Coconuts (Cocos nucifera) originally hail from islands in the Pacific, but today you can grow them throughout U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 through 11. The water and meat from freshly harvested coconuts add a tropical flavor to smoothies and other beverages, or you can enjoy them just on their own. The perfect time to crack open a coconut depends on whether you want coconut water or coconut meat.
A Word on Coconut Tree Height
Traditional coconut trees can grow 80 feet tall or higher. Dwarf coconut trees grow as short as 16 feet. For easier maintenance and harvesting, and to lower the risk of damage to your lawn, home or car caused by falling coconut nuts or coconut branches, you may wish to only plant and grow dwarf coconuts.
Check Your Planting Calendar
A coconut tree grows its first flower clusters approximately five years after it has been planted from seed. Once immature coconuts appear, it takes approximately 12 months before the nuts are fully mature and ripe. At this age, the nuts have both coconut water and a thick layer of coconut meat inside the nut's hull. If you are harvesting coconuts primarily to drink the electrolyte-rich coconut water, however, you can harvest the nuts when they're somewhat immature and unripe at the eight- to nine-month mark.
Harvesting Your Coconuts
There's no need to actively pick your coconut tree. A mature coconut will fall on its own off of the tree when it's fully ripe. If you wish to harvest slightly unripe coconuts that have less meat but higher amounts of coconut water compared to mature, ripe coconuts, however, you may pick the coconut before it falls. Coconut farmers and other professionals employ skilled coconut tree pickers to climb and pick the coconuts manually at the top of the tree. This is not safe for you to do on your own unless you're a skilled picker. Instead, use pruning shears securely attached to a pruning pole to reach the top of your coconut tree from the ground. Snip off a nut at its stem where it connects to the coconut tree.
When harvesting a young coconut that's still on the tree, stand as far away from the base of the coconut tree as possible. Wear safety glasses and a hard hat, and ensure that all family members, pets and fragile objects are not underneath the tree.
Inspecting and Opening the Nut
A mature, ready-to-eat coconut will weigh approximately 6 pounds. Put your ear against the coconut and give the nut a shake. You should hear sloshing inside the nut. Finally, visually inspect the coconut. A fully ripe nut should have a brown, even color with no gray splotches. If you chose to pick it early, the young coconut will be green and evenly colored. Regardless of its age, the nut should also have no cracks or stains, which would be a sign that the nut is damaged and its contents may have leaked out.
To break open your ripe coconut and enjoy the fruit of your labor, find the "eyes" -- two small dots on one end of the coconut. You'll see a seam running between the eyes, dissecting the nut in half. With a hammer or similar heavy tool, hit the coconut right between the eyes on this seam to crack it open and expose the white flesh and milky water inside.
If you harvested a green coconut, find the eyes. Orient the coconut so it's vertical with the eyes pointing upward. Use a sharp knife or a machete to cut off the top of the coconut. Either pour out the contents into a jar, or enjoy the coconut water straight from the opening you've cut.