How to grow camellia tea plants for black, green, white, or oolong tea: what you need to know before you start to grow

As the local food movement gathers steam, so too does interest in growing, harvesting, and crafting homegrown tea. Here a tea grower with hard-earned experience highlights the key factors to consider before you spend a penny on your own tea garden.
Pruning a hedge of Camellia tea
The author Mike Loeb pruning a hedge of camellia tea in his garden.

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 tea cup, 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, you see, 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, took a few chances, and after nearly a decade of effort I have my own flourishing tea garden. And though my tea will not yet win any awards for greatness, it is most definitely enjoyable and worth every drop of sweat that I’ve shed while working in the garden and processing tea leaf. As my tea craft improves I think I’ll have some winners!

Will it take you ten years grow a tea garden? Not with my help it won’t! You have the great benefit of learning from the mistakes that I made and the successes that I have realized.

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 tea—green, black, white, oolong, pu’er—is made from leaves of C. sinensis.

What follows are points that I think you should consider before embarking on your quest to grow camellia tea. 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 probably fill a page with 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:

  • Full accountability: The supply chain begins and ends with you.
  • Freshness guaranteed: Straight from your garden to your cup.
  • Organic or conventional: Choose your preferred gardening methods.
  • Make what you like: Store brand teas are often limited in quality and variety.
  • Open-ended project: Tea plants live for decades and will forgive your mistakes.
  • Grow a working hedge: Your tea plants won’t just be for looks.
  • Make new friends: Tea is to be shared.
  • Possible side income: You never know where your tea craft could lead you.
  • Tea craft is fun! This has to be true or else it’s not worth it.

And besides all these great benefits, who grows their own beverage? 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 tea 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). There are two widely grown varieties, or cultivars, of tea: a small-leafed cultivar originally from China that is preferred by planters in cool climates, and a large-leafed cultivar from Assam, India, that is preferred in warm areas. Hybrids of these two cultivars are also productive and may be chosen by planters for their suitability to local environments and for the qualities of their tea.

Camellia tea material can be planted out in different conditions:

  1. Freshly collected seed.
  2. Young plants recently pulled up by the main root, i.e., bare-root seedlings.
  3. Rooted cuttings made from established plants.

There are pros and cons to working with each type of material. For the time being, just know that the starting material can influence your gardening methods. For instance, working with seedlings 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 ground but reliable irrigation will be needed to get them through a warm, dry spell.

Again, the trade-offs of each type of material aren’t important today. We’re concerned with big-picture stuff.

How much tea leaf can I harvest?

You can begin light harvests of tea leaf after two or three seasons of vigorous plant growth. You can begin heavy harvests in the fifth season because by then your tea plants will be strong enough to recover quickly from the loss of foliage.

A reasonable estimate of leaf yield for mature plants is about one-half pound per plant per harvest season. This half-pound is the combined total you will pluck from three to four separate harvests of each plant.

If your tea processing is going well, then you can craft each pound of raw leaf into, at most, a fifth of a pound of finished tea.

For example, if you have 50 plants that are cranking out about 25 pounds of leaf total for the season, then you can make up to 5 pounds of finished tea in one year. That’s a lot of tea! Just try drinking it all by yourself.

A 5-to-1 conversion factor of raw leaf to finished tea is optimistic for beginners. Choose a less rosy conversion if you want to minimize future disappointment (but don’t be too pessimistic; you will learn how to improve yield and conversion).

Your harvests will start small, like this one, but will be so very rewarding. Image credit: Mike Loeb.
Your harvests will start small but be so very rewarding.

Where is tea grown? Know your location

Camellia tea 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 average air temperature. Cultivation of cold-hardy tea in the ground 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.

If you are unfamiliar with the climate in your area, refer to the USDA plant hardiness zone map. For example, I live in zone 8b where an extreme cold snap is on average between 15° and 20°F. During one recent winter event, my tea plants survived both snow and ice that stuck onto stem and leaf for several hours.

A sheet of leaf-shaped ice that Mike peeled off of his tea plant in January. The plants survived the freeze with little permanent damage. Image credit: Mike Loeb
A sheet of leaf-shaped ice that Mike peeled off of a tea plant in January. The plants survived the freeze with little permanent damage.

Tea 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 enduring throughout 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.

Most cultivars of tea available in the US and other temperate regions are descended from the cold-hardy China type. As you increase your experience with growing tea you can try other cultivars of tea, but for beginners I recommend sticking 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

Tea needs warm growing conditions, but it has limits. I see vigorous growth in my tea garden when daytime high temperatures are between 75 and 88℉. But I observe sluggish plant growth above that range and heat-induced stress when temperatures hit 95 and beyond.

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 problem. Later in this article I discuss strategies for dealing with high temperatures in your tea garden.

