Land Preparation

During land clearing for coffee, heavy vegetation and large rocks are removed. Where the land is not too rocky, clearing involves the removal of rocks, debris, and vegetation. After initial land preparation, collect a soil sample for analysis (follow the procedure in the CTAHR publication Testing your soil: Why and how to take a soil sample, available from CTAHR Cooperative Extension Service offices or from the web site". The analysis will determine the need for soil amendments that must be incorporated before planting, as well as any fertilizer nutrients that should be applied before planting.

After the vegetation has been cleared, map the area. Assistance in developing a soil conservation plan is available from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 808-541-2600 ext. 101. Record the contours of the land and mark the tree spacing, windbreak locations, and approach roads to allow vehicles to enter and traverse the orchard. Roads within the orchard are essential in reducing costs of production. They facilitate delivery of fertilizer, transportation of harvested coffee cherry, and movement of sprayers for weed, insect, and disease control. Even where close coffee spacing is used, the installation of roads in the orchards between every fourth or fifth row of coffee trees to allow passage of vehicles is absolutely essential. Coffee planted in hedgerows for mechanical harvesting will require adequate roads at least 20 ft wide at both ends of each row for turning.

Where the land can be cultivated, fertilizer amendments such as phosphorus and lime should be thoroughly incorporated into the soil by plowing and disking several months before transplanting. If planting in former sugarcane or pineapple fields, rip any in-field roads to 20 inches depth, then rip the entire field. Apply lime and phosphorus in amounts recommended by the soil analysis laboratory; at planting, the soil pH should be 6. Then, cross-rip the field. Harrow the field to prepare for planting the windbreak rows. Rip again over the rows where coffee will be planted, then break clods and level the soil with a rail (Osgood and Chang, 1994).

Where the land cannot be plowed, holes must be dug or a trench must be ripped with a bulldozer. The holes should be large and deep enough to allow plants to be transplanted without bending the taproot. In former years, the practice was to place a handful of fertilizer high in phosphate (superphosphate or triple superphosphate) in the bottom of the hole, fill it completely with soil, and allow the soil to settle for a month or so before planting. Where little soil was available, a shovel-full of soil would be placed in the bottom of the hole before planting to prevent injury of the roots by contact with the fertilizer. Today, slow-release fertilizer tablets are often placed on the side of the hole with less danger to new transplants.

Planting distance

Traditionally, coffee trees were spaced at 8 x 8 ft or, in cloudy areas, 10 x 12 ft. These wide spacings allowed the trees to be kept low to facilitate picking and to expose a large surface of each tree to sunlight for increased bearing. Many farms in Kona are still planted in this manner, with spacing being determined by such factors as elevation (and its effect on sunlight and rainfall) and management practices.

Recently, planting coffee in hedgerows has become popular, with the trees close together in rows separated by wide alleys. This system increases the number of trees per acre. In Kona, 'Guatemalan' coffee trees pruned in the Beaumont-Fukunaga style (see p. 29) and hand-harvested may be spaced at 4-5 ft x 10-11 ft. This system also lends itself well to contour planting.

In other areas, spacing of high-density plantings of semidwarf cultivars ('Caturra', or 'Catuai') varies with the means of harvesting. Spacing for mechanical harvesting in Hawaii ranges from 2.5-3 x 12 ft; optimum in-row spacing has not been determined, but it may be 4-6 ft, to reduce the need for pruning.

An advantage of planting in hedgerows is lower fertilizer and herbicide application costs. Instead of applying fertilizer around each individual tree, application is made in a continuous band along either side of each row, 1 ft or so away from the trunks of the trees. Vehicle-mounted sprayers may be easily moved along the rows in an orchard planted in hedgerows. In irrigated orchards, soluble fertilizers can be applied with irrigation water.


Coffee orchards are started from transplants. Coffee seeds are rarely planted directly into the orchard, primarily because they germinate slowly, and weeds become a problem. Growers have a number of options to obtain seedlings. For hand transplanting, these include growing plants in plastic bags or paper sleeves, growing plants in bed nurseries, and digging up volunteer seedlings (pulapula).

Mechanical Transplanter
Figure 9. Transplanting coffee with a mechanical transplanter. Note sudax windbreak is too short (too young) for adequate windbreaking.

