We love our sweets, chocolates, and cakes, but too often we take the source of sweetness for granted. So today we get to know sugar cane, the world's number one commercially harvested plant! This grassy plant is at the center of food production and cultural history as well as the dessert table. You can also learn how to grow sugar cane in your home garden. This is as close as possible to growing our own candy.
Around the word, sugar cane is grown for – you guessed it – sugar. This sweet plant is responsible for over 70% of the world's sugar supply (most of the rest comes from sugar beets). In 2017 alone, 1.8 billion tons of commercial sugar cane were produced, 40% of it from Brazil.
In addition to food production, sugar cane is also used in ethanol. This is usually made from corn, but sugar cane has been shown to be twice as effective. After the sugar is used, the rest of the plant is used for paper products or animal feed. This plant has more uses and is even incorporated into biodiesel.
In addition to mass production and alcohol, sugar cane is also a fantastic addition to the home garden. You will find that growing your own sugar is fun, easy, and cute. Plus, the grassy plant fits perfectly into any landscaping!
Good products for growing sugar cane:
Brief instructions for care
Curious how to grow sugar cane? We have all the information! Source: irodman
|Common Name (s)||Sugar cane, sugar cane, feather grass|
|Scientific name||Saccharum officinarum, Saccharum sinense, Saccharum barberi|
|Days to harvest||1 year|
|Water:||Consistently moist, 1-2 ″ per week|
|ground||Well drained, fertile|
|fertilizer||High nitrogen and phosphorus|
|Pests||Sugar cane maggots, bores, aphids, meal bugs, spider mites, termites|
|Diseases||Sugar cane blight, mosaic virus, eye spot|
Everything about sugar cane
It's hard to trace the origin of the sugar cane because it's so old. It is well known that the common Saccharum officinarum cultivar is 4000 BC. Was domesticated in New Guinea. It is believed that other common species such as Saccharum sinense and Saccharum barberi originate from South Asia and India, respectively.
Since then, sugar cane cultivation has slowly found its way around the globe. It reached the Mediterranean Sea and the Caribbean in the 14th century. Today sugar cane is a major export good to many Caribbean islands and South America. In the US, it is mainly made in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii.
What is sugar cane and what does sugar cane look like? The original cane variety may be cute, but they're pretty generic in appearance. However, some hybrids are designed for ornamental horticulture and have beautiful red, purple, or white striped stems.
The thick stems resemble bamboo, thanks to the horizontal joints that are 4 to 10 inches apart. Each joint or knot creates a leaf blade and bud that are protected by a sheath that wraps around the stem. You can find this anatomy in many sugar cane plants, including dumbcane.
The stems will be 2 inches in diameter and shoot upwards. In its natural climate, sugar cane can reach heights of up to 20 feet. Here in the US, your feathergrass will likely only be 5 to 8 feet tall and wide. Because it is a rhizome, each plant produces multiple shoots from which long, thin, and often sharp leaves grow.
As a tropical plant, sugar cane grows year-round in US Zones 9-10. It can be grown annual in colder regions but may need to be started indoors. In the United States, sugar cane is typically planted in late summer, overwintered, and grows for 7-8 months from spring to early fall. Although it takes a long time to ripen, sugar cane grows quite quickly, especially in hot weather.
Do you remember how we said that the sugar cane you grow will be much smaller than the one in the tropics? This is because sugar cane does not stop growing until after it is harvested. In climates unobstructed by winter, it can grow for a few years before harvest. This enables great growth and a remarkable increase in sugar yield.
Planting sugar cane
Young sugar cane sprouts from some weeds. Source: Parhessiasts
If you are lucky enough to live in zones 9-10, you can plant outdoors in late summer through early fall. It will take root through winter and begin growing in spring. With this schedule, you can expect to harvest a year after planting. If you live in a colder area, you can still grow sugar cane. However, you need to keep it indoors during the winter as it is not frost hardy.
When outdoors, choose a location with plenty of sun and fertile soil. Since the plants are large and bushy, they are ideal as wind protection for vegetable gardens. Be aware, however, that the leaves are sharp and can block walkways. This plant is best placed in an area with less traffic.
For cultivation, sugar cane is grown almost exclusively from cuttings. You can order online, buy starts, or take a cut from a friend's garden. We will talk about propagating cuttings in the following section.
Plant your cuttings 6 feet apart in 6 inch furrows. You can just put them on the ground or bury them lightly under it. If you are planting indoors, place each cut in a large container with good drainage.
Sugar cane is a moderately picky plant. You follow some grooming rules for a T while treating others as guidelines. Once you get the hang of it, you'll love watching it grow!
