How to Grow and Care for Sugar Cane
Gemma Johnstone is a gardening expert who has written 120-plus articles for The Spruce covering how to care for a large variety of plants from all over the world. She’s traveled all over Europe, living now in Italy.
Updated on 04/15/22
Barbara Gillette is a master gardener, herbalist, beekeeper, and journalist. She has 30 years of experience propagating and growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals.
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Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) is a tall, clump-forming perennial grass with long, thick stems filled with sweet sap. The grass is harvested commercially for many uses, including making sugar and molasses, but it also makes an excellent privacy screen, border, accent, or focal point in a home garden. The foliage colors vary depending on the cultivar, but the grass tends to be large and richly green with very sharp edges that require care when handling. Plant sugar cane in the late summer, and though it takes time to mature, once it does, it will be a fast-growing grass.
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Sugar Cane Plant Care
You can successfully grow sugar cane as a perennial if you live in a warm region that, ideally, receives a lot of precipitation. Or, you can grow the plants in containers that can be overwintered indoors. Otherwise, sugar cane can be grown as annuals.
For gardeners living in warmer regions, these plants can become invasive with the right conditions, so proper maintenance and consideration of where they are being planted will be important.
Sugar cane does best in a full sun position. If you have a shady garden, the plant won’t thrive.
Sugar cane does well in most soil types as long as they are well-draining. The plant’s favorite type of soil, however, is deep and friable (crumbly).
Sugar cane is known for being an energy-hungry plant. It saps the nutrients from the soil rapidly. Soil rich in organic matter is going to be important. Many enthusiasts mix a fertile compost and lime into the soil.
Sugar cane likes to be kept consistently moist in well-drained soil, but not wet or overly watered. If you don’t live in a region that receives a lot of rainfall, it will need a decent amount of additional irrigation. Plan on the average 1 to 2 inches of water a week.
However, watering can be reduced if you plan to harvest mature stems. A dry spell will be beneficial for slowing growth and increasing sugar production in the lower part of the stalks.
Temperature and Humidity
Sugar cane needs high temperatures and plenty of sunlight to maximize its growth. Most sugar cane cultivars can’t tolerate the cold or below-freezing temperatures. Sugar cane that’s growing in cold conditions can cause leaves to brown, wither, and the plant can die in prolonged periods of frost.
The plant benefits from regular fertilization because it requires an abundance of nutrients. During its optimum growth period in the summer, sugar cane requires fertilizer feedings every week.
Although sugar cane is a vegetative crop that does well with larger quantities of nitrogen, be careful not to go too high because this may weaken the plant’s stems.
Types of Sugar Cane
There are three types of sugar cane. However, it’s typical to grow chewing or syrup varieties in a residential garden. Here are the defining characteristics of each type of sugar cane:
- Chewing canes: Softer fibers stick together if chewed, but can also be used to make syrup. Popular varieties include ‘Yellow Gal,’ ‘White Transparent’, ‘Georgia Red’, and ‘Home Green’. Also consider a newer ornamental sugar cane variety with purplish leaves, which is also edible, called ‘Pele’s Smoke,’ which comes from Hawaii.
- Syrup canes: This type of sugar cane contains less sucrose, but it is often used for the production of syrup. Popular varieties include ‘Louisiana Ribbon’, Louisiana Purple’, ‘Louisiana Striped’, ‘Cayana’, and ‘Green German’.
- Crystal canes: This sugar cane is typically used for commercial purposes and contains a very high percentage of sucrose that forms into crystals to sustain industrial production processes.
To obtain heirloom varieties of sugar cane, you can seek out hobbyists or farmers who preserve and sell old-fashioned sugar canes.
Harvesting Sugar Cane
Harvesting is best done in the fall before the first frost. Use a sterilized and sharp cutting tool and cut the grass as close to the ground as you can, which is where the most sugar is concentrated. Trim the tops of the stalks where there’s a low concentration of sugar. Chew, squeeze, or crush your harvested stalks for a sweet treat.
If your sugar cane is thriving and vigorously shooting up, the grass can begin to sprawl and lose its upright, clump-forming habit. If this happens, it is usually best to cut the plant back and remove dead, withered foliage for a tidier appearance. Cut stalks are excellent material for organic mulch, or they can be propagated to make new plants or even harvested.
Propagating Sugar Cane
Sugar cane is typically planted using “seed canes,” but you can also propagate the plant through stem cuttings to make your own seed canes. The process is not complicated. Here are steps to take a cutting:
- With a sterilized gardening cutting tool, take a 4- to 6-inch piece of a healthy stem that has at least two internodes in the upper part of the stem.
- Plant the cutting deep into the ground, making sure no more than 2 inches of the stem is visible above the soil. You can also bury the cutting horizontally into the soil.
- It usually takes about two weeks for shoots to start appearing on the nodes and roots to begin forming.
How to Grow Sugar Cane From Seed
Growing sugar cane from seeds is possible, but not typically the preferred choice for best results. Follow the directions on the seed packet and you should see germination in two weeks. Then you can transplant the seedlings to the ground or pot.
If you plant sugar cane as a perennial, you can overwinter the plants for protection. Prep for overwintering after you have harvested your sugar cane and trimmed it as close to the ground as possible. Place a mound of soil over the plant’s “stubble” to protect it from cold weather.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Sugar cane is prone to typical pests such as mealybugs, but you should be on the lookout for moth caterpillars, sugarcane borers (Diatraea saccharalis kills the stalks), termites, spittlebugs, and sugarcane beetles (Euetheola humilis). The grass can potentially contract root rot, whip smut, red stripe (top rot), and viral problems such as ratoon stunting and grassy shoot disease, which both stunt the growth of the sugar cane plant.
Is sugar cane easy to grow?
Yes, planting seed canes and maintaining sugar cane is very easy when grown as a perennial in warm regions and an annual in colder parts of the country. It is not a finicky grass and does quite well without much attention.
Why is my sugar cane flowering?
Sugar cane typically produces flower spikes in the fall, although these will only bloom on plants being grown as perennials rather than annuals. The flowering temporarily reduces the sucrose production in the plant.
Where should I plant sugar cane?
Since the leaves can be very sharp, it’s advised to avoid planting sugar cane in high-traffic areas or in gardens with little elbow room. Sometimes the leaves can droop or fall over which can be dangerous if touched. Seek out a sunny spot with plenty of room to maneuver around the plants.