In the remainder of the US, the challenge to growing 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 in an area with an average total rainfall of about 60 inches that is fairly evenly distributed across seasons though spring and early fall can be very hot and dry.

If you have reliable irrigation then you can get by with 50 inches of rain total for the year. Intrepid tea growers in California are trying to get by with even less rainfall than that. God bless them.

Image of heat-induced stress in tea leafs.
Tea plants may become stressed by high temperatures and intense sun. Signs of stress include yellowing in the leaves that may turn to brown before the leaf drops off.

3. Look around

Related species of camellia have been cultivated in the US as showy ornamentals for a long time. If there’s an established camellia-growers network in your neck of the woods—be careful, these people are often fanatics!—then there’s a good chance that C. sinensis will grow where you live.

Summary of first steps to growing tea

To determine if your area is suitable for cultivation of C. sinensis, apply the following rule, which summarizes the criteria that I just explained:

If during an average day in the warm season you can stand within view of a thriving ornamental camellia bush, and at the same time find yourself looking for either a shade tree or a swimming pool, then your area has passed the first test as a potential tea-growing location!

–Mike’s Rule #1 for successful Tea cultivation–

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 the deep freeze for very long.

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 to growing tea plants in containers

If you choose to go the container route to tea cultivation, consider tips:

  • Anticipate that each 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 eight hours of sun each day but shelter the pot from harsh, direct exposure.
  • Exposure to broken, dappled sunlight 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 3 to 5 main branches with a balloon-shaped top of smaller branches and foliage.
  • Begin a light harvest of tea leaves after about two seasons of growth and then more heavily in the third 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 raw leaf over the entire season. Of course productivity depends on the type of tea and your efficiency as a 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 ground: 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 camellia tea plants. After following the guidelines for climate 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 hot and humid 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 a several important questions to consider before you start digging up the earth.

Do you have the space to plant your tea?

Most tea is planted out into long rows of evenly spaced plants. As the plants mature they are shaped into a three to 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.

I recommend growing tea in hedgerows but your spatial constraints may not allow it. Here’s a method to estimate the number of plants you can fit into the linear surface space that you have available for cultivation.

Number of tea plants you can grown in the ground:

  1. Measure the horizontal dimension L of ground where you want to plant. This does not have to be a straight line; curves or angles in the hedgerow are fine.
  2. Divide 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. For example, 50 feet of hedge with 2 ft. spacing will have room for at least 25 plants total.
  3. Change P by adjusting L or S.

Now, 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.

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.

Double-row planting therefore doubles the number of tea plants within your hedgerow. While the increased density of plants does not double the leaf yield per plant, it potentially increases total productivity of the hedgerow by nearly a factor of two.

Mike’s hard-earned tea tip: You can plant your hedgerows very densely with tea. In fact, I have successfully grown a prolific 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 material, 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, phosphorous, 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 properly balance nutrients, minerals, and soil organic matter before you adjust soil pH. A soil test will indicate which nutrients you already have available and a soil prescription will suggest how to amend your garden’s nutrient profile for strong, vigorous growth.

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 save yourself a whole 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 get very sad.

If you know that your future tea garden space was previously landscaped, then use caution. Large quantities of non-decomposed material such as wood chips may have been spread as mulch, which is great even for tea but not if the chips are incorporated into the soil. In the latter 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.

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 Book. There are also suggestions contained therein for how to collect a soil sample and find a professional 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 of the soil surface after a rain event. Instead water stands, or puddles, for long periods and, paradoxically, starves your plants for water (yes, it’s complicated).

Puddling is easy to observe: just wait for a rain storm and watch the flow of water. Sometimes puddling is caused by a compacted layer of topsoil. 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 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 tap root. Breaking up the dense clay with a soil ripper is a good idea.

Drainage solution: plant on minor slopes

Tea all over 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 an slight 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 drainage in your garden is a major concern, then consult with a professional 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 camellia tea. And even with that amount of rainfall, I think it’s a good idea to supplement with irrigation, especially if you have new plantings in the ground.

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 the downsides of hard, alkaline water.

Tea likes sun but a little shade is beneficial

In the warm season, 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 mid-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. 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 be pleased with the shade relief—tea flavor may even improve—you will be relieved as well when you’re working in the summer heat.

But don’t bother planting in forests. Where tea yield suffers is under the deep shade of a mature forest with a closed canopy. Dappled sunlight is always better.

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:

  1. Climate. Your future tea garden should be located where it is warm, humid, and rainy for at least four and 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.
  2. 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?
  3. Test your garden soil. Tea is adaptable to different soil types but it needs nutrition and trace minerals. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Sun. Tea needs sunlight to thrive but also benefits from afternoon shade. Remove or plant shade trees so that tea is partially shaded during the later 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!

A nice black tea is easier to make than you might think. Image credit: Mike Loeb.
A nice black tea is easier to make than you might think.

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