Did you know that you can grow sugar cane well outside the tropics? Or that it will produce a harvest on dry ground?
I didn't until a few years back. Since then, I've learned a lot about sugar cane - and come to love the rich flavor of organic homemade cane syrup.
I've always wanted to make my own maple syrup... but it's really hard to do when you don't have maple trees lying around.
If you're in the south, you know what I mean. There are maples here and there, but there's nothing like the great stands of magnificent sugar maples that are found further north.
Here, if you want syrup, you basically need to grow sorghum or sugar cane. I prefer the latter, since the yields are high and the plant is perennial.
This is easy as pie. In the fall when roadside stands and farmer's markets are selling sugar cane, grab a few good-looking stems and bring them home. Each joint on the canes is capable of rooting and growing new shoots. I cut canes up into sections that contain 3 or 4 joints, just to give my plants a little redundancy in case of sprout failure or hungry vermin.
Prepare a planting bed, then dig 4-6" deep trenches along it a foot or two apart. Lay your cane segments on their sides and cover them up with soil. In the spring, shoots will appear. Sometimes it takes a while, so be patient! They'll come up. I plant mine from November to January and they tend to come up in March and April.
Sugar cane is a grass so it likes nitrogen. I've fed mine with chicken manure and that's made them quite happy. Anything you'd use to feed your lawn will also work on cane. Give them lots of water and they'll also thank you.
Sugar cane also enjoys plenty of sun (it's a remarkably efficient photosynthesizer), so make sure you're not trying to grow the poor things in the shade.
By late fall, if all has gone well, your bed of cane will be tall and thick, like a stand of bamboo. At this point, you'll want to grab a cigar, a Panama hat and a machete. (Only the machete is strictly necessary, but the other accessories set the mood for a proper harvest.) I like to harvest close to my first frost date. Do NOT let them get hit by frost. If you're not sure what weather is coming, harvest a little early so you don't risk your shot at sugaring.
Cut your canes as close to the ground as possible, just don't hack into the dirt too much. The roots beneath are important: they're going to give you next year's harvest. I throw the cut canes into a pile, then when I've cut everything down, I start stripping off the leaves and throwing them over the stumps still in my bed. A bit of extra mulch or straw is a good idea, too - you want to keep the roots safe from the ravages of cold weather.
This is the fun part, and it fills your house with a wonderful sweet corn aroma. Professionals crush the juice out of sugar cane with special presses - but I have my own drop-dead simple method I share in detail here (with lots of photos).
Once you get your juice, it's a simple matter of boiling it down to the right consistency. Cook... cook... cook... and eventually, you'll be rewarded with a syrup that I believe rivals even the venerable elixir of maples.
Sugar cane is easy to grow, easy to harvest and easy to process into something that's delicious and very gift-worthy for the holidays. Try a bed this year - you'll be glad you did.
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