Growing Coffee in Los Angeles

coffee plant growing in Highland Park, photo by Sonny Lipps

Growing Coffee in Los Angeles

Yes, it’s true. You can grow your own coffee beans in Los Angeles. Every now and then, I encounter a local coffee plant (Coffea arabica). Coffee plants need protection from direct sun and cold. Even in Ethiopia, coffee’s native land, the plants are to be found growing under trees which provide both shade during the day and an extra measure of warmth on cold nights. Allowed to grow freely in their habitat, coffee trees may eventually reach 40 feet in height although, more typically, they do not exceed 15 feet in height, thriving as an under story species in the shadow of much larger trees.

Growing Coffee in Northridge

Several years ago, I saw a coffee plant in Northridge. It was being grown by Jerry Esten, who had it in a container, on a patio, protected from the elements. The safest place to grow a frost sensitive plant is on a covered patio next to a wall. The heat absorbed by the wall during the day will radiate outwards towards the plant at night. In addition, if your plant is next to the wall of a heated house, take advantage of the fact that around 35% of the heat produced on a cold night will leak through the walls of most houses, benefiting plants growing against those walls. The cover on a patio will also keep heat absorbed by the patio’s floor or concrete slab from escaping skyward during the night, trapping it underneath the cover to your plant’s delight. Just make sure you have good ambient light because too much shade will cause abnormally elongated, spindly growth on any plant as it searches for the sun. It’s also a good idea to rotate patio plants, and houseplants too, for that matter, one  quarter of a turn each week so that, during the course of a month, each side of the plant will receive an equal amount of sun exposure.

Growing Coffee in Highland Park

Most recently, I received an email from Sonny Lipps, another local coffee grower. “I thrill at trying to grow unusual plants,” Lipps wrote. This must run in the family since his uncle Roger, whom I wrote about two weeks ago, grows blueberries in San Gabriel. “I’m in Highland Park,” Lipps continued, “and can grow a wide variety of plants due to the perfect weather, with ocean influence fingering its way up the Arroyo Seco into a canyon sheltered from any strong winds. I have my coffee plant in a 5-galllon size terra cotta pot, under a large grapefruit tree, creating a low canopy. This shelters it from strong sun and cold. The leaves burn a bit in mid-winter from the cold. I probably neglect it somewhat but do water it once a week and fertilize maybe once a year. It was purchased as a novelty six-inch tall house plant seven or eight years ago. Now it is two feet tall and formed into a typical tree shape. In early summer, it has beautiful white star-shaped flowers that last about a month. The small green berries develop and ripen very slowly. Growth encompasses a full year’s cycle, as the berries are only now ripening to a deep red color.” Incidentally, so-called coffee beans are actually seeds, two of which are contained, flat sides pressed together, in each berry.

blueberries growing in pure peat mosss, photo by Hubert Mueller

sphagnum peat moss

And still on the subject of blueberries, Hubert Mueller, who gardens in Rancho Palos Verdes near the Trump Golf Club, maintains that “it really isn’t very hard to grow blueberries if you use peat moss” since there is “no concern about checking the soil. The 2015 yield from my 10 plants was a total of 11 gallons or 44 quarts. Six are in the ground and four are in pots on a south facing patio. All the plants are in 100% peat moss. The ones in the ground were planted in holes 2 feet by 4 feet and 2 feet deep that were filled with peat moss. I have the plants in the ground on drip irrigation and hand water those in pots about once a week.The only problem I’ve had is birds but the berries are now under netting.” Mueller’s varieties include ‘O’Neil,’ ‘Misty,’ ‘Sharpblue,’ and ‘Sunshine Blue.’ “The ‘O’Neil’ leaves do add some color, turning red in the winter.”

As for fertilizer, Mueller says “I use GRO POWER All Purpose fertilizer for acid loving plants in late fall and then Miracle-Gro liquid azalea fertilizer after the ‘O’Neil’ plants, which are earlier than the other varieties, show blossoms. I doubt that adding sulfur (used to lower soil pH) is necessary when the soil is 100% peat moss.” Indeed, the pH of peat moss is between 4 and 4.5, depending on where it is harvested, while the soil pH blueberries require is between 4 and 5.

Tip of the Week: If you are planning a patio garden, procure the largest plant specimens you can afford and place them in appropriate sized pots. If you go away for a long weekend this summer and temperatures soar, you may come home to withered plants if they were placed in small containers with little water storage capacity in the soil. Plants in 15 gallon-sized containers or larger will usually be fine with a single weekly soaking and will nearly always make it through a long weekend without the need for additional water. One strategy for extending the interval between irrigations is to nest the container holding your plant in a container one or two sizes larger and then fill the gap between them with peat moss which, when it is well-watered, will act as an insulating layer for the soil of your potted plant, keeping it from over heating and drying out. Whether you are using peat moss as soil for your blueberries or, in this case, for container insulation, always wet thoroughly before initial use. Otherwise, you will get a false picture of its volume since peat moss shrinks considerably when it is first fully hydrated. Place peat moss in a tub or large bucket and add water. Check peat moss periodically as water is added. Keep wetting and kneading the peat moss until it is as wet as a wrung out sponge, at which point it is ready for use.

photos courtesy of Sonny Lipps, Hubert Mueller, Hubert Mueller, and Miracle-GroGrowing

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