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How to grow sugar cane: Some sweet choices

February 7, 2012 |  7:34 pm

John Guettler, sugar caneAs he pours fresh sugar cane juice through a filter, John Guettler says it’s important not to confuse the plant with what it becomes after processing. “Sugar cane has been demonized in Western cultures because it is turned into sugar,” Guettler, right, says.

He pours a glass of sugar cane juice, skimmed of foam. The juice has a consistency like water but is slightly thicker and sweet, with a caramel undertone. It’s grassy too. And filling -- partly why it has become a favorite drink for fasts. Robby Whitelaw, co-owner of Raw Cane SuperJuice Bar in Hollywood, says sugar cane juice is full of fiber and minerals, like wheat grass.

Last week we wrote about gardeners growing sugar cane as a source of juice, as a chewy snack, perhaps even as a windbreak around the yard. This week we continue the conversation with some advice on propagation and a discussion about how sugar canes are not all the same. The varieties used in juicing contain less sucrose than the type processed into sugar. Juicing canes are bred to have long straight sections with fewer nodes; chewing canes are bred for easy peeling.

In Louisiana and Florida, where sugar cane has a long history of commercial production, heirloom varieties come in a rainbow of colors: Georgia Red, Louisiana Purple, a green-yellow variety called Home Green.

Sugar cane stalkAbout 80 2-foot sections of cane make about 3 gallons of juice, Whitelaw says as he feeds a stalk into a machine with three grinding rollers. Although his juice bar specializes in blending of cane juice with coconut and ginger, his favorite is simple: 4 ounces of cane juice mixed with the juice of one lemon plus water and ice.

At Wattles Farm, the community garden in Hollywood, Gina Thomas planted a purple stalk, right, good for chewing.

“But you have to give water to them everyday if you expect to get juice,” she says. “They grow better almost in a marsh.  Then you have a lot of juice.”

Propagating sugar cane is simple. Take a 3-foot section of cane with at least six bud-eyes. These are the little bumps at the base of leaves -- embryonic stalks about to emerge. The leaves develop on opposite sides of the cane, as do the buds.

The pieces should be positioned in soil about 6 inches deep. Plant deeper in sandy conditions. One Chinese method is to lay the stalk in the ground on a diagonal; some growers lay stalks flat but overlapping. Keep the soil moist, not wet, and watch for new shoots emerging after a week or two.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through what it plants, appears on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Sugar cane juicing
Whitelaw feeds stalks into a juicer, while Guettler attends to the spent stalks at the other end.

 

Sugar cane pulp
Guettler pulls pressed cane through the machine at Raw Cane SuperJuice Bar in Hollywood.

 

Sugar cane juice
The juice, after it has been strained and skimmed of foam.

 

Sugar cane
Sugar cane growing in Echo Park.


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