How to Plant and Care For This Sweet Treat

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There’s a reason sugarcane is the number one plant commercially harvested in the world—it’s a sweet treat. Grown in billions of tons, it provides up to 70 percent of the world’s commercial sugar. But not many people know that growing sugarcane in the home garden is not only possible – it is easy.

Plus it makes a beautiful ornamental like mix between a giant grass and bamboo.

Sugarcane is one of the most exciting and unique plants I have grown and I think you will feel the same way, so let’s get started.

What is sugarcane?

Sugarcane (saccharum officinarum) is a perennial grass native to tropical and subtropical parts of the world. With all the migration of sugarcane around the world, many hybrids are being developed.

Generally believed to have been originally domesticated around 4000 BC, sugarcane may have originated in New Guinea or Southeast Asia before being introduced to the Mediterranean and Caribbean around 1400 AD.

Sugarcane can grow up to 20 feet tall when grown in tropical regions. In colder regions, it will average 8 to 10 feet tall.

Grown primarily for sugar and sweetening liquid, sugarcane is increasingly being grown for biofuels. In the home garden, it’s a wonderful plant that kids can chew on and, if you have a press, you can extract the delicious liquid to drink and use in all kinds of recipes.

how to plant sugarcane

You can grow sugarcane all year round in zones 9 to 10. Temperatures below 68ºF are not suitable as this plant grows best in tropical environments. A temperature between 90ºF to 100ºF is optimal.

You can always try to grow sugarcane in areas outside zones 9 and 10, but be aware that your plants may not make it when colder weather arrives.

Sugarcane loves the sun and much more. A little afternoon shade is fine, but not necessary.

Aim for a soil pH of 6 to 6.5 with very fertile soil. When it comes to picking a spot, sugarcane gives off a great breeze, but beware of the leaves, which can sometimes be sharp. You probably don’t want the plant to grow next to your patio.

There are a few methods of sowing sugarcane: all use sugarcane instead of seed or rhizome. There are some plants that I routinely recommend that you purchase from your local garden center due to poor germination rates or difficulty with propagation. Sugarcane is not one of them. It is quite reliable.

Plant in late summer to give the canes time to overwinter and become established. This gives the plant seven to eight months of solid growth from early spring to late fall so you can harvest a year later.

plant directly into soil

This method never really worked for me because, although I grow sugarcane, I certainly don’t live in a tropical climate. If you live somewhere more tropical, this might work better for you.

A cane consists of a series of nodes. Each of those nodes can produce a new plant ready for harvesting in about a year.

Cut a cane into pieces with at least three intact knots. Note that only one of those nodes will reproduce in another plant, but we want to give it the best chance, so give it three nodes.

Lay the cane part in a shallow groove and cover it lightly. Water and mulch well in winter. You should push a new plant through the soil in the spring.

Some people don’t wield a cane. They put it on top of the soil. This allows the roots to grow first, then the new plant. My area is very cold and it doesn’t work for me.

root in water

Sugarcane responds well to this method, and it is the one I use all the time. It is perfect for growing in containers, but is also suitable for planting in the ground as well.

Cut the cane into sections about 15 inches in length, making sure it has at least three knots on it. Use a container you can fill with clean water and stand the cane in it. You need to make sure that at least one node is submerged in water.

Roots will appear in about two to six weeks. The nodes will sprout a new plant and I try to leave the cane in the water until the new growth is about six inches tall. At this point, transplant into the garden or into a container.

The best temperature for sugarcane root is between 68ºF and 86ºF. If you start this process when the temperature outside is cooler than that, complete the process inside.

planting sugarcane in containers

This is my favorite way to plant sugarcane. I have large pots in one corner of the deck that are in the sun all day long. Plant a node like you would in the ground.

Use a good quality potting mix that drains well. As the plant grows, the container will need to be progressively enlarged. Just be sure to water well as pots dry out very easily.

sugarcane care

Although you can’t just plant sugarcane and leave it as is, you won’t tend to a temperamental plant, that’s for sure.

Fertilizer

Sugarcane prefers nutrient-rich soil that contains lots of nitrogen and phosphorus. To keep things simple, I add a well balanced fertilizer to the soil when the stem starts to sprout.

If transplanting with the water-root method, dig up the fertilizer a week before planting.

For both methods, add fertilizer to the soil that is high in nitrogen after about two to three months. Repeat if growth is slow over the next two months. Use a sustained release fertilizer if you can.

Water the fertilizer thoroughly.

Water

Sugarcane loves water and consistently moist soil. However, it does not like wet feet, so the soil should be free of drainage. Two consecutive inches of water a week should be enough. I water three times a week.

Keep pots free of weeds and remove any dead leaves from the cane.

sorting out

If your cane is an ornamental, you may want to cut it to shape in spring and summer to keep it to your desired height. Otherwise, leave it to your own devices.

Companion planting for sugarcane

Sugarcane usually takes up a lot of space, but if you can plant along or near it, here are some options.

  • Elderberry
  • A type of plant
  • comfrey
  • sage
  • lemon verbena
  • nasturtium

Common sugarcane growing problems and solutions

Although I’ve never had a problem with my cane, there are a number of issues that can affect it.

yellow leaves

Yellowing leaves can be a sign of insufficient water or nutrients. Water and feed well to make sure the plant is strong. If it’s only the lower, older leaves turning yellow and falling off, it’s just a plant cycle.

sugarcane borers

This insect pierces the stem of sugarcane and eats its flesh. This can damage the stem so much that it fails to grow. The hole this tiny insect creates enables other pests and diseases to enter the plant.

The best way to keep these insects away is to avoid them altogether. Remove weeds and all garden debris, and feed and water the cane thoroughly to keep it healthy.

Neem oil is one of my favorites to ward off all the boring pests.

Sugarcane White Grub

This pest feeds on sugarcane roots and can cause serious damage because you don’t know they are present until the plant has lost its vigor. Other symptoms will be yellowing, wilting and even death in worst cases.

Keep the soil healthy and rotate where you planted the cane each year.

aphids

Like most plants, aphids love to gnaw on sugarcane. However, unless the plant is young or weak, they shouldn’t cause any serious damage. Read our detailed article on Aphid Control.

sugarcane mosaic virus

Many insects transfer this virus to sugarcane so the best defense is to keep the pests away. Use regular sprays of neem oil, organic pyrethrum or your insecticide of choice.

Symptoms of this virus are red and green mosaic patterns on the leaves. There is no cure, so you will have to pull the plants out and start again.

sugarcane eye spot

Red eye-shaped rings appear on the plant and foliage. These don’t really affect the yield or health of the plant much.

Use fungicide if you think it’s necessary, but leave it on until the problem gets really bad.

Sugarcane harvesting and use

For the sweetest cane, allow the plant to grow as long as possible. Cut the cane stems just above the surface of the soil.

If you’re lucky enough to live in the right area, the plant should regrow for the next season.

Clean the outside of the cane. Use a sharp knife to cut off the outer skin. Cut the sugarcane into small or large cubes.

Place these cut stems in a pot and cover with water. Boil for at least two hours. Strain the cane through a sieve and the water should be delicious sugar water.

You too can do what we do. Peel the cane and chew the fibrous inner part. Once all the delicious sugar has been sucked out, throw away the sticks.

Once you’ve harvested the canes, you can store them in the fridge for at least two weeks.

If you have a press, you can try extracting it directly from the cane with pure liquid sugar.

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