Sun and temperature
Sugar cane is suitable for its native tropical climate and zones 9-10. It thrives in temperatures of 90-100 degrees F and full sun. Around harvest time the ideal temperature drops to around 55 ° F. These temperatures can vary, but the sugar yield will vary with it. Just keep in mind that it is not frost tolerant. Therefore, unless the sugar cane is grown annually, gardeners in cold climates may need space to bring it indoors over the winter.
Water and moisture
Adequate irrigation is vital to having healthy sugar cane. You need to keep the soil evenly moist without drowning the roots.
On average, these plants need 1 to 2 inches of water per week, depending on their temperature. By setting up a drinking tubing system on a water timer that delivers water twice a day, the soil can be constantly hydrated for the needs of the growing sugar cane. Sugar cane also prefers some moisture, but tolerates drier conditions.
Sugar cane will be happy in a variety of soil textures, as long as they hold moisture properly. The soil must drain away so far that no water collects around the roots. However, it also needs to be porous enough that you don't have to water it 20 times a day.
Mulch is an excellent option for grass flags as it keeps moisture in and weeds out. Sugar cane can handle a wide range of pH levels, but 6.0-6.5 is ideal.
A healthy sugar cane field. Source: Zenra
Sugar cane is heavily dependent on nitrogen and phosphorus. How much of these nutrients you give your plants will depend on the amount that is already in the soil (so test the soil at home). In general, when the stalk sprouts, it is okay to apply balanced fertilizer. As the feather grass grows, gradually increase the amount of nitrogen in the fertilizer and apply it every 1-2 months.
After applying, add water to the fertilizer so that the roots can work immediately. Sugar cane can be burned from too much fertilizer. So avoid overdoing it.
If you are growing sugar cane for sucrose, don't worry about pruning. However, if you are using this cute plant as tall decorative grass, you may want to prune it back every now and then. As a grass, sugar cane can get quite stubborn (and prickly!).
Cut back your decorative cane in spring or summer to keep the size small. You can also blunt it in the fall so it will grow small the following spring.
As already mentioned, sugar cane is propagated almost exclusively by cuttings. Because it flowers so rarely, seed propagation is usually only used in laboratories when new hybrids are being developed. So let's go through the simple process of making and planting cuttings.
Let's summarize very quickly: the sugar cane trunk has piles of knots. Each node contains a sheath, a leaf blade, and a bud. When we propagate from cuttings, we rely on those buds to create a new plant. Although a cut can have two or more nodes, only one will create a new rhizome.
Choose a healthy and mature stem to make a stem cut. Using a clean knife, cut a section 2-3 knots in length. Cut off all the leaves, but make sure that each knot has a bud. As the bud develops, it feeds on the sugars stored in the cut instead of relying on photosynthesis. Because of this, the amount of light you give the cut doesn't matter until new leaves emerge.
Lay your cut horizontally on the ground and keep it moist just like you would with any plant cut. Roots emerge first, and then a new stem emerges from a bud. In about a year, your humble pruning will have grown into a mature sugar cane plant.
Sugar cane cuttings can also be rooted in water. Just stand the cut upright in a tall glass. At least one knot should be submerged in water. After the roots and new stem surface, transfer the cut to the soil so it can absorb some nutrients.
Harvesting and storing
Sugar cane segments with their outer rind peeled and ready to be enjoyed. Source: c.mcbrien
After months of gardening, get ready to satisfy your sweet tooth! Here's what you need to know about harvesting and extracting the sugar from sugarcane:
For the best yield, let your sugar cane plant grow as long as possible before harvest. Try to harvest them just before the first frost of each year, especially if you plan to make cane syrup.
To cut the stems, you will need something very sturdy like a machete or a saw. Cut each stem just above the ground, leaving the roots untouched. If you live in a tropical climate, it should grow back over the next year. Next, put on some gloves and pull each leaf off the stems. The leaves are great for mulching, but watch out for the sharp tips!
If you live in a tropical region, you may be able to get multiple harvests from your sugar cane crops. After the first chopping, ratoons, which are new sugar cane sprouts, often grow on the stump. This yield will be significantly lower than the original.
The consistency of the sugar depends on the variety. Syrup sticks have a more liquid sugar, while crystal sticks crystallize easily. There are also chewing sticks, the best way to get to the sugar by chewing on the fibers.
Sucrose is commercially extracted from the stalks using large special machines. Unless you happen to have access to one of these useful machines, we'll take a different, more house-based approach.
Remove the outside of the stems and scrub them well to remove any dirt. Then cut the sugar canes into small segments that will fit in your largest saucepan. To extract the sugar, fill the saucepan with water, completely submerge the stems and cook for a few hours. When all of the sugar is extracted from the stems, they will turn brown and the water will taste like sugar.
