Can you grow cocoa beans at home?

13 Jan 2021

Chocolate Knowledge

Cocoa is the key ingredient in chocolate, so if you’re a big chocolate fan like us, then you might be wondering whether you can grow your own cocoa plant at home. As we’ll explain in this article, cocoa trees are actually incredibly selective about where they grow and demand a set of specific climate and soil conditions. So, while it’s certainly possible to grow your own cocoa plant at home, it’s no easy feat!

A lot goes into the process of creating your favourite chocolates, and it all begins with growing cocoa beans. Let’s take a closer look at what’s involved and how you can do it yourself.

How long does it take to grow a cocoa tree?

Growing a cocoa tree takes time and patience. And if you’re hoping to have ready-to-use cocoa beans in your hands after just a few months — we’ll tell you now, you’re going to be disappointed!

Man in a polytunnel growing cocoa beans

Cocoa trees are only likely to flower when they’re four to six years old and about five feet tall, and during this time they need to be grown in optimal conditions. After this, it then takes five to six months for the cacao pods to ripen from the pollinated flowers. Cocoa farmers expect two harvests a year: a main harvest and one with lower yields. This being said, the cocoa growing process varies depending on the country of cultivation, so if you’re growing a cocoa plant at home, expect your timeframes to be different.

Where do cocoa trees grow?

Cocoa trees don’t just grow anywhere. In fact, they need a hot and humid climate to flourish. Cocoa evolved in the Amazonian forests as an under-storey crop, so they like to be under forest trees or other crops where there is shelter from direct light.

Almost all cocoa production takes place in the tropical regions around the equator, most notably, the West African countries of Ghana (where some of our cocoa comes from, alongside our eco-conscious Saint Lucia estate) and Ivory Coast. Between them, these two countries alone provide around 50% of the world’s cocoa beans. The rest of the world’s cocoa is produced by countries such as Indonesia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Brazil, and Ecuador that boast similarly suitable climates for cocoa growing.

Believe it or not, cocoa plants are quite difficult to grow. If you want to have a go at doing it at home it’s not as simple as just mimicking a tropical environment — too much sunlight or shade and they’ll struggle.

However, you can grow cocoa plants in places other than equatorial countries. In the UK, scientists are successfully growing cocoa plants in specialist centres such as the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre (ICQC), which precisely simulates the necessary tropical conditions for the plants to thrive. Plus, we can’t forget about the considerable number of home growers tending to their cocoa trees all around the world!

What type of soil do you need for growing cocoa beans?

Trowel sprinkling soil on plants

Just as climate is a crucial factor in cocoa production, soil type will also determine whether a region or area will be suitable for growing cocoa trees. Deep and well drained soils are critical for this crop, and poorly drained soil will hinder its growth. Most areas engaged in cocoa farming have clay loam or sandy loam soils with a pH range of 6.5 to 7.0. What’s more, cocoa trees benefit being in an area where water is readily available. This is because they are sensitive to drought, which makes irrigation crucial.

To grow a healthy cocoa tree you must plant it in soil that has a good structure. This means a soil that’s permeable and deep enough for the tap-roots of the plant to descend into and reach a sufficient depth. 

Guide to growing cocoa beans

If you’re determined to get stuck in growing cocoa beans, then it’s not impossible. Many people have successfully grown cocoa trees inside their homes — even in pretty cold climates like ours in the UK. Though we can’t say it’s going to be as easy as keeping a spider plant, it’s certainly possible if you follow each step carefully and commit to the project.

If you’re serious about cocoa growing we highly recommend doing some thorough research and speaking to someone in the know, but here are the basic steps to cocoa home growing so you can get a quick overview of what will be required:

Purchase a fresh cacao pod.

man picking a fresh cacao pod.

This will contain 30 – 50 seeds from which you can grow your cacao tree. If you’d like to speed up the process you can order a viable seedling from an exotic plant nursery and skip straight to planting. Make sure you have all the information about the specific plant you’ll be growing from the supplier — the amount of time it takes for each variety of plant to start producing pods will vary.arvesting

Harvesting

Harvest the seeds from your ripe pod, being careful not to damage the seeds inside. After a rinse in lukewarm water, wrap the seeds in a damp paper towel and leave somewhere heated to germinate. Expect this to take three to seven days. This step is crucial — you must germinate cacao seeds before planting them.

Potting

Plant your seedling in a spacious pot (keeping to a rule of one seedling per pot) with plenty of space for the roots to grow. Fill it with a well-drained and rich soil such as a compost and sand mix.

Temperature and Humidity

Your cocoa plant will have the best chance if cultivated in a temperature-controlled, higher humidity greenhouse, but if this isn’t an option for you and you’re growing your plant indoors, just make sure that you choose a place to keep your pot that stays warm throughout the day. Position it in indirect sunlight and keep a humidifier (or failing this, a small bowl of water) next to your plant to provide it with the moisture it needs. Direct sunlight and nearby heat sources such as radiators may cause your plant to dry out.

Watering

Wet your plant throughout the day and remember to fertilise it every few weeks. Just take care not to overfeed it as this can burn your plant’s roots and stunt its growth — not what you want!

Last tips for growing cocoa beans

Keep in mind that even if you try your best to do things perfectly, growing cocoa beans is notoriously difficult. Even if your plant reaches maturity, there is no guarantee that it will produce usable fruit.

If you are successful and find yourself with fruits that are ripe and ready to harvest, make sure your efforts don’t go to waste and read up on the fermenting, roasting, and grinding that needs to be done in order to produce cocoa.

If you have your heart set on growing your own cocoa beans, consider investing in a greenhouse, be prepared to learn from your failed attempts, and don’t just place all your hopes on one plant! Alternatively, if after reading this you’d much rather skip the faff and treat yourself to some of our premium chocolates — we certainly wouldn’t blame you!