For many people, Seattle is synonymous with Starbucks. And sure enough, my fellow Seattleites and I are avid drinkers of this satisfying beverage, and even boast ownership of the birthplace of famous Starbucks Coffee from Pike Place Market. However proud we may be of our city’s role in the modern celebration of the coffee bean, it is easy to forget the origins of the plant and the process required in order to hold that fragrant, steaming mug of caffeine in our hands. Thankfully, we have Carla Emery to fill us in.
The coffee plant is native to east Africa. It looks like a small tree or shrub and grows up to 8 feet tall in a pot (up to 15 feet outdoors). A dwarf variety gets only 3 feet tall. Coffee can be grown in a temperate-zone garden if you transplant to a container and bring inside for the winter. The coffee plant is quite ornamental with its scented white flowers and shiny dark green foliage. The coffee plant can’t survive a frost and needs some shade to protect it from excessive sun. It can be grown outdoors in the California coastal area from about Santa Barbara on south.
Keep seeds dry before planting. Plant coffee seed on the soil surface in a sand-peat or half-organic mix. Keep warm (about 85 ̊F) and allow a sizable time (a month or more) for germination. Once well started, transplant outdoors or to 4-inch pots. Grow potted coffee in well-drained soil; situate in a sunny window. Young coffee plants grow best at 70–75 ̊F. If you have trouble with brown leaves, it means you’ve been watering too much, need to move the plant to a larger pot, or both.
For flowering and fruiting, the plants need 55–58 ̊F night temperatures. Without those conditions, the plant will just grow bunches of lovely dark green glossy leaves — no flowers, no beans. Also be cautious with pruning. Cutting off the top does no harm, but trimming branches eliminates your crop, since flowers and beans grow there. The white flowers evolve into 1⁄2 - inch fruits that are first green and then red, purple, or scarlet when ripe. When ripe, harvest them.
Each pod contains 2 coffee beans, which you rescue from the outer pulp, dry, roast, grind, and soak in very hot water to make your beverage.
If you live outside of the ideal temperature zone or just don’t have the time or means to maintain your own coffee plant, there are other ways to localize your participation in the coffee industry—for example, garden maintenance or composting.
If you buy coffee and cook it at home, you can use the leftovers to give back to the earth in your own garden. “Coffee grounds are a first- class, environmentally harmless deterrent to ants. To keep ants out of your house, or any other building, just lay a solid 3-inch layer against your foundation all the way around. To deal with an anthill, surround it likewise with a sizable ring of grounds. Grounds will also prevent cutworms (as do wood ashes). Just dig a shallow ditch around vulnerable plants and pour grounds into it. As they break down, they’ll also add fertility to the soil.”
Coffee grounds are also a great addition to your compost pile. “Earthworms love them and will quickly turn them into rich humus. And a manure/grounds/leafy mulch mixture added to poor soil will practically instantly make it fertile.” Carla Emery warns that consuming the large quantity of coffee it would take to produce grounds for a large garden could be a strain on your pancreas. She advises not to drink all the coffee yourself, but “contact a business that brews coffee in quantity, and ask them to let you take all those unwanted coffee grounds off their hands!”