Growing coffee plants in Southern California

Just attended a fascinating presentation by Ramiro Lobo, farm advisor in San Diego County with the University of California Cooperative Extension, about growing coffee in Southern California. The short of it is that there are a bunch of reasons to try it — even if you don’t drink coffee.

Seedlings of the Typica variety given to me by Ramiro Lobo

Seedlings of the Typica variety given to me by Ramiro Lobo

It’s a pretty plant, with glossy green leaves, white and fragrant flowers, and red (usually) fruit. It grows very well in shade; in fact, at my house it refuses to grow well in even half a day’s sun. And it can be grown in a pot indoors.

Here are some photos of a coffee bush located in San Diego’s Balboa Park that I wrote about last summer. (Click here to read that post.) It’s proof that one can grow a healthy coffee plant outdoors in Southern California.

The bush is about head high and growing in the shade of a tree.

The bush is about head high and growing in the shade of a tree.

Loaded with cherries, many of which are ripe for picking here in late July.

Loaded with cherries, many of which are ripe for picking here in late July.

Bloom about to open.

Bloom about to open.

A few tips from Ramiro Lobo on how to have success growing coffee:

  1. They like high humidity, so if you don’t live close to the ocean they will appreciate being among, even under, other plants.
  2. They will also appreciate growing among, even under, other plants because they enjoy shade. In coffee-producing areas of the world, it is often said that coffee likes about 50% shade.
  3. They like being watered from above, having their leaves washed off.
  4. They will be damaged by freezing temperatures. Choose the appropriate micro-climate of your yard or grow indoors.
  5. Use a slightly acidic mix if growing in a pot. A fairly large plant can be sustained in a 15-gallon pot.

Incidentally, a friend at the meeting showed me photos of her 13-year old coffee bush growing in a 15-gallon pot. It had been planted as a seed collected from Panama by her son. The bush is now gorgeous and productive, and she said that these days she mostly chews on the cherries and spits the beans out under the bush so they can germinate; she gives the new plants that grow from those beans to friends. Once, however, she did process the coffee cherries into dried beans to roast. It was quite a process, she said — such a process that she hasn’t bothered doing it again.

But how many people are lucky enough to have grown and processed and roasted their own coffee? Maybe a few more in the future if Ramiro Lobo can help it.

Coffee plant at San Diego’s Balboa Park

The bush is about head high and growing in the shade of a tree.

The bush is about head high and growing in the shade of a tree.

Loaded with cherries, many of which are ripe for picking here in late July.

It’s loaded with cherries, many of which are ripe for picking now in late July.

Bloom about to open.

New bloom about to open.

For a number of years, I’ve been watching this coffee bush mature in the Trees for Health garden in  San Diego’s Balboa Park. I used to live down the street from it. Lately, it has begun looking healthier than ever, with only a tiny bit of tip burn on a few leaves, innumerable cherries, and an optimistic bloom setting up here in late July 2015.

Even if I wasn’t interested in roasting the beans to make a coffee drink, and even if I didn’t like the taste of the coffee cherries (whose pulp is sweet and very much earns the right to be called a cherry), I’d appreciate the mere beauty of the plant.

Thus far, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to grow a couple coffee bushes in my yard. One mistake I’ve made is placing the plant in too much sun. The plant’s foliage scorched. Another mistake I’ve made is placing the plant in a place where too much cold air collects on winter mornings. The occasional frosts we get are not friendly to coffee bushes.

Seeing the coffee bush at Balboa Park yesterday has renewed my desire to find the right conditions in my yard for a plant of my own, and this time I’m going to try under the banana plants against the house’s south-facing wall.