If you’re under the impression that tea cultivation and tea manufacture are challenging undertakings, then your impression is correct. The process of crafting fine teas, which begins in the tea field and ends in your teacup, is indeed a complex, time-honored tradition that can take many years to master.
However, the skills needed to craft pleasant, shareable teas may very well be within your grasp. Tea is the people’s drink, and the knowledge and skills required to become a master of your own tea garden and home tea factory are accessible to regular folk like you and me.
In fact, I started my tea garden with absolutely no background in tea craft. But I learned from others—while ignoring the doubters—and after nearly a decade of effort, I have my own flourishing tea garden. And though my tea will not yet win international awards, it is most definitely enjoyable to drink and also worth every drop of sweat that I’ve shed while working in the garden.
Will it take you ten years to grow a tea garden? Not with my help it won’t! You have the great benefit of learning from my mistakes and my successes. And considering that there is more interest in growing tea in the US than ever before, getting started has never been easier.
Can you grow tea at home?
Today I’m going to outline the initial steps that you need to take in order to grow the tea plant Camellia sinensis. All real teas—green, black, white, oolong, pu’er—are made from leaves of C. sinensis. Though delightful beverages, the cultivation of “herbal teas” made from plants such as chamomile and peppermint will not be addressed here.
What follows are points that I think you should consider before you begin your tea camellia garden. This article is as much a should-I-do-it? self-questionnaire as it is a how-to guide to starting a tea garden.
Before we consider the details of growing tea, let’s talk about why you should even consider such an undertaking.
Benefits of growing your own tea plants
There are many legitimate reasons for starting a home garden. You could fill a post listing the benefits that motivate gardeners. Many of these same motivations apply to tea gardens, but with some unique aspects as well.
Here are but a few of the benefits of growing your own tea:
And besides all these great benefits, who grows and crafts their own beverages? You’ll be the coolest kid on the block!
First steps in growing tea
Now that you know why you should grow tea, let’s discuss how to determine if you have a realistic chance of creating a thriving tea garden, starting with the basics.
What is tea? Know your plant
The tea plant C. sinensis is a woody, long-lived shrub that may grow twenty to thirty feet tall if left unpruned (you will definitely prune your tea). Tea camellia and related camellia species occur naturally in forests and along forest edges where soils are rich in organic matter and minerals.
Though the history and genetic ancestry of tea are disputed, it is generally accepted that there are two comprehensive varieties of tea nested within the C. sinensis species. One is a variety of tea with small leaves that is originally from southern China and is designated “var. sinensis.” This variety of tea, which is also called the “China type,” is generally preferred by planters in cool climates though it can tolerate some degree of heat stress as well.
The other variety of tea has large leaves and is generally cultivated between Assam in eastern India to Yunnan province in southwestern China. This variety is designated “var. assamica” and often called, more simply, the “Assam type.” The Assam type is preferred in warm, sub-tropical, and tropical areas where it seldom, if ever, freezes in the winter.
Over the centuries of domestication, var. sinensis and var. assamica, and their descendants, have been crossed and backcrossed countless times. Indeed, there are by now a bewildering number of cultivated varieties of tea, each of which may be chosen by planters to suit particular environments and to improve the qualities of made tea. Because of its capacity to endure both cold and heat, most planted tea that you find in the US is likely to be a variant on the China type.
How is tea grown? The alternatives
Tea camellia is usually planted in the field as one of three different types of material:
- Potted plants that are grown from seed.
- Bare-root seedlings transplanted from one tea field to another.
- Rooted cuttings made from established plants.
There are pros and cons of working with each type of material. For instance, working with seeds may require a step where seeds are germinated in containers, which could add expense. Bare-root seedlings, in contrast, can be planted directly into the field but reliable irrigation will be needed to get them through a warm, dry spell. And finally, rooted cuttings make genetic copies of favored cultivars but, take it from me, cuttings can be challenging to produce consistently.