Mechanical transplanting requires plants in bottomless paper sleeves or plastic dibbles. Standard mechanical transplanters are used. Plastic containers must be removed before transplanting; bottomless paper sleeves can be left on, although removing them encourages roots to spread as soon as possible. Mechanical planting is usually done through plastic ground covers over drip irrigation tubes.

CTAHR researchers have found that tissue-cultured plantlets grow normally and are suitable for propagation. The Hawaii Agriculture Research Center is evaluating the use of rooted cuttings.

The recent appearance of the Kona coffee root-knot nematode (Meloidogyne konaensis; see p. 23-24) has created a need for caution in transplanting. Transporting volunteer coffee seedlings to new planting sites can also transport nematodes in their roots and should not be done unless the soil of the orchard they are taken from has been assayed and declared free of the nematode. When seedlings are grown in containers in media that includes soil, this also should be analyzed for the presence of nematodes.

For most situations, purchasing ready-to-plant seedlings is the most cost-effective alternative. Coffee trees can remain productive for 100 years provided they start as healthy, well grown seedlings. The money saved producing your own seedlings will not pay for the possible cost of replanting an orchard, replacing dead trees, or even starting a nursery over again. We recommend buying seedlings in paper sleeves or plastic bags, ready-to-plant, from a nursery.

Coffee intended for planting in an old or existing coffee orchard in Kona should be grafted onto rootstock of the species Coffea dewevrei if soil assay finds the Kona coffee root-knot nematode. Some nurseries may be selling such grafted plants.

Volunteer seedlings (pulapula)

Occasionally farmers use pulapula from abandoned orchards. We do not recommend this practice on the Big Island due to chance that the seedlings maybe infested with nematodes. If the site is nematode-free, then pulapula can be used, provided steps are taken to handle them appropriately. Pulapula are most often found growing in the shade. Transplant them into an open nursery and expose them to direct sunlight until they improve their root system, get accustomed to open sunlight, and develop new leaves. Pulapula are usually spindly and irregular in shape and size, ranging from 1-4 ft tall (trees 1-2 ft tall should be selected if possible). It is best, therefore, to plant them at an angle to force the development of several new verticals. Select three or four of the new verticals 18-24 inches above the ground, and cut off the original vertical.

Selection of the nursery site

Experienced coffee farmers in Kona prefer to grow seedlings near the proposed orchard site. Otherwise, it is preferable to grow them at a site below the main highway, where it is warmer, sunnier, and not as humid as above the highway. Seedlings grown 1/2 mile or more above the highway should not be planted in orchards below the highway. In areas other than Kona, coffee seedlings should not be raised in cool, cloudy, or rainy areas for planting in warmer, drier areas.

Nematode infestation of soil or potting media for plants is a concern if you are in areas where Kona coffee root-knot nematode is present. Roots of plants grown in containers should not come in contact with infested soil. Where this is a possibility, use raised planting benches (>18 inches above the ground) or beds of cinder or rock covered with plastic weed mat (woven or solid). If there is danger that water or soil from an infested area can wash into the nursery, prevent this by using benches or diversion berms.

Selection and preparation of seeds for planting into a nursery

When selecting seeds for growing seedlings for transplanting, pick ripe coffee cherries from consistently heavy-bearing trees. Do not use seeds picked up from the ground.

Remove the pulp by hand if only a few pounds are required. For larger amounts, it is safe to use seeds from cherries that were pulped and fermented. The seed (bean) at this stage is parchment coffee; do not mill to the green-bean stage, because milling injures the seed. Seeds from hydro-pulped cherry may be used, but it is advisable to check the germination to determine if the seeds were damaged by this preparation.

After pulping, dry the seeds in the shade for about 10 days if they are not to be planted immediately. The quantity of seeds needed to plant a given acreage depends on the spacing in the orchard, the germination rate, and the survival rate for plants both in the nursery and after transplanting into the orchard. In general, 4 pounds of 'Guatemalan' cherry produces 1 pound of seeds, which makes about 1000 seedlings.

Planting the seeds

Seeds can be started in a seed flat. Use sterilized topsoil (or at least soil without weed seeds and nematodes) or a 1:1:1 (volume) mixture of vermiculite, perlite, and peat moss. Spread the seeds evenly and cover them with 1/2 inch of soil or a 1:1 vermiculite-perlite mixture. Keep the flat moist (but not saturated) with regular misting and place it in direct sunlight. Coffee seeds take 50 or more days to germinate. As the seedlings emerge, 70-90 days after planting, gently pull out the entire plant by its matchstick-like stem before the cotyledons open. Transplant the seedling to a plastic bag or pot (3 inches diameter by 8 inches tall) using care not to bend the taproot.

