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How To Grow Your Own Tea

teaWe have been hearing about the health benefits of tea for years now. Whether, black, green, or white, tea is a powerhouse of nutrients, antioxidants, and other compounds. And it tastes delicious and provides a little boost of caffeine and the comfort that only a warm beverage can bring. Numerous medical studies have found that tea contains compounds that exhibit anti-cancer properties. This does not mean that drinking tea will prevent anyone from getting cancer, but it certainly can’t hurt. Other potential benefits include supporting and maintaining weight loss, reducing the risk of heart disease, preventing diabetes, and lowering cholesterol.

Before modern science could tell us how wonderful tea is, people already seemed to know. Humans have been cultivating tea plants and drinking tea for so long that no one can really say when and where it first appeared. Most likely the plant was first grown by people in the region of southwest China, northeast India, Burma, and Tibet. What we know for sure is that tea as a beverage has been around for at least 5,000 years.

With the popularity of tea these days, it is not difficult to find it at any grocery store, nearly anywhere in the world. You can buy inexpensive black teas or pricey, organic loose teas and everything in between. But, what about making your own? It is definitely possible to grow tea plants, harvest the leaves, and create and brew your own teas right in your own garden or backyard.

Make Your Own Healing Tea From Plants Found In Nature…

The Tea Plant

All genuine tea comes from just one species of plant: Camellia sinensis. There are four different types of tea that can be made from the leaves of this plant and those are black tea, green tea, white tea, and Oolong tea. Any other “type” of tea is not really tea and comes from a different plant. There are two subspecies of the tea tree, which are Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica. Sinensis sinensis has smaller leaves and grows in the cool, mountainous environment of places like China and Japan. The assamica variety is a taller plant and thrives in moist, low elevation, tropical locations like India and southwest China.

The tea plant is a shrub that grows to about one to two meters tall. In fall, it develops small white flowers that smell wonderful. The leaves are dark green in color and have a smooth, shiny texture. The fruits that follow the flowers are hard and small and the seeds are about one quarter of an inch in diameter. The assamica tea plant can grow up to 65 feet tall and produces larger leaves.

Growing Tea

For growing your own tea at home, you will probably want to avoid the assamica plant and stick with using sinensis sinensis. The assamica is very large and requires a tropical environment. Sinensis is hardy through zone eight in the U.S. However, if you live in a colder zone, you can still grow a tea plant in a greenhouse or in a container that you move indoors in the winter.

You can grow your tea plant from seed or from a cutting taken from an existing plant. You may also be able to find a plant at a local nursery. If you are growing from seed, germination will take about four weeks. Cover the seeds lightly with soil and keep it damp and warm. When starting from seeds, be prepared to wait a few years to make tea. It takes at least three years to get a plant that will produce enough leaves for you to make a harvest. If you are using a cutting, nurture it indoors for a year before transplanting outdoors.

Use soil that is slightly acidic. You can buy soil that is designated for rhododendrons to keep a tea plant happy. To maintain the right acidity for your tea plant, water with soft water only. If you are growing your plant in a container, give it a shot of fertilizer a couple of times in the summer, but otherwise it will be happy. Your plant will be happy in full sun, but it also tolerates shade. It will tolerate a drought better than many of your vegetables. In other words, growing tea is not very difficult!

If your location is warm enough, put your plant outside in the garden in a spot where it will get sun and maybe a little bit of shade. Put it up against a wall or tree to protect it from strong winds. If you are planting more than one tea bush, put them at least three feet apart from each other. Prune them back about every four years to keep the plants productive and to keep them from getting too big and too tall. If you take care of your tea plant, you will have tea for the next 50 to 100 years.

Harvesting Tea

Your tea plant will go dormant in the winter. When new shoots appear in the spring, this is called a flush. Pick the new growth, the two smallest leaves and the bud, for your tea. The warmer your climate is, the more flushes you will get per year, which makes a greenhouse a good idea for growing tea in colder areas. Once you have plucked your new growth, you have tea. The harvest is that simple. What you do with the harvest determines whether you make black, green, white, or Oolong tea.

Making Tea

The leaves that you harvest from your tea plant are tea. To get different flavors out of those leaves, you must prepare them differently. The directions for making green and white tea are the same. For white, however, use only the buds and not the leaves.

