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Growing Cacao in London - Our First Year Story

Growing Cacao in London - Our First Year Story

Posted by Albert Chau on 7th Jun 2019

A year ago, we were given a fresh cacao pod. Originally we were going to open it and taste the fresh pulp inside, but when it’s opened, we could see some of the beans inside had started sprouting. We thought we’d plant them instead. This little fun project turned out to be a rather interesting learning journey for us.

In total, we planted 14 beans into pots, with the hope that one (out of fourteen) might grow. “You pessimists!” we hear you say. With London being closer to the North Pole than Equator, and without a heated greenhouse to mimick the tropical climate (like at Kew Garden), the odds of growing cacao successfully is stacking high against us.


Theobroma Cacao in the heated greenhouse at Kew Gardens

The June weather in Britain fluctuates quite a lot, and so we decided that we would put seven pots in the shower cubicle in the house as it’s warm, while the other seven would go in the greenhouse (partly because the shower room was simply not big enough). 

The first cacao baby made its appearance within a week – the first day we noticed something was pushing out of the soil, we were checking it out every hour, to see if it really was growing, or just our imagination.


4 days after planting the beans in the soil - First cacao plant making its appearance

The first one started to grow quite quickly and within a few days the green stalk was clearly visible. We decided to name this first cacao baby “Sean” (after a certain British actor with the surname Bean). 


Our first cacao baby - Sean

For a couple of days, we thought that’s it – the rest all died. Then to our surprise, the second one appeared. Then the third, and the fourth, …. all from our shower cubicle “plot”. Still no sign of any life in the greenhouse plot for about 2 weeks! But then suddenly the ones in the greenhouse plot started appearing one by one too, just as the long heatwave of 2018 started. 


Few more cacao babies in our "Plot 2" - the Greenhouse

By the fifth week, there were 13 in total, and we thought the last one just failed because we ran out of good soil and we just put whatever soil we could get hold of to plant this last one, and so imagined our joy when the last one also appeared also, nearly 2 months after we put the beans in the soil!


Last but not least - Cacao baby No. 14 - "PJ"

It’s really fun to watch the cacao plants grow from the start. We have seen cacao plants at various stages of growth when we visited cacao farms in South America, but this is the first time we could see them grow every day.

We knew very early on that we would not have the space to keep all 14 plants when the winter approached. Fortunately we have many friends who are keen to become the parents of our cacao babies - we were inundated with adaption requests! Here are some of the parents of our cacao babies:


Some of the parents for our cacao babies: James, Charles & Steve, Hazel, Steve & Stephanie

So what have we learnt in the past year? A lot! Here are a few interesting observations:

(1) Growing cacao is not as easy as you think

Despite our 100% success rate in getting a plant out of every bean we planted, not all of them have survived to see its first year birthday. One of them died while in our care (more on that in the next point), and a few friends have failed to keep their plants alive – probably due to temperature (well, we can all wrap up warm if it gets cold at home, but cacao likes the warmth), humidity (not watering the plants enough?), soil quality (we fed our cacao babies with some seaweed-based plant food in autumn and they seemed to grow much better after that). But there are some success stories also - look at how well the cacao baby is at James':


1-year old baby cacao at James' (J Cocoa)

(2) Importance of plant management

While getting them to grow seems hard enough, looking after them is just as hard! One day we spotted some holes on the leaves on one of our cacao plants in the greenhouse. We didn’t think too much of it because we expect some hungry insects around. However, as the week went on, bigger holes appeared and one of the leaves was nearly devoured. 


The hungry caterpillar helped himself to this poor cacao baby in our greenhouse

So we started looking for the culprit, and at the same time we moved all the other plants out of the greenhouse to stop anything spreading. The next day we found a caterpillar underneath one of the leaves when we did a thorough inspection – that’s when the caterpillar met its demise. We thought the plant would just grow back somehow, but alas, it started to deteriorate no matter what we did, and in the end it just died. So imagine at a farm level – inspection of any pests or disease is key in cacao management. We could easily move the plant pots away. But if the trees are in the soil and there’s disease developing, there’s no luxury to pick them up and move them away, and if it’s not dealt with promptly, the disease would spread and devastate the whole farm (or worse) – this is what happened in many countries, and also in other plants. This really brings home the work at the cacao farms - careful management and keeping an eye on the diseases is key.

(3) Are they growing or not?

Not sure if it’s the British climate, but the plants go through phases of rapid growth (a few new leaves all appearing at the same time and the plant grows noticeably taller very quickly) and “hibernation” (when all growth just seems to have stopped). So we are constantly asking ourselves “are they still OK or not?” - the stress of parenthood!


To grow or not to grow

(4) The new leaves are not green!

When the plants were very young, you just see green leaves coming out - anything turning brown is not a good sign. However, as the plants get more established, the new leaves that are coming out now appear more brown (and almost translucent), and gradually when they get bigger, they turn green and thicken. 

Never judge a leaf by its first appearance: brown and thin - doesn't look very healthy like that, but now it's a lush green colour

 

(5) It takes years to get any cacao (if at all)

Some friends seem to think that they will be able to see the cacao pods on their plants by now. No chance! It takes a few years to get the first cacao pod even in the tropics. In London, without a dedicated heated greenhouse, that’s out of the question really. And without the midges in the tropics that usually do the job of pollinating the cacao flowers, we are not holding our breaths on getting any cacao pods. It’s taken Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden many years to get their cacao pods on their cacao trees, and they have dedicated facility to grow the plants in this challenging latitude. Here is one of the trees at Kew Gardens.


Cacao tree at Kew Gardens - I think this one is over 30 years old

(6) Finding the right spot to grow it at home is not easy

Our friends have put them all in different places: bathroom may be warm and humid when you have a shower or bath, but if you are out all day and the heating is switched off, the cacao plants don’t like that; conservatory can be nice but if there’s too much direct sunlight, it will scorch the plant; other rooms in the house may be too dry especially if you have the heating on, and remember to feed the plant lots of water. We seem to have found our sweet spot at home – north-facing window (so the plants only get a bit of direct sunlight early in the morning), on the window sill, just above the radiator! And each plant drinks about half a litre of water a day! Our cacao babies seem to have happy there! 


Our cacao babies do love the radiator - keep them warm in the harsh British winter

Would you want to have a go at growing cacao, now that you have read all the trouble we've been through?