Bello Food Gardening with Fi Morgan: Something Sweet

In this week's edition of Bello Food Gardening, Fi Morgan takes us through the tricks of growing 'something sweet', including sugar cane.

Following on from last week where we looked at our daily brew (CLICK HERE) , what about another of life’s essential food pleasures, sweetness? It’s hard to get through a day without adding something sweet into your diet somewhere. Let’s start with a favourite.

Chocolate Theobroma cacao

Very sobering news for chocoholics ahead… If the ships or trucks stop you may need to acclimate your tastebuds to carob -nooooo!- as that grows just fine here (and will be covered in a future article on high nutrition survival foods). Cacao is an equatorial tropical tree and very very little is grown in Australia. How little? In 2017 there were only 15 to 20 hectares growing commercially on this entire continent (around Innisfail and Mossman, 100km north of Cairns), and if that’s not bad enough, it’s described as ‘challenging’ to grow, for professionals! (1) There is no hope of backyard growers here keeping themselves chocolated up. Put it on the stockpile list. It could become currency.

Sugarcane Saccharum officinarum

Sugar cane is grown widely, in many gardens in town (2) and does just fine here, even though it is a giant tropical grass. Turns out that it’s extremely hardy with very efficient photosynthesis. (3) Growers I spoke with mentioned that it was too prolific next to the chook pen (4) and that it had transplanted multiple times without any issue, (4,5) including across three house moves. (5)

There are two caveats to growing sugarcane. Hmm, maybe three.
One – It’s fireprone. Sugarcane “should be sited carefully because of the flammability risk” (6) Note that sugarcane waste is used as Bio-fuel tinder tabs.(7). Be smart – don’t grow it next to your house.

Two – It can harbour rats and snakes. “If left unattended, the canes get chewed by rats” (6) Commercial burning of cane fields before harvest is partly to remove dry leaves for easier harvesting, but also to drive away rats and venomous snakes, without harming the stalks and roots. (8,9) But note that no local growers I spoke with mentioned any snake issues.

Three – Processing is a pain. Everyone I spoke with said they really just cut strips off the cane to give this to kids to chew on as a sweet snack. (3–5) Or it’s goat food as they devour all of it. (4) The quickest, easiest processing means a hand cranked or pedal powered cane crusher to extract the juice. The machine is expensive as it needs to be so sturdy to crush cane and might be a good community tool library item rather than an individual purchase. After straining and evaporating off the liquid, you’ll end up with sugar crystals. Another way is to chop the cane into small sections, machete or meat cleaver recommended, slice off the hard outer cane layer, chop the insides into sections and then either run this through a food processor and strain, (10) or boil the pieces for hours and strain to get a sugar syrup. (11) Note that the leaves and tops of sugarcane do not contain any significant sugar. It’s the sturdy lower stems that you’re after. (12)

There are red and green, large and small varieties growing in the area with no difference reported in how easy they are to grow. Any sugarcane will do! Be warned that it can grow to 4m in height.

Sugarcane doesn’t seem to be too bothered about the soil it’s grown in, as long as it’s well drained and full sun. That can mean on mounds on a floodplain (3) or on a ridge. (5) Its favourite is floodplains and silty loamy soil. Sugarcane is susceptible to frost damage. From about -2 degrees C the growing tip dies. (13) All this means is don’t plant your cane in a fog prone icy frost pocket.

This is a warm season plant. It’s tropical! Commercially in NSW it’s planted mid August to October. (14) Canes are chopped into lengths of about 30cm with at least two nodes – one for roots and one for stalks, (3) and buried about 10cm underground. (14)

This is a hungry plant. It’s hardy, so you don’t need to feed or water it and it will survive just fine. If you’re going for maximum sugary goodness, top dress with compost high in phosphorus (the sugar forming mineral) like chook poo, and potassium (for stem growth) (3) like wood ash or banana. No one I spoke to growing here actually irrigates their sugarcane, though commercial growers do. (15)

It will take at least a year for the cane to mature. In NSW, two years is normal for commercial growers. (14) When it’s ready for harvesting the leaves will dry off and the stem will begin to fall over. (3)

A few more notes – sugarcane tends to be prone to falling over. The wind will do this, and it will naturally fall over when mature and reroot at the nodes where it touches the ground along it’s length. If it’s not pruned and tidied up, your sugarcane patch will continually expand by clumping and by falling over. (3)

Home grown sugarcane can be used as an on-site mulch. It does tend to sprout from the nodes but these are easy to pull up. (5)

Next week, a few sugar alternatives that are much easier to process.

Supported by:

Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding

Local expert contributers

The Gourmet Garden School 

https://www.facebook.com/TheGourmetGardenSchool/

Bellingen Permaculture

https://www.bellingenpermaculture.com.au/

Notes:

1. Cocoa | AgriFutures Australia [Internet]. AgriFutures Australia. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/farm-diversity/cocoa/

2. Evans K. In a reply to my Facebook post to (BOGG) Bellingen Organic Gardening Group. 2021. 

3. In conversation with Ian Thomas on 3 June 2021. 

4. In conversation with Sue Lennox on 3 June 2021. 

5. In conversation with Jennie Fenton on 4 June 2021. 

6. A Guide to Crops for the Bellinger Valley and their Use in a Food Forest by Nick Radford [Internet]. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: http://www.ecolivingdesign.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Bellingen-plant-guide.pdf

7. Sweetfire Firestarter – 24 pack [Internet]. UCO Gear. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.ucogear.com/sweetfire-firestarter-bio-fuel-tabs-24-pack-mt–sft

8. Sugarcane. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sugarcane&oldid=1027889667

9. Harvesting [Internet]. Mackay Sugar. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.mkysugar.com.au/business/cane-supply/Pages/Harvesting.aspx

10. marecipes.com. How to make Sugar Cane Juice at home [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DA_5Ry6H2E

11. How to make cane syrup at home… without a sugar cane press! [Internet]. The Survival Gardener. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.thesurvivalgardener.com/how-to-make-cane-syrup-at-home-without-2/

12. Sugar Cane Farming [Internet]. Australian Cane Farms. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.australiancanefarms.com.au/gallery

13. Frost in Cane [Internet]. Sunshine Sugar. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://sunshinesugar.com.au/25-info/information-for-growers/18-frost-in-cane

14. How sugar cane is grown is NSW [Internet]. Sunshine Sugar. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://sunshinesugar.com.au/33-nsw-sugar-industry/49-how-sugar-cane-is-grown-is-nsw

15. Calcino et al. – 2008 – SmartCane Plant Cane Establishment and Management.pdf [Internet]. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://sugarresearch.com.au/sugar_files/2017/02/Irrigation-Manual-F-LowRes2.pdf

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