Probably one of the greatest challenges in gardening is just getting started.
Resistance to startup is especially profound with new and unfamiliar crop species such as the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. North America has only recently begun to appreciate tea as a beverage and has very little experience cultivating the tea plant, and even less with tea manufacture.
But are the hurdles to starting a home tea garden or small-scale tea farm really so insurmountable? I don’t think so.
It’s probably easier than ever to obtain all the materials necessary to cultivate tea camellia. Today I’m going to focus on one type of starting material, tea seed, which is now widely available through importers and US-based tea growers.
I’ll discuss techniques for germinating tea seed and, along the way, highlight some common pitfalls that new tea growers might encounter. Once you learn to grow tea from seed, your tea enterprise will really thrive!
Why grow tea from seed? The pros
Not all tea gardens and tea estates are started with tea seed. In fact, for much of the last century rooted cuttings, which are genetic clones of a parent plant, have formed the planting backbone of the tea industry.
Dozens of cuttings can be procured from just one parent plant so why would anyone bother with tea seed? Here are two of the important reasons why you should consider using tea seed to start your tea garden.
Pro 1. Convenience. The average diameter of a viable tea seed is a little more than one-third of an inch (about ten millimeters). Tea seeds also have a tough outer coat that can endure a course of “shipping and handling.” Because of their size and durability, thousands of seeds can be conveniently packed into a small box and mailed around the world.
If properly stored in refrigeration, tea seed may remain viable for several months after harvest. The convenience of storability, in turn, gives the grower flexibility with respect to the timing of planting and the number of seeds germinated, among other considerations.
Pro 2. Genetic diversity. Each tea seed is the product of sexual reproduction and thus no two seeds are genetically exactly alike. This is important because even “sibling” seeds that share the same parent plants (tea camellia does not self-pollinate) may have alternative gene combinations that differ in performance. For instance, some genes may confer resistance to disease while others enhance cold hardiness.
Planting genetically diverse seedlings thus reduces the risk of losing an entire field or estate to blights and other stresses.
Indeed, the future of the tea industry in America depends on small-scale operations each conducting planned or ad hoc genetic experiments. Out of this effort will eventually emerge the most productive, locally adapted tea cultivars.
In the meantime, consider your own adventures with tea seed a small part of this larger agro-experimental undertaking.
The cons of growing tea seed
As the saying goes, if it has a frontend then it has a backend too. There are indeed downsides to growing tea from seed, and these are as follows:
Con 1: Accountability. Globalized trade is a wonderful thing, but there are sometimes issues with accountability. For instance, there is no telling when imported tea seeds were collected. The seller may claim that they collected seed fresh, during the most recent harvest season, but how do you really know when the farm is located eight thousand miles away from you?
Con 2: Predictability. The reason why planters long favored rooted tea cuttings over tea seedlings is that they knew what they were getting: e.g., a cold-resistant clone will be a cold-resistant clone, even if it may also be susceptible to blight.
With genetically diverse seedlings, in contrast, there is not that level of certainty because sexual recombination breaks up beneficial gene combinations at the same time that it creates them. If you plant out an entire garden of seedlings there might be considerable unevenness among plants in productivity and survival.
Con 3: Viability. This factor is related to predictability, and it’ll be a gut-punch. Are you ready? Here it is:
Most tea seeds are duds. That’s right: the chances are very high that the tea seeds you just received in the mail aren’t even useful in a game of marbles. To be specific, I’ve learned to expect only ten to fifteen percent of randomly chosen tea seeds to produce a seedling worthy of planting out in the field. To be sure, you will have germination success higher than this value but this is not the same as seedling success. You want the highest possible seedling success.
And here’s the painful part: instead of paying what you thought was just pennies for each seed, you have to throw out 85 percent of your purchase and thereby end up paying several dollars apiece. And the perceived convenience of tea seed collapses into a pile of disappointment.
How to find the best tea seed
Over the years, I have developed a system to tame the chaos of planting tea seeds. Try to apply as many of these suggestions as you can to your next purchase of seeds.
How to germinate tea seed: screen first, ask questions later
Let’s suppose that you’ve secured the highest-quality tea seed that you can find. What are the next steps?
The truth is that you have a few tasks to perform before you can start planting your tea seeds. The first task is to screen your seed for viability. After screening, you can concern yourself with planting up the makings of your future tea garden.
If you can’t get to screening right away, then you can store your seeds in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. But be careful here: a fungus can quickly sweep through the lot and do a lot of damage. Check the seeds frequently and make sure that moisture is not building up in the container.
Step 1: give your tea seed a soaking
To sort out viable seeds from loser seeds, all you need is four items:
- Tea seeds.
