” down and cover them up well.
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… move away to Los Vegas… start a family… launch an online business… buy a bass boat… sell a bass boat… visit Area 51 and have your camera confiscated after you photograph something interesting… invest in a condo development… file for bankruptcy… discover your spouse is a werewolf… get moved back to your old house in a bizarre failure of the Lycanthropic Witness Protection Program… 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 Florida during November, the plants always pop up for me 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 above ground growth and you may even lose the plants. Harvest by cutting the canes down close to the ground, and then put the sugarcane roots to bed for the winter by mulching over them with some rough material. Leaves are good for this, but probably any mulch would work fine. My sugarcane came back even when I barely mulched over the roots.
In its second year, sugarcane will bunch out and give you quite a few more canes than it did the first year, which means you’ll have plenty to use. Which raises the question… how?
Using Sugar Cane
My children’s favorite use for sugar cane is chewing it. They couldn’t care less about other uses; however, there’s only so much you can chew before you’re ready to do something else with it. The main use for the world’s supply of sugar cane is – of course – making sugar. This isn’t all that easy to do at home, however, so most small cane growers use the cane to make cane syrup instead. The very best way to do this is to use a cane press to crush the sugary juice from your harvest. (If anyone figures out how to make a good press at home, let me know.) After extracting the juice, you then boil it down until it thickens, much like making maple syrup. (If you don’t have a way to extract the juice, I created a full write-up on how I make cane syrup without a sugar cane press.
Cane syrup is basically molasses. It’s a thick, sweet, rich-flavored sweetener that tastes much better than straight white sugar. Try some – you’ll be impressed.
Beyond making sugar or syrup, sugar cane’s second best use is the production of rum. This may or may not be legal where you are, but it’s a pretty easy process provided you have a still of some sort.
1. Get some cane juice
2. Ferment it with yeast
3. Run the resulting alcohol-rich solution through a still
4. Age the resulting liquor in an oak cask for at least a year
Alternately, you can simply age the rum in a glass carboy along with a good helping of oak chips. This adds complexity to the rum’s flavor as well as giving it a nice caramel color.
Finally… whatever you end up doing with your sugar cane crop, I can guarantee you this: you’ll love this plant.
It’s sweet and attractive – what more do you need to know?
For more information on survival gardening, check out this article.