Seeds can also be directly sown into pots or bags to avoid transplanting from a seedling flat. Plant two or three seeds per unit and thin to one after they emerge. Some growers favor direct seeding into bottomless paper sleeves (2 x 2 x 6-8 inches). Various types of planting containers are available (see Sources, p. 2), including "dibble" tubes designed for forestry trees, which are 11/2 inches diameter by 8 inches tall and suspended in trays. One advantage of these planting systems is that the taproot is "air-pruned" and forced to branch.

Paper Sleeves
Figure 10. Bottomless, paper sleeves in growing flat with grid bottom.

Paper Sleeves in Plastic Frame
Figure 11. Papers sleeves have no bottoms, they sit on the grid of the plastic frame. When the tap root grows out of the sleeve into the air it dies causing the root to branch. This creates a plant with highly branched root system without a tap root.

Transplant Seedlings
Figure 12. Plant at smallest size, 5 leaf nodes, for planting. Keeping in nursery longer creates a large plant better able to adapt to transplanting.

The next seedling growth stage is when the cotyledons open. At first, cotyledon leaves are tender, but they gradually harden during the first 3-4 months after planting. After 6-8 months, several pairs of true leaves will have developed. If pots or bags are used, check the root systems of a sample of 10 plants chosen at random at least 4 weeks before transplanting into the orchard. Avoid seedlings with taproots bent in a J or Z shape. These bent roots will constrict sap and water flow in the young, bearing trees, which may die back or fall over. Plants with severely bent tap roots should have the bend cut off and at least the top third of the leaves pruned away to compensate for root loss while the plant recovers. Cutting off the end of the taproot encourages branching. A new technique to avoid "J-root" seedlings is using a copper hydroxide compound, Spin OutR (see Sources, p. 2) painted or sprayed on the inner surface of pots, plastic bags, or paper containers. CTAHR research found that 12-month-old coffee seedlings treated with the compound were taller, 50 percent heavier, and had a better root system than untreated plants (Nagao and Ho-a 1999).

Figure 13. Old trees showing different types of 'J' roots caused by tap root bending when it reaches the bottom of a plastic bag or bent during transplanting.

J-root Tree
Figure 14. Tree on right is almost dead, symptoms wilting, yellowing, leaf loss particularly under drought or crop.

Dead Roots
Figure 15. Root below the 'J' completely died and rotted.

Spinout Trees
Figure 16. Tree grown in bag with inner surface painted with SpinoutR is larger than the untreated tree on left.

Spinout Roots
Figure 17. Roots of tree treated with Spinout are shorter but more were produced, tap root was killed so no danger of 'J' root.

Zip Flats Seedlings
Figure 18. Seedlings in Zip flats are just large enough to plant, if plants can be kept long in the nursery they will better survive transplanting.

Seedlings from nursery beds

Raising seedlings in nursery beds is seldom done and should not be done in areas where nematodes are a problem. Coffee seedlings grown in nursery beds are normally 18-24 inches tall at 14-20 months, which is the ideal size for transplanting. After root pruning 2 months or so before transplanting, the seedlings are carefully dug up with a ball of soil to protect the root system. The root system should be covered with wet burlap to protect it from exposure to sun and air while the seedling is being taken to the field for planting.

Transplanting time

The best time to transplant in Kona is at the beginning of the rainy season, preferably early April through July, but it can be done as late as September. During this period there is usually afternoon rain, and planting conditions are ideal. In areas beyond Kona, plant at the start of the rainy season, selecting a day when the soil is moist. Avoid planting in the hottest, driest months unless transplants are well adapted to the sun. Irrigate before planting and as needed to prevent wilting. Do not keep the soil too wet after transplanting, as coffee is sensitive to waterlogging. Depending upon weed and water control, transplants may be only 6-8 inches tall with as few as 5-8 leaf pairs, or they may be up to 24 inches tall at planting. Larger plants can compete better, but a bigger plant means more time in the pot and an increased likelihood of "J-root" malformation. Large plants are more expensive, whether purchased or grown. Avoid planting too deep, which can kill the seedling by girdling or waterlogging. The soil line should not be more than 1/4 inch higher on the transplanted seedling than it was in the nursery. The first small root should be close to the surface after transplanting.