The details of cultivating each type of material are beyond our discussion for today. But for now, just keep in mind that the starting material can influence your gardening methods. Future posts will have more detailed suggestions for working with tea seeds, bare-root transplants, and cuttings, respectively.
How much tea leaf can you harvest?
Before we get to the gardening lesson, let’s address a question that many would-be growers will have at the outset: how much tea can you realistically expect to harvest?
If your tea plants are in good condition and you have properly pruned and shaped them, then you can begin light harvests of leaf after two seasons of vigorous plant growth. You can begin heavy harvests in the fourth or fifth season when most plants begin to reach their maximum annual yields.
Not all foliage is the same with respect to the qualities of made tea. In general, the tender tips including the developing bud and two adjacent leaves are the most valuable materials for tea makers. Lower leaves are also useful but tend to be more coarse and therefore harder to process. Oolong tea, in contrast, is often made from a semi-dormant stem and leaf combination called banji.
Harvest begins in the spring (March–April in plant hardiness zone 8b), the largest yields occur in early summer (May–June), and the lightest yields are in the fall (September–October). Plant yield can vary quite a bit depending on the length of the growing season, the quality of your soil, and your experience as a tea grower. A generous estimate of annual yield for mature plants is about one-half of a pound of leaf per plant. A more realistic estimate of yield, especially for novice growers, is closer to one-quarter of a pound of leaf per mature plant per year.
How much tea can you make?
If your tea processing is going well, then you can craft each pound of the raw leaf in to, at most, about one-fifth of a pound of finished tea. Or to factor upwards, every five pounds of the raw leaf can be made into one pound of tea ready for the cup. The reason for the 5-to-1 loss of mass between the field and the cup is primarily owing to the evaporation of water that occurs during the processing steps of tea manufacture.
Field to cup: an example
To see how leaf yield and conversion to tea may work out for you then consider this example. Let’s suppose that you have 50 five-year-old plants that are growing vigorously and making the maximum amount of foliage. Further, over the combined course of three to five separate harvests in the same season, each plant yields a total of one half-pound of tea leaf. Therefore, by the end of the season, you have plucked from your 50 plants an aggregate total of 25 pounds of raw leaf.
After each harvest, you process leaf into delicious finished tea. You realize, through a 5-to-1 conversion, 5 pounds of finished tea for the entire year. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
In truth, a half-pound of leaf per plant and a 5-to-1 conversion factor of the raw leaf to finished tea are optimistic estimates for beginners. Suppose less rosy yields (e.g., one quarter-pound per plant per year) and less generous conversion if you want to be conservative in your predicted tea rewards. Just don’t be pessimistic; you will learn how to improve yield and conversion!
Something to keep in mind: You will find that the more tea leaf you can harvest the faster you will learn how to make good tea. But only up to a point. For instance, I can only hand-roll about one-and-a-half pounds of plucked tea leaf at a time, and then just two such batches per day because the fatigue of my hands and wrists limits production. If there’s any more than three pounds of leaf available, then it stays on the plant to be harvested the next day.
Where is tea grown? Know your location
Tea camellia is a very adaptable plant, but it has its environmental limits. Before getting started with your tea garden, there are three guidelines to consider.
1. Mind the cold
The first consideration is the variation in the ambient temperature. Cultivation of cold-hardy tea in the field is risky in areas where an average winter extreme low temperature is below 0°F; it is challenging between 0° and 15°F and is fairly safe above 15°F. Note that these are the extremes of low temperatures and therefore not events that your tea will experience every winter. But with long-lived plants such as C. sinensis, you have to consider the long view of climate extremes because it only takes one especially cold year to undo many years of gardening effort.
If you are unfamiliar with the climate in your area, refer to the USDA plant hardiness zone map. For example, I garden in zone 8b where an extreme cold snap is on average between 15° and 20°F. Although my tea garden has yet to experience such a temperature range, during one recent winter event, the tea did survive both snow and ice that stuck onto stem and leaf for several hours.
