Sugarcane is a ubiquitous and deep-rooted plant around the globe. The world produces as much as 60 metric tons of sugarcane every year. That is a lot of sugar.
It’s necessary to have several sugarcane cultivators to keep up with the world’s demand, but becoming a farmer of this crop takes a lot of knowledge, experience, and attention to detail. If you want to properly plant, grow, and care for sugarcane, you’ll need to have all the tools possible at your disposal.
You’ll want to understand the different types of sugarcane, the climates it grows best in, and what tools/fertilizers you’ll want to use to keep your crops healthy. You’ll need to understand watering schedules, and so much more. In this article, we examine everything you need to know about this miraculous plant.
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Our first little-known fact about sugarcane is that it is a type of grass. After seeing the sugar derived from the plant, one wouldn’t guess that it is a part of a grass family called Poaceae.
Some other familiar plants from this same family include rice, wheat, maize, and sorghum.
This perennial plant was initially native to Asia’s warmer, more tropical areas and now has 36 various species. Early civilizations discovered sugarcane and effectively learned how useful it could be to everyday life.
Around 8000 BC, natives of New Guinea domesticated the sugarcane plant. Word quickly spread until the crop reached the rest of Southeast Asia and India. It was during this time that sugar production began.
At first, people would simply chew on sugarcane to extract the sweet insides using water. However, in the 5th century AD, an Indian chemist created a more straightforward way to crystalize the sugary insides.
Not only did the crystallization make it easier to use sugar in various products, but it also made it simpler to transport. Because of this breakthrough, India was able to trade sugar for a hefty price.
Of course, other nations wanted in on this fantastic discovery. Soon, the Middle East started importing and adopting sugarcane plants for their sugar production. The trend only spread more and more as Arab nations conquered Egypt and the Crusades swarmed the majority of Europe.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, several countries had tried to establish their economy surrounding the sugarcane plant. However, after humans discovered the New World, many learned that the Americas offered a more hospitable and beneficial crop climate.
Landowners began introducing the plant to their fields in vast quantities, which required millions of African slaves.
Once the 19th century hit, sugarcane and its yields were available virtually worldwide, becoming the average, sweet treat that we know today. It’s now the world’s largest and most sought-after crop.
Sugarcane grows best in a warm climate as defined by the USDA as zones 9 and 10. These zones sit in the deep southern half of the United States and other southern coastal margins. It’s extremely popular in Florida, and it’s successfully grown there quite consistently.
Other ideal countries for growing the crop are the Philippines, Indonesia, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, China, and more.
So if these top countries are having success growing sugarcane, what does the cultivation process look like?
When late fall rolls around, it comes time to harvest the sugarcane crop. At this point, the plants should be tall and thick. It is critical to gather the crop close to the first frost, but not so late that the ice covers them. At that point, your plants begin to lose sugar.
With technological advances booming, many sugarcane plantations can use machines to harvest the crop faster and more efficiently. These machines involve some advantageous mechanisms that can cut the canes very quickly.
Of course, smaller operations and even those growing at home may not have access to large machinery like this. In that case, harvesting can be a very tedious activity done entirely by hand.
To cultivate sugarcane, one must have a powerful and sharp machete. The farmer should cut the canes down as close to the ground as they can get, taking great care not to cut into the dirt as these canes will regrow.
- After the canes are all cut and collected, the farmer has to strip the leaves. They should take these leaves and lay them over the remaining sugarcane roots along with some mulch. Doing so will help protect them throughout the cold winter months.
- Next comes the cleaning and syrup harvesting. The cane producer should wipe them down to get rid of any insets, dirt, or mildew. They can then use a sugarcane press to extract the syrup.
- Even someone without a press can grow and cultivate sugarcane. Simply chop up the cane into small chunks, place them in a large stainless steel stockpot, and cover them with water to boil for an hour or two.
- After the water begins to taste sweet, the harvester removes the cane pieces and continues to boil down the liquid to concentrate the syrup. At the end of the boiling process, the individual should have a thickened juice.
After this process completes, the farmer transfers this juice to a smaller saucepan and boils it, careful not to burn it. When the bubbles appear thick and gassy, the syrup is ready to be jarred and stored.
Propagation is the process of breeding new plants by using the original stock to make more. You can do so with many different types of crops, including sugarcane.
There are two ways that you can propagate sugarcane:
While you can undoubtedly buy seeds online and start from scratch, those looking to propagate from existing plants can get their seeds from the grass plumes. A sugarcane’s plumes hold hundreds of tiny seeds that you can plant in the dirt in a warm climate.
Of course, most industrial plantations use the cutting method of propagation.
Propagating sugarcane from existing plants is quite simple. The plants can grow without their roots intact. In fact, you could even grow your own propagated plants from sugarcane cuts at the grocery store.