  • Green tea. Spread out your harvested leaves and buds and leave them in a shady spot for a few hours. Steam them on the stove top for about a minute or roast them in a hot, dry skillet for a couple of minutes for a different flavor. Dry the leaves on a baking sheet in the oven at 250 degrees for about 20 minutes. You can store the dried leaves in an airtight container, or brew right away.
  • Oolong tea. To make Oolong tea, let the leaves and buds wilt in the sun for a half hour to an hour. After that, leave them in the shade or inside for up to ten hours, with regular mixing. You may dry them in the oven at 250 degrees for 20 minutes. You can also treat Oolong tea in the traditional manner, which is to skip this step. Instead, roll the leaves into thin strips or small balls. They will unfurl as you brew them, but they won’t store as long as if you dry the leaves in the oven.
  • Black tea. After you pick the leaves and buds, roll them between your fingers and hands until they turn a darker color. Spread the leaves out on a flat surface in a cool place and leave them to dry for two to three days. Dry and store the leaves as you would for green or Oolong tea.

Herbal Teas

An herbal tea is any beverage that is brewed from a plant other than Camellia sinensis. There is a huge amount of variety in herbal teas, and there are many, many plants that you can grow, harvest, dry, and brew to make a tasty tea. Some of the more common plants that you can use for tea are:

  • Peppermint. Peppermint tea is made from the leaves and is very refreshing. It also settles the stomach. The plant is very easy to grow, but use a container or it will take over your garden.
  • Lavender. This fragrant plant makes a tasty and soothing tea that can reduce tension and relieve headaches. Use the buds to make tea.
  • Lemon verbena. Another easy herb to grow, the leaves of lemon verbena make a zingy, lemony, and refreshing drink. Grow it in a container and bring it inside for the winter.
  • Rose hips. They are not exactly an herb, but the seed cases on your rose bushes make a tart and delicious tea. They are also very high in vitamin C.
  • Bergamot. Bergamot has a slightly citrus flavor. You can use the flowers and leaves as tea or add it to your black tea to make a homemade Earl Grey blend.
  • Chamomile. Chamomile plants are easy to grow and produce lovely, daisy-like flowers. When dried, these flowers make a tea that is calming and often used to induce sleep.
  • Jasmine. The flowers of the jasmine plant have an intoxicating smell and can add a fragrant flavor to your tea, especially green and white tea. This is a warm weather plant, so if you have cold winters, grow it in a container and bring indoors. It also requires a trellis or other type of structure on which to climb.

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23 comments

  1. This is a wonderfully informative article. Thank you so much for publishing this, I live on the Gulf Coast and cannot imagine ever having to go without sweet tea on a hot summer’s day. Now hopefully, I never will have to know that particular hardship. I am assuming like most other things, tea that is grown, harvested and blended to my family’s own specific tastes will be more enjoyable and flavorful. At least I hope that is the case.

  2. I live in Upstate NY (Oswego County) and we have a native plant called Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), also called “Oswego Tea”. The Oswego Indians of western New York made tea from the dried leaves of this plant and shared it with colonial settlers-who went on to use it as a substitute when imported tea became scarce after the Boston Tea Party. Native Americans across the United States used Oswego tea of various species for a variety of purposes – as perfume, as a preservative for meats, and as a food and beverage. A popular garden plant, Oswego tea attracts bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Herbalists employ Oswego tea to treat nausea, vomiting, and upset stomach. Oswego tea contains the aromatic antiseptic thymol, which is widely used by dentists and modern medical practitioners. Brewed and ingested, Oswego tea treats flatulence and insomnia.

    • Yes, ‘bee balm’ is a wonderful addition to my ‘cold weather’ tea habit. Besides that, a good bread made in a German style “squirrel tail oven” common to Pennsylvania, is great also. Mik

    • I live in Erie County in WNY. I wonder if there are any areas in this county where bee balm grows. Of course though plant identification was one of my worst subjects in Boy Scouts and with my luck would probably wind up picking leaves from some toxic plant rather than the bee balm plant! LOL!

    • Yes, and Bee Balm can be easily found at many nurseries and even regular home/lumber yard garden centers now like Lowe’s and RuralKing. It is rarely called “Oswego Tea” elsewhere in the country, but is nearly always referred to as “Bergamot.”
      Always confine it unless you don’t mind it taking over your garden as it spreads, as do most ‘herbal’ tea plants.
      We planted ours in a 12″ diameter pot and buried the pot next to the house with only 1″ above grade, and filled the landscaping around it with decorative stones.
      Do a row of these with a separate pot for each type of herb and you will be surprised how often you can clip off the entire tops down to about 3″ high, bundle and hang them in the garage to dry, and within a few days be able to rub them between your hands to fill a tin can…over and over through the summer.
      We have had great success with the Lemon Balm, a Spearmint, and a Salvia elegans plant (Pineapple Sage) that is really special, but seems to need brewing fresh rather than drying for the winter…and it must be brought indoors.
      Mix any and/or all, in any combination, with your black/green/white tea, and your friends will quickly learn to invite you over just for your magic sun-brewed sweet-tea!

