These potato beds are in my former sugarcane patch. The yield of annual vegetables is much higher than the yield of sugarcane and my space is limited. Now I’m planting white potatoes – later in the season I’ll plant something else, then in the fall I’ll plant it yet again. You just can’t get that kind of productivity from sugar cane. Sugar cane also isn’t great for feeding the family… or reaching my goal of growing 2,000 lbs of food in 2015. (I’ve still got some cane growing in the food forest, so it’s not totally gone – I really like chewing fresh cane in the fall and so do the children.)
The soil is rich sandy loam and I’m very happy with it. If potatoes fail here, I might just quit.
Just wondering if you’d post a current picture of your sugar cane patch.
You inspired my dad and I to plant some in our meadow last November, and I’d like to see how ours is doing compared to yours since this is a new thing for us. By the way, the cane we planted in November sprouted right away and grew all winter here in High Springs despite some decent freezes.
I’ve been busy, plus it slipped my mind, until I was out in the yard this last weekend and went, “Hey, I need to shoot a picture of the sugarcane for that gal that wrote me!”
So… here it is:
The tallest canes are likely 5′ or so in height. We’ve gotten a few days of rain so they should really shoot for the sky now. It’s also time for me to throw on some chicken manure… just haven’t gotten around to that yet.
The bed isn’t as thick as I would like this year, but we’ll still have plenty we can use for cane syrup by November.
Anyone else growing sugar cane? Got a progress report?
It’s sugarcane season again and time to make cane syrup at home.
This post was originally written and posted in November of 2013 but it’s time to bring it back to the foreground, dust off the good stockpot, and show just how easy (though time-consuming!) homemade cane syrup can be.
First, you might enjoy this video I created documenting the entire process, then we’ll get into the step-by-step photo guide.
As you regular readers know, I’ve grown sugar cane for a few years now.
The kids love it and it’s a nice novelty but I always wanted to do more with our crop than just hack chunks off for chewing.
Back in 2012 when I planted a big bed of sugar cane, I knew that at some point I’d have to figure out how to process it into something useful.
Since distilling is apparently illegal, rum was out… but homemade cane syrup sounded like a winner. Plus, Rachel wanted it, so it had to be made.
This post shares how we figured out how to make cane syrup without a cane press and how you can make your own delicious cane syrup the same way.
Step 1: Harvest Some Canes
In North Florida there are freezes in winter that will knock sugar cane down to the ground, so this is the time of year we cut canes.
It’s got to happen before frost or the crop will be ruined.
Cane harvesting is fun because you get to use a machete. Anything is better with a machete (except opening coconuts).
To harvest sugarcane, I cut the canes close to the ground, then strip off the leaves and throw them over the “stumps” I leave behind.
Because sugar cane is a cold-sensitive perennial, covering up the roots will keep the plant safe until next spring when a whole new batch of homegrown sugar will rise from the ground as soon as the soil warms up enough.
Step 2: Wash Those Canes
Sugarcane tends to have mildew on its stems, along with dust, dirt and the occasional bug.
I don’t want these in my syrup so I scrub the canes after removing the leaves.
I like to do this over one of my garden beds and rinse with the hose as I go.
I don’t use soap or anything, just water and elbow grease.
The canes are truly beautiful when they’re wet – they look like lovely varnished bamboo.
Contemplating their attractiveness helps alleviate the mind-crushing boredom of washing a stack of them.
Step 3: Start Chopping ’em Up
Here’s the big problem with sugar cane: it’s full of fibers.
You can’t just put chunks in your juicer. I tried… and I don’t think my Champion juicer will ever be the same.
After multiple jam-ups and some smoking and shaking which only yielded about a half-cup of syrup, I realized it was pointless.
Normally, sugar cane is processed with powerful presses that crush it flat and let the sugary juice run out. I don’t have anything like this at home and couldn’t figure out a good way to jury-rig something. Real presses are really expensive – and the Thai ones they often sell on e-bay are made for flattening squid, not crushing something as tough as sugar cane.
Don’t waste your money!
What we decided to do was simply chop the sugar cane into chunks, then quarter those segments. A good heavy meat cleaver works well for this.
