Growing kava isn’t for the casual sipper, but if you’re among the subset interested in horticultural matters, you’ll find this article useful.
To grow the kava plant, you need to have at least a small background in basic gardening. It’s not the most difficult plant to grow, but kava (AKA kava kava, or more scientifically, piper methysticum) does merit its specific challenges.
It’s typically grown in the Pacific Islands, with notable roots in Hawaii, Fiji, and Vanuatu. Even if you’re not in the South Pacific, however, there are ways to make it work.
This guide will teach you what supplies you need to start growing kava, tips from top kava farmers, how to cultivate kava plants with high kavalactone content and what to do with the kava plant and kava root once you’ve harvested your kava.
Note, up front, that this guide will be by nature limited, and that if you’re really curious there are a few books you can check out, one of the most popular being Pacific Kava: A Producer’s Guide. You can also just buy kava powder from reputable sellers, like this one.
How does Kava grow?
As a quick summary, growing kava is different from other plants in that you don’t use kava seeds; you use kava plant stem cuttings. What does that mean?
Essentially, each kava plant has to be cultivated from a node on a segment of the stalk. Kava farmers take an existing kava plant, cut small pieces (3-5 inches) from the stalk, and plant them into the soil.
From here, you’ve got about 2-5 years (probably on the latter end of that) of cultivation, nurturing, and growing before you end up harvesting the mature kava plant.
That’s the high level of how kava grows. Now let’s dive into the specifics.
What Do You Need to Start Growing Kava?
As with any plant, you need to set your basic requirements. To grow kava plants, you should take into account:
- The climate and temperature
- The soil conditions
- Watering conditions
- What you need for feeding and fertilization
- Pest and disease control
Climate and temperature for growing kava
Now, if you live in specific locations, you may be able to grow kava outdoors. Kava kava is typically grown in climates that range from 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit (or 18-25 Celcius). You also need very sunny climates, with lots of natural water and humidity.
Of course, now it’s obvious why the South Pacific is so great for kava production. However, there are other mainland US states that could also be conducive, including Florida, Texas (where I live), Southern California, and parts of the gulf coast.
Sometimes, however, you’ll need to supplement and water differently depending on the natural climate. Again, Hawaii and the South Pacific Islands are perfect.
People who live in other states can still plant kava outside in the summertime, but you need an additional greenhouse or indoor grow operation when temperatures fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or so.
There are, thankfully, many websites and stores that sell quite affordable indoor grow equipment, such as tents, greenhouses, and other items (not to mention fertilizer and feed and lighting).
Naturally, kava grows under a tropical canopy, so it’s typically not fully immersed in sunlight. If you’re growing kava indoors, then, a great solution is to keep your kava plant in a pot next to a sunny window. Additionally, you could buy high quality LED lights to optimize the amount of sunlight your kava plants are getting.
The soil conditions
Where do you grow kava? What soil should you use to grow kava?
Well, first, kava is mostly grown on mixed cropping fields in the South Pacific. That means you can plant kava with other crops, such as taro, yams, and sweet potatoes.
We’ve already established that kava is best grown in partially shaded conditions as well.
All in all, kava is a flexible plant, and farmers in the South Pacific have used a variety of different practices for years, including crop rotation, intercropping, etc.
If you’re growing indoors or outside of ideal climates for growing kava, you’ll want to pot your kava plant in loose soil to allow water to drain and prevent. A good heuristic is to use a blend of half organic compost and half Perlite or coconut coir.
The soil requirements of kava change over time. When a kava plant is young, it only needs a soil depth of about a foot. As it matures, it will need much deeper soil so its roots can expand.
The most common method here is to repot kava at this point and select an area in your garden that is at least 2 feet deep, and dig 2-3 times the length of your plant’s current roots.
Fill the hole up with roughly half the loose soil you took out, mix with compost or fertilizer (we’ll cover that in the next section), plant the kava plant back into the hole, and then tamp the soil around the stem.
Watering conditions for growing kava
Watering your kava is important, and it’s important to get the amount just right. Kava is evolved to grow in a jungle habitat, so lots of regular rainfall. Water your kava often.
However, you don’t want standing water. You don’t want to saturate the soil or leave the plant with standing water. This can cause root rot.
In general, if you’re growing kava in dry climates or indoors, you’ll probably want to mist them with a spray bottle or buy a misting system to mimic the humidity of its native jungle habitat.
Fertilizing kava plants
Kava grows slow, but it depletes soil fast as well. Unless you’re growing the kava plant in its native conditions and climate, you’ll need some fertilizer. Good news is it doesn’t much matter which type of fertilizer you use. Just make sure to use the lowest effective dose (recommended by the manufacturer) to avoid burning the kava roots.
Pest and disease control
Kava rarely has issues with pests and diseases, but rarely you may run into kava dieback. Kava dieback is typically caused by cucumber mosaic virus, either alone or in tandem with other agents.
This guide is super comprehensive on kava dieback, how to recognize it, and what to do about it.
How to Grow Kava: Two Parts
Kava is a pretty big cash crop and source of income for South Pacific famers. Not as popular as coconut or cocoa, but it’s growing (as we see kava bars pop up in the US and the kava benefits for sleep, anxiety, and other issues become more popular).
Growing kava isn’t easy; it takes a lot of patience and many years. But if you’re serious about it, it’s doable.