  3. It is really too bad, that you could write such an informative article and not tell us where to buy tea plants to get started.
    Best Regards

  4. Camellia sinensis sinensis plants and seeds can be purchased on ebay. I was surprised when I checked there because there’s enough for all of us! There are 5″ plants that are very reasonably priced.

  5. Yaupon holly leaves make a tea with considerable caffeine and it grows over a large area of the United States. The leaves must be toasted to release the caffeine in a usable form. There is a lot of information on line about this use of Yaupon.

  6. Thank you!! I’ve been wanting to grow my own tea, and this article is very informing! And also–I learned what Yaupon is! Thank you, Spencer!

  7. samnjoeysgrama

    The pioneers crossing the Rockies used shrubby cinquefoil or Potentilla (potent hence potentilla). It grows at 8,000 ft where it gets down to 40 below. There are cultivars at nurseries. Its an attractive little shrub with yellow flowers in the wild; red, pink, yellow, or white flowers on cultivars. I haven’t tried the tea, but it was widely used in the 1800s.

  8. One of my favorite herbal teas is Tulsi, or Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum ). It’s very easy to grow, and tastes wonderful, as well as being ornamental. It’s said to have health benefits including antioxidant, stress reduction, immune inhancement, increasing endurance, and improving digestion. And if that’s not enough, planting it by your doorstep is supposed to bring good luck!

  9. And lemon balm,no sugar needed.cool summer drink.I let it just run, I have about 20 clumps.You can just cut bunches and it makes the house smell good.

  10. The info is not exactly right. The black tea is picked, piled up, allowed to wilt, rolled in tarps or canvas until it ferments (which substantially changes the color and flavor and amount of tannin in the cup). Tea leaves can’t re rolled by hand without first letting them wilt thoroughly; they are rather stiff and crisp, right off the bush.

    White tea is simply the small new leaves, dried without any treatment.

    Smoky tasting teas such as Bo Li are actually dried over a very low, almost smokeless, fire, after wilting and fermenting until dark.

    You don’t need to worry about spoilage when fermenting, BTW: tannic acid is a preservative (this is why acorns do not spoil while you are soaking/leaching them; and why tanning leather preserves it and stops rot.

    • The only thing I’ve ever done with acorns is to spray-paint them gold, put the tiniest picture frame screws and, voila, beautiful Christmas tree decorations.

      Now, please do tell, why would I want to dry acorns? ;-)

    • LOLL – not “dry” acorns, SOAK them! ?

  11. This article is misleading. In reality, you will need several plants for a supply of tea. One plant would never be able to produce much, even when allowed to grow larger. (Be sure to cycle your harvest between plants so you don’t exhaust them, and pinch off flower buds to encourage new leaves.)

    I would advise against buying plants or seeds on ebay… they are often mislabeled or misrepresented. Also, camellias are notorious for not being true-to-seed, especially when grown anywhere near other camellia species.

    Find a reputable nursery in your area and ask them. If they don’t have C. sinensis sinensis in stock, they should be able to find a supplier. If they’re unable or unwilling, go somewhere else.

  12. Burnt Ridge Nusery and Raintree both have Sochi tea plants. I am just going to try making some black tea.

    Does anyone know why the larger leaves can’t be used? Bitter? No caffiene? It’s not like you need tender leaves to eat, they just get soaked in hot water

  13. Should I go with Pampered Chef stainless, or Le Creuset?

    • I have Le Creuset and it’s excellent and beautiful. It tends to be heavy and, if dropped, it tends to break. ;-) I also have Chantal which I love. It also is beautiful and the glass lids are very convenient, as you can see what your food is doing.

      Both brands conduct heat amazingly! Once the food is hot, it will stay at a simmer at the absolute lowest heat your stove can produce. Both cook completely evenly and don’t burn at the center (or anywhere else.)

      If I could have only one, I’d choose the Chantal because it is lighter than the Le Creuset and because of the glass lids.

      Several stainless brands are excellent but I haven’t had them although my mother did and we were more than happy with them.

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