A successful propagation requires a mature stock. You need to cut it as long as at least six growth points or buds, which look like rings around the stalk.
In addition, your cut must come from a healthy stock that’s free of any diseases.
For best results, professional farmers will remove the top of a stalk to promote better sprouting. From there, you can either plant your cut in the ground or root it in water.
When you plant a sugarcane cut in the soil, you can do so vertically or horizontally; this unique crop will sprout either way.
When planting vertically, simply bury two-thirds of the length under the soil. You can also lay the cut horizontally, covering the whole thing lightly with soil. As long as your plant is properly cared for, you’ll see sprouts begin anywhere from one to three weeks.
Alternatively, some folks prefer to propagate through rooting in water. You can place your cuts in water, which will promote the growth of roots. Once you have roots (in about two weeks), you can plant your plant vertically in the soil.
The sugarcane plant is a perennial, which means that it will come back again and again, year after year. So with the proper care and maintenance, you should only have to plant a sugarcane crop once.
The best time to plant a new sugarcane crop is in the late summer to early fall. It’s not as easy to plant as other edible plants that often grow in the wild.
We’ve already talked about how you can propagate a sugarcane plant from an existing one, so we will now focus on growing your plant from the beginning: seeds.
Sugarcane seeds are relatively common, and you can usually find a reputable seller online. Once your seeds arrive, you’re ready to plant.
It’s best to start your brand new sugarcane sprouts in small pots. Buy high-quality, pH-balanced soil (we’ll discuss that below) and plant one or two seeds per pot. You can even use little plastic cups to begin.
After 7 to 14 days of consistent watering, you should begin to see sprouts. Once they have grown a few inches high and have developed thicker stalks, you can transplant them to your garden or larger containers.
Growing From Starter Plants
As we mentioned earlier, you can propagate a sugarcane plant from an existing plant. What else can you do if you don’t have a plant and want to skip the seed step?
Instead of purchasing seeds, you can buy sugarcane plants from your local garden center, some farmer’s markets, and even some Asian grocery stores.
Choose a sugarcane plant that looks robust and healthy. Look out for:
- Sugarcane with long, thick stems
- Plants with several stem joints
- Look for plants that are already a few feet tall, as you’ll be cutting them into sections
Once you have your healthy plants, split them into pieces about one foot long and contain three of four joints per piece. These joints are where your new buds will sprout from. Remove any leaves or flowers present on the plant.
Pick a sunny spot on your property and dig foot-long trenches about four inches deep. Dig as many canals as you have sugarcane pieces, and keep them about one foot apart from one another.
Use a hose to get your trenches moist. Don’t use too much water. There shouldn’t be any puddles in the ditches before planting.
Lay your sugarcane pieces horizontally in each trench. You can also dig longer trenches if you want to lay them in long lines. Just be sure to place them about a foot apart from each other.
Cover your sugarcane with soil and care for the plants from there. You should start to see new growth in late spring.
Planting a sugarcane crop is only one small step in the process. To successfully grow these tall stalks, you have to care for the plant as it develops appropriately. A healthy sugarcane plant needs sunlight, water, and the right kind of soil.
Sugarcane is a plant that loves its warmth and sunlight, so you must plant it in a location that sees some intense rays of light. This crop is naturally accustomed to long, hot growing seasons with plenty of daylight, so you need to provide such a home for your plants.
If you’re growing your plant indoors, you can supplement natural sunlight with a 40-watt grow light made for plants.
The same climate zones that provide ample warm weather and sunlight also tend to offer hefty amounts of annual rain, so it’s safe to say that your sugarcane requires a decent amount of watering.
While some plants can skip some watering sessions and do just fine, you don’t want to do this with your sugarcane if you want to yield favorable results.
This perennial grass has a long growing season and thus should get about 1 to 2 inches per week. If you’re growing from a pot, your plant might need a bit more water as the soil will dry out faster.
Keep in mind that a lack of water can lead to adverse effects like poor seed germination, stunted plant growth, and a loss in sugar yields and sap. On the flip side, too much water can cause your plants to rot and suffer from fungal diseases. The latter will also impact your sugar yields.
It’s best to hand water small groups of sugarcane or potted plants, but larger fields do best with a soaker hose or even drip irrigation.
Luckily for us (and everyone else who enjoys sugar), sugarcane is a pretty hardy crop that can do well in most kinds of soil, so long as it has the proper water drainage and irrigation.
However, like any plant, it’s a good idea to take extra care to ensure your plants are getting the proper nutrients it needs to prosper.
When caring for sugarcane, you should aim to have soil with a pH between 6 and 6.5. This range is slightly acidic to a neutral level and allows your plant to produce more sugar. When planted in more acidic soil, your plant will still grow, but it may make less sugar.
