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Permaculture plant: Coffee

Photo by Philip Richards
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
Photo by Pattang

Clockwise from above left: Coffee flowers; Berries drying on a rack; Picking the ripe berries from the bush; Dried coffee beans ready for roasting.

Photo by Bonga 1965

We all love coffee, but often the beans have travelled a long way to reach our cup. Is it possible to grow it yourself and cut down on those food miles?

Generally, coffee is grown in warmer climates. In Australia, this means from Northern NSW, South East Queensland and the Atherton Tablelands. The theoretical lower latitude is 30º (about Grafton), but it could be grown further south if protected from frost in suitable microclimates.

An attractive and ornamental plant, coffee (Coffea arabica) belongs to the same family as gardenias and citrus. It has glossy dark green leaves and a covering of fragrant small white flowers, followed by green berries and bright red cherries. It is a very robust plant, with few pests and diseases.

The greatest production of beans comes from well-fertilised bushes growing in full sun, however they are also shade tolerant and grow quite happily under or with other trees and bushes. This makes it a suitable plant to be used as an understory or windbreak.

Coffee has relatively shallow roots so it is important to prepare the ground well and keep it well-mulched. It likes moist but well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. The plants react quickly to a watering—a soaking after a dry period prompts flowering.


Coffee plants can be successfully pot-grown with pruning and should grow easily in a greenhouse. They can also be grown indoors in a well-lit position. A dwarf cultivar ‘Catui’ is suitable for pots and is a heavy cropper.

Naturally a tall rangy tree, coffee is better kept as a bush by cutting out the central leader when about a metre high. It stands about 1.5 to 2 metres high. Feed with citrus food or well-rotted manure after harvest as the new flowers are beginning and again when the fruit is filling.

Coffee is very easy to grow. There will be seedlings beneath the bush that can be potted up successfully to increase your coffee forest. Four bushes is probably a good number to begin with, with each tree producing about 500 grams of dry beans.


Harvest season can vary in home production and depends a bit on rainfall. Usually in the north it is late June through to end of September. In a backyard situation it may go through to November.

Berries ripen differentially. The fruit becomes yellow and then ripens through changing shades of red until they are a bright scarlet. Left a little longer they become crimson at full ripeness. They are easier to pulp at this stage.

Wet Processing Method

A berry can be squeezed by hand to separate the two slimy beans from the flesh, or can be pulped by pounding them in a bucket or treading in a tub. Fill a bucket with water and swirl to skim off the lighter skins. To remove the mucilaginous (slimy) coating, fermentation in water is required. To do this, leave the berries in the bucket of water for a few days. After a day or so the scum rises to the top. Wash the beans by rubbing and pouring through a colander. This will take three rinses (the beans will now feel gritty).


Spread out beans to dry for at least a fortnight and turn daily. A solar dryer or dehydrator can be used to speed up the drying process. When ready, the crisp parchment can be rubbed off using your fingers and thumb. However, this is a tedious process to do by hand. Try the ‘sandshoe shuffle’. With your foot in a soft shoe, rub the beans in a circular motion. Use a hair dryer or the wind to winnow the lighter chaff from the green beans. When the beans are dry, place in sealed containers to equalise any residual water content for even roasting.


Hand-operated machines are available to make the two most time-consuming processes easier. A pulper removes the red flesh from the two internal seeds and a huller separates the parchments from the coffee bean.


For roasting, a forced air popcorn maker works perfectly. Small coffee roasting machines are also available. Beans can be put into an oven (single layer at 230°C) but they need stirring. On the stove, use a heavy base pan, stirring constantly. You can also use a barbeque.

Coffee plants and seeds are available from some markets and online, including, and


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