- One mesh bag such as a garment bag for laundry or a nylon bag for toting SCUBA gear.
- One five-gallon plastic bucket or similar container.
- One heavy, non-buoyant object to serve as an anchor.
First, fill your mesh bag with seeds to half capacity and then wrap the loose, unfilled end of the bag around the anchor (a small hand-weight is good). Place the bag with anchor into the bucket.
Next, fill the bucket with ordinary tap water and you will immediately notice that the bag of seeds floats towards the water surface. Add enough water to cover the floating bag by an inch or more. With the anchor holding down the bag, all the seeds should be completely submerged regardless of their buoyancy.
Now reach into the bucket and give the floating bag a quick tug or two towards the bottom. Agitating the bag will release air bubbles that are stuck to the seeds.
Place the bucket where it will not freeze or get really hot and let the seed bag soak, undisturbed, for 36 hours (more or less).
At the 36-hour mark, dump the seeds out of the bag and into the bucket of water. You’ll hear the clicking sound of sinker seeds hitting the bottom of the bucket just as you see the floaters rising to the surface. Using either your hand or a wire strainer with a handle, collect the floaters from the water’s surface.
Then collect the sinkers and segregate floaters and sinkers into different bins. You will not mix these seeds together in the future unless you want to repeat the segregation process all over again.
Step 2: give your tea seeds a rest
Spread into shallow flats with drain holes a potting medium with both excellent drainage and moisture retention. Adding more perlite to a standard soil mix improves the passage of water through the medium while at the same time retaining moisture. Layer the seeds onto the medium no more than two seeds deep. Do not cover the seeds with the medium; just leave them on the soil surface, as if they are resting on the ground underneath their parent plants.
Next, place your soil-and-seed trays in a space that receives partial sun. Alternatively, you can place trays in the full sun but cover the seeds with a fabric that throws at least 80% shade. Do not let the seeds overheat! If you have any doubts about temperature exposure, move the seeds to the shade and leave them there indefinitely.
Similarly, protect the seed tray from freezes.
Mist or lightly spray the seeds with water on a regular schedule. The challenge here is that you don’t want the seeds to desiccate, nor do you want the seeds to stay water-saturated. Fungal infections are the enemy of tea seeds so keep an eye on moisture levels.
Next comes the tedious part of this process, which involves a lot of watching and waiting.
Step 3: check for cracks in seed coat
In order for the tea embryo to germinate, the tough outer coat of the seed has to first crack open. Alternating periods of hydrating and drying cause the seed coat to expand and contract. In turn, little cracks are formed which allows water to be absorbed by the developing embryo. As the embryo expands it forces open ever wider cracks. This is what you what to happen.
Every other day, check the seeds for cracks. You might be able to see the pale embryo through the crack and this is a good sign. Turn the seeds by rolling your hand over the lot and further inspect for open seed. Separate out promising seeds for the next step.
Be forewarned: It might take several weeks, perhaps even two months, for your seeds to show any cracks. If no cracks appear after the first ten days or so, repeat the soaking procedure described above. Even among those seeds that initially sank underwater, you will find a few that decide to become floaters on subsequent soakings. Separate these out and return the seeds to the appropriate trays for further resting and watering. Repeat the soaking step as needed.
Patience through this process is a must. Don’t lose it!
How to plant tea seed in starter trays
Accumulate enough cracked tea seeds to make the next step worth the trouble. The goal in this part of the process is to encourage the root system to develop sufficiently to endure the rigors of the field. My system described below is a cost-effective way to achieve this goal.
There are three components: cracked seeds, potting medium, and propagation trays. Here is what I do to grow the strongest tea seedlings possible.
Camellia sinesis has a taproot that will shoot out of the seed coat like a ground-penetrating rocket. Your containers for starting tea seed must, therefore, accommodate a long, growing taproot. The fine, lateral-projecting roots will develop much more slowly.
I prefer to use propagation trays with cells that are at least five inches (127mm) deep and two inches (51mm) square. Trays of 50 cells total, supported by a webbed 1020 flat, are a very efficient use of space and materials. You can use cells deeper than five inches but keep in mind that price points are usually directly proportional to cell volume which increases faster than linear dimensions.
Potting medium for tea seeds
A commercial potting media work well but always check for moisture retention. As with the uncracked tea seeds, you don’t want your potted seeds to rot. Add more perlite or fine pine bark chips to improve the passage of water.
If you’re the DIY type and want to mix up your own medium, here’s what I mix up to provide a spatially complex, well-drained medium with just a little bit of humus, nutrients, and minerals.