You can use standard soil pH testing kits to find out your soil’s pH level. If it’s too low, opt for soil amendments such as biochar. Biochar is full of carbon and helps condition soil by raising the pH. It also helps soil retain moisture and preserve nutrients.
We also recommend using 8-8-8 fertilizer, as it contains equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – all of which are great for your plant. You can also use manure, compost, and peat.
Sugarcane does best when it is grown in a warm, tropical climate. That’s why it’s often grown in southern states like Florida and Louisiana. If you want your crop to thrive, you need to keep the plants in areas with consistent temperatures of 64 degrees Fahrenheit or more all year round.
A heavy frost or freezing weather can kill sugarcane, so the climate is essential.
Of course, if you live in a place that sees colder weather, you can still grow sugarcane plants by keeping them in moveable pots. You can transfer them inside during the winter and keep them outside throughout the summer.
Many experienced farmers and agriculture experts agree that the soil is the most essential part of a successful crop. Above, we mentioned that the best soil for sugarcane has a pH between 6 and 6.5.
Fertilizing your soil is an excellent way to ensure that it gets all of the nutrients it needs to survive and thrive.
You should look for a high-quality fertilizer that includes nitrogen, potassium, and sulfur. It can also have a small amount of phosphorus and zinc. Sugarcane especially thrives on nitrogen-rich fertilizers because it falls into the grass family of plants.
In addition, lime is an excellent material for correcting your soil’s pH, and it provides calcium, minimizes aluminum, enhances microorganism activity, and improves herbicides.
Aside from regular watering, sugarcane plants don’t require a ton of extra maintenance. One specific thing you should look out for is weeds. Weeding around your crops is always essential, but it’s especially critical during the early stages of growth. All types of weeds can grow near Sugarcane, and weeds like creeping charlie can be especially bothersome.
Weeds can easily choke and kill new sprouts, cutting them off before they even get the chance to break through the surface of the dirt.
Once sugarcane plants grow tall enough and sprout large leaves, the shade they provide will naturally kill weeds by cutting off their sunlight. Until this point, it’s crucial to clear weeds out by their roots.
Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, sugarcane does come with the risk of attracting certain pests and even contracting various plant diseases. It is essential to know the signs so that you can quickly treat and save your crop.
Exotic borers are tiny insects that can infest your sugarcane by boring through the stalk and feeding on the sugar. The larvae create little tunnels in the stem and eventually turn into adults, medium grey/white moths.
These bugs can lead to severe damage and even total drop destruction if they spread enough. You can recognize their presence by small holes on infested stalks.
Planthoppers are small, long, brown insects that can infest sugarcane, feeding on the crops and excreting honeydew, leading to soot mold. These bugs can fly far and often plant their eggs on stalks and leaves.
An infestation of planthoppers can minimize your crop’s yield and the amount of sugar you can harvest, but only in extreme circumstances.
You can recognize downy mildew by the creamy, white stripes it causes on leaves. Over time, these strips turn to a reddish color.
The mildew can cause the leaves on the sugarcane to shred and can eventually drive stunted growth. It spreads through infected planting materials and can also use the wind to travel short distances.
Grassy Shoot Disease typically spreads through either infected plant materials or insects. You’ll notice it when you see excessive tillering accompanied by no development. The shoots will appear yellow and will produce a very patchy crop.
Ultimately, Grassy Shoot Disease can cause a significant loss of harvest – up to 50 percent.
You can see some other pests and diseases here.
It’s no question that sugarcane farmers use the plant to create syrup and sugar. Its primary purpose in most people’s lives seems to be obvious: it makes things taste sweeter.
You can use sugar from sugarcane in baking, cooking, wine-making, coffee, juice, tea, and so much more. As the world’s largest crop, most would say it’s done its job.
Sugarcane doesn’t stop simply at the flavor. There are many, many other uses for sugarcane that you may not even be aware of. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.
Mary Poppin’s song about sugar and medicine doesn’t sound so crazy anymore. Sugar is frequently used in the medical field to add volume, texture, and flavor to certain drugs.
In other instances, the health industry also turns to sugar as a natural preservative and an antioxidant.
In the past, sugar has also been used as a diuretic, a laxative, and an antiseptic. Especially during its early use in ancient China, the product was used to treat illnesses, including stomach bugs and STDs.
You can use sugar to soothe burns and sore throats. Sucking on candy can help lubricate throat irritation, and sucking on a sugar cube can help relieve burns on your tongue from hot beverages.
Skin Care and Cosmetics
Sugarcane has a long-standing place in the beauty industry. From skincare to cosmetics, you can find refined sugar putting its best foot forward.
