Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your own tea.
There’s nothing like a hot cup of tea to put your mind at ease or boost your spirits and there’s no reason why you can’t grow some of your own.
Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage. Unfortunately, commercially produced teas can contain pesticides, fungicides, and even heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic.
For me, that’s reason enough to start growing my own.
Traditionally, tea is made by pouring boiling water over the cured leaves of tea plants (Camellia sinensis). Tea plants can be grown outdoors in Zones 8 - 12, or indoors year round. Tea plants are evergreen shrubs native to East Asia. Tea plants can reach 6 feet in height and they have a deep taproot. Tea plants use a lot of water. Their native regions get 50” of water a year.
Tea leaves and terminal buds, known as flushes, are typically harvested while young. This is generally done by hand twice a year, up to every week or two, depending on the local climate. High quality teas are picked by hand. Leaves are then allowed to wilt before they are “disrupted” or “macerated”. This process bruises or tears the leaves to allow enzymes to start the oxidation process. Leaves may be rolled between between a person’s hands, or crushed by machinery. Finally, the leaves are heated to halt oxidation. There’s more to it than that, but you get the idea.
If you love tea, you know that you can also enjoy herbal teas. Herbal teas generally do not contain the caffeine found in regular tea. Many herbal tea plants are lovely to look at and they tend to be pretty resilient. Much of that resiliency is from the essential oils that gives these plants their flavor. Apparently, bugs and pathogens don’t enjoy them the way we do!
There are several traditional plants to choose from for your tea garden: bergamot, German chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, and mint. But you might also want to consider blackcurrants, borage, coriander, dill, elderberries, giant hyssop, ginger, hibiscus, jasmine, lemongrass, lemon thyme, licorice, oregano, raspberry and blackberry leaves, rose hips, or rosemary. Most edible flowers and even dandelions can be used to make tea. [And homegrown tea makes lovely gifts!]
Tea garden design
You can certainly intersperse your tea plants throughout your garden, grow them in containers on your patio or balcony, or you can create a lovely display dedicated to tea. You can build an elegant parterre, an artistic knot garden, a rustic cottage garden style, or something else entirely. Honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about gardening. You can try just about anything. It won’t always work, but you’re bound to learn something in the process. And you just might discover something amazing about your plants or yourself. Back to the tea.
Harvesting and storing tea
Fresh tea leaves or herbs should be cleaned of dust and bugs and then hung or laid out to dry, out of the sun. Placing leaves in an old pillowcase laid flat works well. Once they are completely dry, your tea leaves need to be kept away from light, moisture, air, and heat. Air-tight tins and storage jars kept in cabinets work well for storing tea and you can find a great selection at yard sales and thrift stores.
How to make a proper pot of tea
Being raised in an age of microwaves, take-out, and instant everything, few of us have actually learned how to make a proper pot of tea. Different varieties of tea need to be handled differently, but they all start with a kettle of boiling water. You want to use the water as soon as it starts to boil. Let it go too long and the water will taste flat.
While you wait for your kettle to boil, prepare the tea leaves. Generally speaking, one heaping teaspoon per cup is recommended. You can put the leaves into a tea sock, an infuser, or use a tea ball. The trick is to make sure the tea leaves can expand. You can also put the leaves directly into your teapot, but you will want to warm your teapot with some of the boiling water first. This will help keep your tea warm.
Some people prefer their tea strong and dark, while others, like my mother, simply wave a teabag at the hot water. Both are fine. The idea is to soak, or steep, the leaves in the hot water long enough to extract the flavor you prefer. Traditionally, steeping times vary by tea type:
Once the preferred taste has been attained, remove the leaves. If the leaves stay in the water for too long, your tea can taste bitter. Wrap your teapot in a cozy to keep it warm and enjoy!
Which plants would you like to include in your tea garden?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!