The lesson here is that tea camellia, especially the China type, can tolerate cold but it does need a break from freezing temperatures. For example, in the tea-growing regions of Japan, South Korea, and The Republic of Georgia, snow is common but not persistent through the winter. If you live where snow or ice persist for many consecutive days after a storm, or where the ground freezes hard, then growing tea will be a risky undertaking for you.
You can try other cultivars as you become more experienced growing tea, but I recommend that beginners stick with the China type.
Living in a cold climate does not mean that you cannot grow tea. Keep reading to see what alternatives there are to dealing with frigid temperatures.
2. Tea needs warmth, humidity, and water
During the growing season, tea needs warmth but here, too, it has limits. I see vigorous growth in my tea garden when daytime high temperatures are between 78 and 90℉. But I observe sluggish plant growth above that range and heat-induced stress when temperatures hit 95℉ and higher.
Many locations in the US, including all of climate zone 8b in the southeastern region, experience a similar range of temperatures. Though not as fatal for your garden as extreme cold, extreme heat can be a serious problem as well.
In other parts of the US, the challenge to tea is low humidity. Tea wants at least four and a half months out of the year to be warm and humid. Six months is better. This is the kind of climate where your clothes stick to your skin from the sweat and your inclination towards air conditioning is very strong.
Rain often comes with high humidity and tea needs a lot of water. I grow tea, with irrigation, where the average total rainfall is about 60 inches and fairly evenly distributed across seasons. However, late spring and early fall can be very dry, and it is during these periods when tea may experience severe stress, especially if plants are not yet established with deep roots.
If you have reliable irrigation then you can get by with 50 inches of rain for the year. Intrepid tea growers in California are trying to get by with even less rainfall than that. God bless them.
3. Look around
Related varieties of Camellia have been cultivated in the US as flowering ornamentals for a long time. If there’s an established camellia-growers network in your area—be careful, these people are often fanatics!—then there’s a good chance that C. sinensis will flourish where you live. Ask them about the effects of heat, drought, and freeze on their camellias, and what measures they have adopted to mitigate these risks. Ornamental camellias are hardier than tea camellia, so if these growers report difficulties then you can be sure that your tea-growing enterprise will be challenging.
Summary: first steps to growing tea
To determine if your area is suitable for cultivation of C. sinensis, apply the following rule, which summarizes the three criteria that I just outlined:
Next decision: Grow tea plants in containers or in the ground?
You may have despaired after reading my guidelines for climate and tea cultivation. Tea won’t tolerate a deep freeze or hot, droughty conditions.
But please don’t give up!
Just like many other woody shrubs, tea will grow in containers. Of course, you will have to bring your potted plants indoors during the winter, but that trouble might be worth it to you. Some tea growers are cultivating their tea in greenhouse pots in the winter and rolling the plants outdoors in the summer.
Tips for growing tea plants in containers
If you choose to go the container route to tea cultivation, consider these tea tips:
- Anticipate that each mature tea plant will eventually need to occupy at least a five-gallon pot.
- Use a sandy-loamy potting medium that has good drainage and is on the acidic side of the pH scale.
- In the warm season give your the plant six to eight hours of sun each day but shelter the pot from harsh, direct exposure.
- Exposure to dappled sunlight, under a thin shade, is also acceptable to your tea plant.
- Water deeply when dry but never saturate the potting medium for more than a day.
- Maintain a happy tea plant with fertilizers for plants that prefer acidic soils.
- Prune and shape your tea plants into a frame of 4 to 6 main branches with a balloon-shaped top of smaller branches and foliage.
- Begin a light harvest of tea leaves after about three seasons of growth and then more heavily in the fifth season and beyond.
How many potted tea plants will you need?