When you're done, dispose of the used stems and drain the water well to remove any residue. Transfer the sugar water back to the saucepan and bring it back to the boil, stirring occasionally. Let the water boil for a few hours until the syrup has the desired consistency.
You can store freshly cut sugar cane in the refrigerator for about two weeks. Simply wrap the cut ends in plastic wrap and tuck them into the sharper drawer. As with any product, it is best used as soon as possible.
Store your freshly cooked syrup in sterilized mason jars. Let the syrup cool completely and put the jars in the refrigerator. This will make your sugar less likely to ferment even though it's not completely removed. Use this syrup within two to three weeks or until it smells like fermentation.
For longer term storage, you can boil the syrup into a thick paste and then spread it on drying sheets, which are used to make fruit rollups. Dehydrate it until you've removed most of the moisture in the sugar, then roll it into a tube or cone shape immediately after removing it from the dehydrator. Once cooled, this can be used like Mexican cone sugar. Store your homemade cone sugar in an airtight container in the freezer until you are ready to use it.
A side view of a sugar cane field. Source: The Displaced Librarian
The best thing you can do to keep your sugar canes healthy is to choose resistant strains and take good care of them. Regardless, here are some specifics of the issues that you should be aware of.
Leaves turn yellow and falling off can be normal or a bad sign. If only the lower, older leaves do this, then there is nothing to worry about. Most plants shed their old leaves so they can focus their energy on growing back. However, if the top, newer leaves turn yellow, it could be a symptom of underwater or even pests or diseases.
In sugar cane sugar cane with a low yield and or stunted growth is often a sign that it is stressed. This is typically caused by prolonged cold temperatures, poor soil fertility, and poor pH or inconsistent watering. This can usually be prevented and remedied by consistently addressing the needs of your system. If this doesn't fix the problem, then there may be a pest or disease problem.
The Sugar cane white maggot is aptly named because it likes to feed on sugar cane roots. These nasty larvae start in the ground, where they draw water and nutrients from the pipe. In response, the sugar cane may yellow, wilt, and begin to die. If left untreated, the maggots may eat most of the roots and even tunnel into the stem.
Prevent these maggots from showing up by keeping the soil healthy. Give it plenty of organic matter and keep it free from dirt. Turn your sugar cane every year, or at least down to the ground with plants like legumes, and keep it fallow for about a month after harvest.
If your plants are already infested, your best chance is to hand-remove the maggots when they show up as adult bugs. Alternatively, you can try adding beneficial nematodes, especially stone nematode (abbreviated SF), to the soil around your plants. These microscopic worms love and eat most types of maggots.
Cane auger are just one type of drill that will attack this plant. This pest bores its way through the stem while it eats up vascular tissue and ultimately destroys the stem structure. The damage also invites other pests and diseases to hunt the plant.
If you have a borer infestation, you will notice stunted growth, yellowed leaves, and holes all over the plant. The key to getting rid of them and preventing them is to repel the beetles when the larvae first appear in spring. You can use neem oil or organic insecticides intended for bores to kill the larvae before they attack the plant. Also, if possible, you can plant the sugar cane early so it will mature and fight back when the pests show up.
Sugar cane can also be affected by common garden pests, such as: Aphids, Mealybugs, Spider mites, and Termites. These can usually be combated with neem oil or beneficial insects like ladybugs. Diatomaceous earth is also an excellent option, though it's not as effective on meal bugs and spider mites.
Sugar cane brandy is a fungus that slows down and distorts the growth of this plant. You will notice black, whip-like structures between the leaves. These produce spores that are easily transported to other plants by the wind. Your best defense is to use a stain resistant variety.
Sugar cane mosaic virus is most commonly spread by pests, so the first thing you need to do is protect your plants from harmful insects. As this virus settles, you will notice a "mosaic" of color on the leaves of green and red tones. Resistant varieties, like Brand, are the best approach.
Eye spot shows up as discolored, eye-shaped lesions that run vertically on the leaves. This disease rarely affects yield, but can definitely affect the ornamental value of your plants. A fungicide can help with this disease, but again the tried and tested approach is to use resistant strains.
frequently asked Questions
Long sugar cane stalks are loaded onto an ox cart for transport. Source: Beegee49
Q: How long does it take for a sugar cane to grow?
A: It takes at least a year to mature. However, it only actively grows for 7-8 months.
Q: What if we drink sugar cane juice every day?
A: The juice is actually full of antioxidants, so a small amount per day can be beneficial. However, it is still high in sugar, so it is not recommended for diabetics.
Q: Can I mix sugar cane?
A: Yes, you can use mixed sugar canes to make juice. Simply cut the peeled stick into small pieces, mix it with water and dispense.
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