Potting medium recipe for tea seedlings
Planting tea seeds in propagation trays
The final step is to plant the seeds in trays. This is straight-forward except for one important trick. Pay attention.
Fill the cells of the propagation tray with potting media and give it a shake to settle the material. Leave the top inch of the cell unfilled.
Next, look closely at the seed. You will notice that there is a light-colored “eye spot” on the seed coat. Most of the time, the crack will be in the same plane as the eye. Position the seed so that the eye is parallel to the surface of the potting medium.
Proper alignment of the seed assures that the first stem to emerge will be straight rather than kinked as it would if it had to grow around the seed coat in order to reach the soil surface.
Now, cover the seed with more potting medium, leaving about a quarter-inch of space for coarse vermiculite as a topping.
Give the newly planted seeds a spray of water and then protect from tray from high heat and freezing cold. Use a greenhouse heating pad for gentle warmth if you have one.
You will have to wait between two weeks to two months for your seeds to sprout. Yes, my friend. Patience.
Transfer tea seedlings to pots or to the garden?
Now, you’ve made it this far and now you have a bunch of sprouted tea seedlings. That’s awesome!
Once you see that the tea taproots have reached the bottom of the cell or pot, then you have to decide where to transfer your seedlings. You have two options:
- Up-pot seedlings
- Directly transplant seedlings to the garden
The advantage of up-potting is that your seedlings will have time to develop into a hardy plant. Over time you can sort out the robust seedlings from the sure losers so that when it comes time to install plants in the garden you are fairly confident in the overall vigor of your stock.
The disadvantages of up-potting are the costs of materials and labor. In terms of materials, you will need deep plastic pots (depth is again more important than width) and potting media (well-drained and balanced for acid-loving plants here too). Labor involves up-potting seedlings and then watering and monitoring pots over time so that they don’t freeze or burn up.
It may then take up to ten months of waiting and managing your potted seedlings before you can put them out in the garden.
Directly transplanting seedlings to the garden also has pros and cons. The main reason for direct planting is that all the costs of up-potting are avoided. If money for your tea project is tight, then direct transplanting will have a strong appeal.
But consider this delayed cost of direct planting: You must expect that many seedlings, even the robust ones, will fall prey to insects, rodents, deer, and microbial pathogens. In addition, a winter cold snap or a long, hot dry spell can also be fatal to your dainty seedlings.
To be sure, up-potted seedlings, once finally installed in the garden, will not be immune to such hazards, but they will be much more resistant after spending ten months growing strong in the relatively safety of pots.
Still, the direct transplant method is widely used throughout the tea-growing world. To make this method work, you can allow for field attrition of your seedlings by purchasing more seeds. To be super-conservative, assume that conversion of seed to surviving plants in the field is just five, rather than fifteen, percent. And now, you’re being realistic.
Installation scheme for your seedlings in the garden
You can’t just stick your young tea plants in the ground willy-nilly. You will need to prepare planting beds and decide on a configuration to your plantings. I prefer planting tea in hedgerows at a fairly high density per square foot, but you may choose a different scheme. In any case, it will take some contemplation on your part to get it right. As you wait for seeds to germinate and seedlings to grow, you will have plenty of time to plot your next move in the garden.
Black tea seeds, green tea seeds, oolong tea seeds: What’s the difference?
One widespread misconception is that different types of tea—black, green, oolong, white, and pu’erh teas—come from different types of tea plants. The truth, however, is that the difference between teas arises primarily from how leaves are processed after harvest, and not from the plants that yielded the leaf. Therefore, you cannot grow different types of seeds of Camellia sinensis in order to make a particular type of tea.
But here’s an important caveat. There are indeed different cultivated varieties of tea camellia, and some a better for making, say, green tea than black tea. For example, one variety, called assamica, is widely cultivated in warm regions for its black tea and less so for green tea. Another tea variety, sinensis—yes, there’s redundancy in nomenclature—is grown in cooler regions and largely for its green tea.
The point here is to discourage you from choosing seeds based on the supposed potential of some cultivars to favor different types of tea. Instead, choose tea seed based upon its suitability for your growing environment. And in nearly all of North America except for southern Florida where it’s warm most of the year, the best choice is the cold-hardy sinensis variety.
As you hone your skills as a tea gardener, you can branch out into other, more risky, tea cultivars.
Exciting times for nascent tea growers
During the course of your early forays into tea farming, keep in mind that the tea industry in America is still very green. This means that you will necessarily have to take a few chances here and there. But try to embrace the uncertainty; it’s all part of the excitement getting in on the ground floor of a promising new opportunity!