Pot up as many tea plants as you can afford to prepare. I advise that you strive to have at least six potted tea plants total. Six healthy, mature plants will yield about three pounds of tea leaf over the entire harvest season. Of course, productivity depends on your efficiency as a tea grower and tea maker, but you can potentially make about one-half to three-quarters of a pound of finished tea from six big plants.
The bottom line is this: focus on maximizing the total number of healthy, potted plants. As you become more experienced growing tea you can better predict the yield of leaf and then organize an expanding operation.
Growing tea in the garden: estimating spatial needs, testing the soil, and checking drainage and irrigation
At this point, we’re still trying to determine if you have the conditions necessary to grow tea camellia. After following the climate-restriction guidelines that I listed above, you should know if your region is too cold or too dry to cultivate tea outdoors and in the ground.
But let’s suppose that you have satisfied Mike’s Rule #1 for successful tea gardening. To wit: ornamental camellias grow in your area and it’s also warm, humid, and rainy for a good chunk of the year. If this is the case, then congratulations! You might be able to grow tea in the ground.
But there are several important questions to consider before you start digging up the earth.
Do you have the space to plant your tea?
Tea in most commercial plantations is planted out into long rows of evenly spaced plants. As the plants mature they are shaped into a three or four-foot-high, continuous strip of plants that is called a hedgerow.
Hedgerows are often preferred because this layout is an efficient use of space and labor. For one thing, mature hedgerows have a leafy canopy that shades out weeds from growing underneath. Believe me when I say that the fewer weeds you have to deal with the happier you will be.
How many tea plants can you put in the ground?
I recommend growing tea in hedgerows but such a layout may not be cost-effective for you. Here’s a method to estimate the number of plants you can fit into your available garden space.
- Measure and combine the total horizontal length L of ground along which you want to plant hedgerows. These dimensions do not have to be straight lines; curves or angles in the hedgerows are fine.
- Divide total length L by a plant spacing S of 2 ft. This is the maximum number of tea plants P that you can put out in your row (i.e., P = L/2). For example, 50 feet of ground with 2 ft. of plant spacing will have room for 25 plants total.
- Change P by adjusting L or S. A spacing of 16 inches is probably the minimum but see below for other ideas about layout.
Next, assume that your future hedgerow plus the shoulders of the bed you prepare is 4 ft wide. Walk the length of your measured space and make sure that you have about four feet of available space across the entire length. It’s ok if there is a tree in the path of your future hedgerow; tea will appreciate a little shade. For now, you’re concerned with estimating how much tea you can grow. Replicate this procedure for each hedgerow that you anticipate installing.
Squeezing in more tea: the double-row design
To increase the density of plants per square foot, you can create a double-row hedge. In this scheme, two parallel rows of tea are laid out along the length of the bed with each row about twelve inches off the center of the bed. Plants are staggered between rows so that the final planting has a zig-zag appearance when viewed from above. Although the increased planting density may reduce leaf output per plant, the total productivity of the hedgerow is now significantly greater than it would otherwise be with just a single-row layout.
Mike’s hard-earned tea tip: You can plant your hedgerows very densely with tea. In fact, I have successfully grown a productive hedgerow with seedlings planted six-abreast and spaced every 16 inches. The shade is so deep underneath the hedgerow that I never have to weed. The downside is that it takes a lot of plants to fill out the hedgerow and each plant’s growth is compromised. However, if you can obtain enough plant stock, I think that the balance of benefits is in favor of a super-dense hedgerow.
Have your soils professionally analyzed
Tea needs the same things as other plants: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and lots of different trace minerals. Although soils on the more acidic side of the pH spectrum are preferred by tea, I think it’s more important to balance nutrients, minerals, and soil organic matter before you adjust soil pH.
A soil test will indicate which nutrients you have available and also report the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of the soil. A soil prescription will suggest how to amend your garden’s nutrient profile and improve its exchange capacity in order to achieve robust plant growth.
