Growing and Processing Tea Plants at Home

Growing and Processing Tea Plants at Home

I just posted about the growing part in my own blog, and that content linked with how to make decent tea out of those leaves once you grow them.  Here I’ll touch on both.  

David Parks, co-owner of the Camellia Forest Nursery (with more posted about growing tea here) had passed on the input about growing tea plants.

I was just talking about the processing issue with a US tea farmer who would be familiar to many, Jason McDonald.  If the subject of US grown tea is of interest you really do need to look into that; he is one founder of an initiative to grow tea in Mississippi, and has since branched out to producing it in Hawaii.

Tea plants in a home garden in Mexico

One main point is that you need to match plants selected with local climate (which might not work in the far North of the US), and even after addressing climate issues and the rest–watering, nutrition, related to pests, harvesting–the leaves still need to be processed into a form that can be infused.  

First things first; David passed on some input about how that first part tends to go, based on his customers’ experiences. 

In general, people do enjoy the tea made from their own plants. They find it is very different from typical bagged tea but are pleasantly surprised. There are cases of people using mature leaves or even the dead leaves with rather poor success.

Since we are a mail order nursery we get requests from all over the country even locations that are too cold for growing tea. So many people try growing it indoors. The success varies but it can be done. Although actual production will probably be limited unless one is experienced growing plants to get good growth without getting too big a plant for a pot. Moving the plant outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter is probably the best option. People also have success in small or large greenhouses. One customer grows tea in a polyhouse in Michigan.

USDA plant hardiness zone map

This year was a cold hardiness test for tea in North Carolina. We had one night when the temperature dropped to 3 F and almost 2 weeks of temperatures below freezing. So far most looks OK and even tender varieties are expected to regrow from the roots. One issue we see is that harvested tea will keep growing into the fall and not harden off so the top leaves of many bushes are completely brown but lower leaves look green. Although not attractive I believe this does not hurt the plants and we will prune off these leaves very soon in preparation for the new flush in spring…

It is the low temperatures that seem to damage tea the most. From reports I have gotten from customers Sochi tea does appear to be one of the hardiest. It comes from tea plantations around the black sea in Russia. My Korean strain and small leaf tea have also been hardy strains and the best variety has not been clear.

Plants covered in ice at the Camellia Forest Nursery

That skipped more about discussing growing tea in Bangkok with him earlier (where I live).  It turns out it can be too hot for tea plants too, but that would vary by plant type, as cold tolerance would.  He also mentioned that low indoor humidity might not work well, with more on such issues in that linked online content.

This really won’t get far but the two themes are tightly linked, and it is great input.

Tea plants are not hard to grow if you find the right ones for your conditions [that earlier issue].

People are always doing this backward. They will find a tea they love, then find the cultivar that it is made from and attempt to grow it. The experiment fails and they get discouraged.

…The processing makes all the difference.  Some backyard growers get discouraged because they don’t have a lot of leaf to work with to hone their skills. They also do not have some of the basic equipment to make a good tea. They make great tea then burn it in the oven because the temperature won’t go low enough, or they stew it trying to sun dry because it doesn’t dry quickly enough.

If you have access to healthy leaf you can figure out a process to make good tea. People fail when they want to control the leaf in a manner for a desired result that is physically impossible. Case in point, I have an oolong plant. I cannot make a black tea out of it. It does not have enough polyphenol oxidase to oxidize properly.

Good teas can be made from a home garden but one must have experience making tea on a larger scale to have enough leaf to make mistakes on or to adjust parameters of a batch to find what works and what doesn’t. You usually do not have that with a small planting.

…There are some basic things one needs and they are not expensive, but you need them to make tea with. Even as simple as a good rolling board or kullah basket from Sri Lanka. You need a dryer even if it is a simple bamboo tea roaster with a heating element on the bottom with a low range thermostat, a rack in the middle and a bamboo top.

Ok, so it’s all not so simple.  But after that input from both, I’d really love to try it myself.

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