We’re going to break this into two parts:
- How to cultivate kava (this is the hard part, the actual process of growing kava)
- How to harvest kava (this is the easy stuff, once the kava plant has been grown)
How to Cultivate Kava Kava
Step 1: Acquire Kava Plant Stalk Stems
First thing you need to know is that kava seeds aren’t a thing; it’s a sterile cultivar that doesn’t seem to produce seeds. It’s dependent on human propagation, meaning you need to find a live kava plant, cut the stem, and use the stem cuttings to grow new plants.
Getting stem cuttings (cheaply) and at scale isn’t super easy. You can possibly find these at a nursery near you if you’re in the proper region/climate, but more likely, you’ll need to buy on a rare plant website like this one (or if you’re in Australia, this one).
Okay, so go acquire some kava plants. When you have them, cut the stem into 3-5 inch pieces. There’s some debate as to the best way to cut the stem (read more here). We don’t dive into the minutia here; suffice to say you need 3-5 inch kava stems.
Step 2: Plant Your Kava Stems
Got all of your requirements, your mise-en-place, if you will?
You should have the proper soil combination (50% organic compost and half Perlite, well aerated), a greenhouse or the proper climate for growing outdoors, a watering system that mimics the humidity and rainfall of jungle canopies, and partial shading if possible.
Then you need to have a repotting strategy. You’ll first take the kava stem clipping and plant it in the above mentioned soil combination, but you only need 6-12 inches of soil depth. You can start your baby kava plants in smaller pots, but they’ll need to be repotted after a while to allow their roots to expand.
Eventually, you’ll want a hole dug out that is 2-3 times the size of the kava plants, and you should attempt to repot your kava plants annually for the first few years (and definitely at the one year mark).
Step 3: Nurture Your Kava and Prevent Theft
This isn’t probably going to be a problem with your kava harvest if you’re growing it in Oklahoma, but if you’re in Hawaii where people may know what the kava plant looks like, how valuable it is, and how hard it is to grow, you need to mind kava theft.
This is true of any valuable cash crop, but because of the long time it takes to cultivate kava, it may be especially pertinent to heed here.
Step 4: Wait
Kava can grow to over 15 feet high naturally. The waiting period for harvesting kava plants is at least 3 years, and more likely closer to 5-7. In fact, the amount of kavalactones depends on how mature the plant is, so the older the better normally. While you’re waiting, you’ll need to periodically repot the plant into larger containers with more soil depth to make sure the roots have room to expand. You’ll also need to lightly prune the plants as they mature.
Most important thing here is patience. Growing kava is not for the instant gratification crowd (you can easily just go to a kava bar though!)
How to Harvest Kava Kava
All the hard work and waiting out of the way, harvesting kava is actually pretty simple.
You pull the kava plant from the soil, wash off the root, clip the roots that grow along the surface of the soil, discard any moldy or damaged roots, and then cut your kava roots into small pieces.
Dry and freeze the kava root sections you don’t want to use right away.
With those that you do want to use immediately, you can do many things with them
What to Do Once You’ve Grown & Harvested the Kava Plant
Kava plants, of course, are grown to create consumable kava products, whether that be kava powder or kava extract, which are then turned into products like kava supplements, kava tea, kava candy, etc.
The first step is to dry the kava root and make it usable, which means we’ll need to grind the kava root into a powder. There are many tools out there available for this. They’re not cheap, though.
Kava root drying process
You can also just use a blender. I recommend the NutriBullet.
Should You Grow Kava?
In a sentence, unless you’re hoping to commercially grow kava, probably not. It’s a lot of effort, it’s very difficult to find economically reasonable kava plant stem cuttings, and frankly, it’s wildly easy to find and consume kava drinks and kava products if you’re just interested in consuming the product.
Those who are interested in growing kava commercially, however, should look into buying land in appropriate climates and regions first. You’ll need a lot of acres of growing space to make this economically viable. If that’s not possible, you can look into greenhouse growing, but know that will factor into your margins.
While this guide isn’t going to dive deeply into the economics of growing kava, know that it’s not necessarily the easiest way to make money and you should do the math and modeling on your own before making this decision. The upfront costs and ongoing materials are many, and it takes a long time before growing kava actually pays off.
Common Kava Growing Mistakes
We’ve essentially covered the common mistakes with growing kava, but just to reiterate, here are some of the most common mess ups:
- Not using the right soil
- Growing outdoors in the wrong climate
- Harvesting kava too soon
- Using too much fertilizer (especially too early on)
- Using too much water (or too little)
You essentially want to map the climate conditions of the South Pacific onto your indoor grow operation, so when in doubt, use that environment as a north star to return to if your crop doesn’t turn out well.
As cliche as it sounds, the most important part of the kava growing process is patience. It’s a tough thing to pull off indoors or outside of the ideal climate conditions where kava grows naturally, but if you can pull it off it’s very rewarding.
One good tip is to read forums of others who have tried growing kava, or if you can, ask farmers themselves for their best advice. This is one of those skills that require experience and back of the hand knowledge.
Growing kava is tough, but not impossible. If you’re in the right climate, such as Florida, Texas, or of course, Hawaii, you’ll have an advantage.
Even if you don’t, however, you can make do with a greenhouse and enough patience.
This article covered the concrete details of growing kava, such as what soil blend to use, how often to water the plant, and how long it takes to cultivate before harvesting.
There’s still a whole qualitative and artistic side of this as well, though. Kava growing has largely been a practice without documentation; kava farmers developed their own independent best practices that they’ve passed down.
There may be some trial and error in your efforts, so the faster you can learn, the better. Read this article again, read forums on Reddit, and ask people who have grown kava before. The faster you can learn, the less stress there will be. Best of luck!