There’s very little better than a great cup of tea. Whether you like a classic green tea or an ornate chai latte, tea is a wonderful beverage at any time of the day. Which leads us to the central question of this blog—can we grow tea at home? As it turns out, the answer may just be yes! The tea plant is hardier than you might think, and may be the perfect addition to your garden; in fact, it may already be there! Let’s talk about growing tea at home, and how we may be able to bring tea to our own gardens. Let’s dig in!
What is Tea?
Let’s start with a deceptively simple question: what is tea, really? We’ll need to start by dealing with a common linguistic misconception in English. While we refer to any beverage made of plant parts soaked in hot water as a “tea”, the more proper term for these drinks is an “infusion” or “tisane”. The word “tea” refers most properly to the tea plant, Camellia sinesis, which likely originated in southern China. Tea has been consumed in China for thousands of years, and our English word “tea” comes from the Amoy Chinese language word “te”, which is written in Chinese characters as 荼. This character is pronounced “chá” in Mandarin Chinese—the most common Chinese language—and that in turn is the source of words like chai.
We hope that wasn’t too confusing! It’s OK to refer to any infused plant beverage as “tea” in English, but when we’re talking about the plant itself we need to be a bit more specific. We’ll cover growing herbal teas at home in a future blog.
Growing Tea in Your Garden
Not only is it possible to grow tea at home, you may already be doing it. Camellia sinesis is used as an ornamental plant—it’s a variety of camellia, as the name suggests—and does occasionally appear in garden stores and nurseries for that reason. Now, does that mean that you can make tea from your camellia at home? Maybe—when it doubt it’s best to ask an expert which variety you have, as not all of them make good tea. It’s also best to start with a known plant, which will often be sold as “tea camellia” or something similar in nurseries or via plant catalogs.
While you can grown C. sinesis from seeds, we recommend starting with a potted shrub purchased from a reputable source. Tea camellia is a relatively slow growing plant, and by getting a shrub that’s a year or two old you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort. C. sinesis is hardy up to USDA zone 6 or 7, and prefers a mildly acidic, well drained soil. A good rule of thumb is that if azaleas do well in that space, tea camellia will probably be OK as well. The tea plant does like full sun when possible, and will need feeding with a good balanced compost or fertilizers in the spring for best results. The plant needs to be well watered in order to thrive. Healthy tea plants produce beautiful white flowers in the cooler months, which explains their use as ornamental plants in hedgerows and landscaping. Left unchecked, the tea plant may grow to into a small tree if left unchecked, but with regular pruning it can be kept as a bush or shrub. For commercial tea production, the plant is very often pruned to waist level to make harvesting easier. Speaking of production—you’ll need several good-sized tea plants to make tea in any quantity, which shouldn’t stop you from enjoying having just one tea plant if that’s all you have space for.
Harvesting and Using Tea at Home
So now that our tea plants are a few years old and growing nicely, how do we go about turning the leaves of the plant into a drinkable tea? Well, once again that depends—what kind of tea do we want, and how much effort do you want to put it?
The easiest way to process our own tea is to make green tea. This way of making tea at home is relatively simple, and the technique is foundational to other kinds of tea you can make from Camellia sinesis. The steps in making green tea from your own tea plants go something like this:
- Start by harvesting the very youngest leaves and leaf buds. You do this by hand, or use a sharp, well maintained pair of shears.
- Pat the leaves dry with a paper towel or clean cloth, and then let them dry thoroughly in a dark or shady place for at least a few hours.
- Now it’s time to lightly steam your tea leaves in a steamer basket or traditional bamboo steamer. Don’t overthink this stage of the process—it’s just like steaming veggies for a tasty meal. The leaves are done when they fill moist and flexible but not limp and mushy.
- Now it’s time to gently dry our steamed tea leaves—you can do this on trays in an oven heated to 250F/120C/Gas Mark ½ for about 20 minutes, or in a dehydrator for 8-24 hours. In either case, keep an eye on your tea leaves and remove them when fully dried.
- Allow tea leaves to cool to room temperature.
- Transfer your tea leaves to a clean, tight-closing container and store in a cool, dark place.
If all goes well, you’ll have tea leaves that you can make into a tasty beverage using your favorite green tea brewing method! If the flavor is off or not to you’re liking, that’s OK too. Both gardening and cooking are full of experimentation, so we can always try again and see what we can change to get a better result.
More Ways of Making Home-Made Tea
This is only a basic introduction to growing and processing tea at home—there are so many ways to make different kinds of teas, all starting with your tea plant and the basic steps we outlined above. We’ll have to cover those in future blogs, but in the meantime if you have tea recipes or ideas to share, please let us know!