CEC is vital to sound farming practice because it is an index of how much nutrients your soil can retain without being washed out and away from your garden. If you pay attention to CEC, you can save money on amendments and at the same time make your plants thrive. In my experience, a CEC of about 10 milliequivalents per 100 grams of soil is sufficient to hold the nutrient ions required for the strong growth of tea plants.
My primary strategy for improving CEC is to copy nature by incorporating high-quality compost into the soil. Percent soil organic matter of around 3 is sufficient to achieve a healthy CEC and provide many other benefits to tea plants. If you already have soil that satisfies these thresholds for CEC and soil organic matter, then you have already won a challenging part of the battle.
Caution: some soils are not suitable for tea
A soil test can also put the brakes on your gardening plans. For example, you might learn from the analysis that trace elements such as manganese or zinc are at toxic levels. If you know this information before you begin your tea project, then you can make attempts at soil remediation and thereby save yourself a lot of time, money, and trouble.
A more likely finding from your soil analysis is something ordinary such as too much carbon in the soil. Carbon is absolutely the backbone of organic life, but it can build up so high that nitrogen gets tied up by soil microbes that are busy digesting the carbon. In turn, plants are starved for nitrogen and show very little growth, or worse.
If you know that your available garden space was previously landscaped, then use caution. Large quantities of undecomposed material such as wood chips may have been spread as mulch and then incorporated into the soil. In this case, soil microbes will work against your tea plants rather than with them.
You will know if you have too much carbon in the soil if your soil analysis also shows high levels of calcium. Too much of either carbon or calcium can hinder tea growth and should be remedied before starting your tea garden. Follow the soil prescription as a good starting guide.
Tea tip: Soil laboratories will tailor their recommendations for a particular crop plant, but it’s unlikely that US-based operations will have specific recommendations for tea camellia. Just indicate generic “camellia” and then follow their advice.
Learning is fun!
Soil science is accessible to anyone with DIY sensibilities. If you are keen on learning the applied science that links soil-mineral balance to plant health, I recommend that you start with The Ideal Soil V.2: A Handbook for the New Agriculture. In addition to explaining the essentials of soil biology and soil chemistry for farmers and gardeners, there are also directions for collecting soil samples and pointers on finding a professional soil-testing lab.
Tea can’t swim. Soil drainage is critical
There are two ways that your tea garden may have problems with water. First, water may not quickly run off the soil surface after a rain event. Instead, water stands, or puddles, for long periods and, paradoxically, starves your plants for water. Tea does not tolerate long-standing puddles or soggy soils.
Puddling is easy to observe: just wait for a rainstorm and watch the flow of water. Sometimes puddling is caused by a compacted layer of topsoil. If this is the case, localized compaction can usually be remedied with various tools available at garden supply shops. If you intend to garden a large space then consider hiring a tractor with an implement called a soil ripper to break up the compaction.
A second drainage problem occurs when water cannot pass quickly through the sub-soil and into the water table below. Sub-soil drainage problems occur because the water table is too close to the surface or because the structure of the sub-soil lacks sufficient air spaces to allow water movement.
An example of poorly drained soil occurs in bogs. Boggy soils are often dense with organic matter and tend to stay damp all year. Tea will not live in bogs and so you should avoid such areas. In contrast, tea does well in heavy clay soils but only so long as there is efficient movement of water out of the sub-soil layer into which tea puts down its long taproot. Breaking up the dense clay with a soil ripper is a good idea.
In general, a water table that is six feet below the surface or deeper is preferred by tea.
Drainage solution: plant on minor slopes
Tea in different parts of the world is often planted on steep mountainsides. This is partly because it’s hard to grow anything else on such gradients but also because water drains off and away rapidly on sloped terrain.
You don’t have to find a mountainside upon which to grow your tea. However, if I have the choice I would pick a parcel of land with a minor gradient in elevation. Too much of a gradient and gardening becomes challenging in other ways, but a gentle change in elevation across your garden, even just one or two feet of change, is sufficient.
By growing tea on a slope you may simultaneously solve the problems of standing water and poor sub-soil drainage.