Step 4: Boil the Chunks Of Cane
After chopping, we put the pieces into a large stockpot, covered them with water, then started boiling the sugar out of them.
This takes some time and you have to make sure they stay covered with water, so top the pot off occasionally.
As the cane cooks, it will lose its lustrous color and start to turn pale brown.
Once the flavor of the water is the same as that of a chunk of the boiled sugar cane, you’re ready to move on to the next step.
This takes an hour or two – I let my tastebuds be my guide.
Step 5: Strain Out the Cane Fragments
I pour the hot sugary juice through a stainless steel strainer, which brings up a good point: do this whole process with stainless steel implements, if you can at all help it.
Aluminum cookware leaches aluminum into your food, imparting off flavors while slowly poisoning you in the process.
You don’t want aluminum fortified cane syrup. Just trust me on this one.
That said – once you’ve poured off the juice into a second pot, it’s time to get really cooking.
Step 6: Boil It Down
This step (and the previous one) makes your house smell amazing.
It’s not the molasses smell you would expect, though; it’s more of a delicious sweet corn aroma.
You’re going to boil… boil… boil this juice until the liquid has reduced in the pot to a dangerously low level.
Just keep a half an eye on it and find something nearby to do, like the dishes… or beer pong.
If your juice hasn’t thickened when the pot has boiled down to an inch or so in the bottom (mine is never thick enough at that point), then pour your big pot’s contents into a smaller pot and proceed to the final step.
Step 7: Finish and Jar the Syrup
You’re really close to the end now. It’s the final stretch!
At this point, you need to be careful not to let the syrup burn, turn into caramel or boil over.
Cook it with constant supervision and be ready to pull it off the burner at a moment’s notice.
The bubbles start to get very thick and glassy as it nears syrup consistency.
My first batch was very, very thick so I learned to back off a little on the final boil down. Dip a spoon regularly into the syrup and see how thick it is when it cools.
Putting a few spoons aside in the freezer for this stage is a good idea. Once you’ve got the right thickness, pour your syrup off into a mason jar and:
Congratulations! You’ve made your own home-grown, organic, vegan, free trade, sustainably harvested, locavore-approved, non-GMO, gluten-free, amazingly delicious sugar cane syrup!
Sure, it’s a lot easier to juice the cane first, rather than doing the chop n’ boil… but if you’re just a hobbyist like me who wants a few jars of syrup to give away at Christmas, this beats having to buy a specialized extractor or find a local cane mill.
I bet it would also work for sorghum… try it and see.
As a final note: homemade cane syrup tastes absolutely amazing… you’re gonna try it and love it. I have no idea why it isn’t as popular as maple syrup. In mind they are neck and neck.
Planting sugar cane is easy… it’s the waiting that’s hard!
In the fall, you’ll often see sugar cane for sale at roadside produce stands. If you can keep yourself from chewing it all, it’s easy to plant and grow. I buried multiple canes in the fall of 2011 and got a decent harvest in the fall of 2012. Now I’ve gone bigger and planted a bunch more.
Planting sugar cane in my north Florida garden
I double-dug a series of trenches and dropped in cane segments. The soil should keep it alive until spring when it’ll pop up and make a nice bed. Sugar cane is truly beautiful and looks a lot like bamboo. It works well in a garden bed, a food forest, or even an edible landscape.
Fortunately, sugar cane does not require swampy conditions. I had it grow quite well mixed into my seldom-watered food forest out front.
Bonus: Sugar cane is a perennial! Once you get a stand going, it can keep producing for years.
My wife wants to make cane syrup, so I’m growing tons. Actually, there’s really no reason to grow quite as much as I am, but darn it… I just want to.
Interestingly, I picked up two different types of sugar cane from two different farm stands. One kind has green canes and one has maroon. Neither seem to be good chewing varieties, even though they’re delicious. I’m guessing it’s “crystal cane,” i.e., the type you make commercial cane sugar from.
After taking the photo above, I buried the canes under about 4″ of soil… and dug in another row or two. I. CAN’T. STOP. PLANTING. SUGARCANE!
UPDATE: Our cane-planting led us to making our own sugar cane syrup – check this out.