People use refined sugar for its exfoliating properties. The small, rough granules are perfect for buffing skin and removing flaky, dead cells. Sugar also has moisturizing properties, and sugarcane extract can be added to moisturizers and face masks.
Sugar scrubs are popular for the rest of the body as well. Many body scrubs use sugar to exfoliate, and you can even make homemade lip scrub by adding sugar to coconut oil.
When you think of the industrial sector, your mind probably doesn’t jump to sugarcane. However, the products of this crop play a significant role in the industry across bioplastics, paper, electricity, and building materials.
Many bioplastics now use sugar to create various rigid and flexible materials. A few common ones include:
- Lego blocks
- Electric car panels
- Food and drink packaging
- Airplane parts
Sugar plays a vital role in using some types of cement and glues, as it slows the setting process. So, if a professional needs a slow-setting adhesive, they can turn to one that involves sugar.
Building materials also often include bioplastics, and professionals can use sugarcane bagasse to make particleboard.
Factories often use sugarcane bagasse in office products such as copy paper, card stock, take-out containers, and envelopes.
Finally, this same sugar-based material is implemented in electricity for sugar cane mills and refineries, which sometimes power entire towns.
Sugar naturally absorbs moisture. That’s why, if you don’t keep your sugar in an airtight container, it clumps together. While the former instance isn’t ideal, you can use this trait to your advantage.
Keep your baked goods fresh by placing them in an airtight container along with a sugar cube. The cube will attract and absorb all the moisture while your sweet treats stay fresh and soft for longer.
The same tactic also works for preserving cheese longer and avoiding the growth of mold. Putting a sugar cube in with your cheese will absorb all the moisture and keep your cheese looking high-quality and tasty.
Not only can you preserve food items, but sugarcane can help you preserve cut flowers and keep them fresher for longer. If you add sugar along with vinegar, it will do the trick. The sugar will feed the flowers, while the vinegar ensures no bacteria grows.
Although sugar can often cause sticky messes, it can also serve as a valuable tool in your cleaning arsenal.
For starters, sugar makes for an excellent stain remover. To use it, you can create a paste by mixing vinegar, water, and sugar. Spread this paste on stains on your clothing and let it sit for 10 to 20 minutes before washing.
Wipe the mixture off, and then wash the garment in cold water. Inspect the stain before tossing it in the dryer. If it’s still there, treat it and rewash it before drying.
You can also add sugar to your usual hand soap to give it a little extra boost if your hands are filthy. Whether you’re dealing with a greasy coating or excessive dirt, adding about a teaspoon of sugar to your hands before washing can cut the grease, scrub tough stains, and even soften your hands.
Finally, you can use sugar to clean any grinder or blender you have, whether it’s your coffee bean grinder or your garbage disposal. Just pour about a quarter cup of sugar into the machine and run it for a few minutes.
As we mentioned above, sugar cuts through grease and will quickly break down any gunk that has built up in your grinder. It also kills odors and leaves your equipment looking new.
When you finish, dump it and wipe out the excess.
In addition to the many uses we’ve listed above, you can also put sugarcane into:
- Beer, wine, and spirits
- Industrial chemicals
- Livestock feed
As you can see, sugar is much more than just your average, everyday sweetener.
If you’re new to the process of planting, growing, and cultivating sugarcane, it’s understandable that you might still have a few questions about the crop.
Check out our FAQ section below for some more information!
Sugarcane plants can grow anywhere from six feet to as tall as 24 feet. They sprout long leaves shaped like swords and consist of several segments, each with joints where the plant buds.
Where Does the Majority of the World’s Sugarcane Come From?
Brazil is the top source for the most sugarcane globally, producing over 750 million metric tons in 2019. Other top sugarcane producers include India, China, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and Australia.
The United States barely made the top ten with an impressive 31 million metric tons in 2019.
Yes, you can grow sugarcane in your yard. Sugarcane can grow and even thrive in a backyard as long as you properly care for it and balance your soil pH levels. The crop grows best in warm climates and is often grown in states like Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, and California.
Sugarcane can still grow in poor soil or unfavorable weather conditions, but it will not produce as much sugar. However, some growers still enjoy its lush blooms as ornamental plants.
Depending on the climate, care, and when the crop was planted and last harvested, it can take anywhere from 9 to 24 months for sugarcane to be ready to harvest.
After you harvest the first bunch of sugarcane, there are three or four harvests of regrowth down the line.
The sugarcane plant plays a very significant role in societies all around the world. Its sweet flavor sits commonly in kitchen pantries and bakeries, but you can also find it in different products, from cosmetics to industrial, and everything in between. If you’re interested in growing sugarcane, use the information we’ve provided you with today to get started.