If soil drainage is a major concern, then consult with an agricultural engineer before you start gardening. Modern agriculture in general, and tea culture in particular, owe part of their success to solving soil-drainage issues. A consultant can offer suggestions for how to get that excess water out of your tea garden before you start to plant.
Tea needs a drink: The importance of irrigation
Too much water is a problem for growing tea, but so is not having enough. As I said earlier, 50 inches of rainfall in a year is about the minimum that you’ll need for a strong stand of tea camellia. And even with that amount of rainfall, I think it’s a good idea to supplement with irrigation, especially if you have recently installed plants.
As you plan your tea garden, determine if you can afford to install a drip irrigation system. A garden located within a few feet of your home will have ready access to either municipal water or well water. If your tea garden is small, perhaps 50 plants total and arrayed in a hedgerow, then a basic irrigation kit from a home gardening center is cost-effective. But if you want to scale up your garden then it might be less expensive to piece together lengths of irrigation tubing and fittings that you purchase in bulk.
Not all water is the same
I irrigate my tea field from a pond that has slightly acidic water with low mineral content. Your water supply may be different—alkaline and high mineral content, for instance—and pose problems over the long term for your garden. Check with your local gardening club or garden professionals to find out if there are concerns over water chemistry. They can then suggest ways to remedy water troubles such as hard, alkaline water.
Tea likes sun but a little shade is beneficial
In the warm season, six to eight hours of full, early-day sun is an ideal amount of exposure for tea. If by mid-day, however, the temperatures in your garden frequently hit the 90s, then your tea needs relief from the sun and heat.
Shade trees are not just beautiful additions to the garden but are also effective sunblocks for tea. For example, in Assam, India, shade trees with a high, thin canopy of foliage are frequently planted among tea hedgerows. In your garden, consider removing or planting trees so as to have full sun in the early day and partial-sun in middle to late-day. Not only will your tea plants be pleased with the shaded relief—and tea in the cup may even improve—but you will be relieved as well when you’re working in the summer heat.
But don’t bother planting in dense forests. Where leaf yield suffers is under the deep shade of a mature forest with a closed canopy. Dappled sunlight, which tea may naturally experience when growing along on a forest edge, is always better for yield.
Summary: can you grow your own tea?
I covered a lot of important decision points regarding small-scale tea gardening. I didn’t even discuss much of the actual work you will have to do in the ground, where you get your hands dirty. In a separate article, I will guide you through the tools and methods you’ll need to use to put your tea plants into the ground.
First things first, however. Let’s summarize the five main factors you should consider before spending one penny on your tea garden.
Think before you plant:
- Climate. Your future tea garden should be located where it is warm, humid, and rainy for at least four and a half months each year. If ornamental camellia thrives locally then even better for your tea prospects. If your area is cold or dry, then consider growing tea in containers.
- Planning your garden space. Estimate the garden space required to make the total amount of tea that you desire. Assume that conversion of raw leaf to finished tea will disappoint at first but improve with experience. Do you have enough garden space to make a tea project worth your time and energy?
- Test your garden soil. Tea is adaptable to different soil types but it needs nutrition and trace minerals. A soil analysis will identify troublesome aspects that need attention prior to planting. Find a reliable soil laboratory and learn how to apply their recommendations for amending the soil.
- Water and drainage. A minimum annual amount of rainfall for tea is about 50 inches if supplemented with irrigation. Correct problems of standing water and poor sub-soil drainage before you start your tea garden.
- Sun. Tea needs sunlight to thrive but also benefits from dappled, afternoon shade. Can you remove existing trees or plant trees for shade so that your tea garden is partially shaded during the latter half of the day?
That’s it. Now do some thinking and figuring and decide if a tea garden is worth the time and expense. The process has been challenging for me but that’s because I didn’t have the benefit of what I told you here today. If you are serious about becoming a tea grower, and you meet these basic criteria, then you will succeed!